Hairy dilemma

Dogs in restaurants are more common than ever, despite being illegal for mere pets, a trend that service dog owners don't like

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news@sfbg.com

It used to be rare to see dogs in restaurants — which many people see as gross and the health codes don't allow — but not anymore. It's an increasingly common sight to see dogs in Bay Area restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and others businesses that traditionally haven't allowed them.

Call it part of our love affair with canines, a loophole in medical privacy laws that stymies inquiries into whether Fido is a service dog needed for some ailment, or a manifestation of some people's entitlement issues, but more and more pet owners see no problem with bringing their dogs to the dinner or lunch table.

Some have even angrily defended their supposed right to do so when confronted.

The city estimates there are about 120,000 dogs living in San Francisco, which equates to almost one dog per seven people. Sometimes it seems like even more than that given how omnipresent dogs seem to be, popping in places that used to be off-limits to them, such as restaurants.

Some people now see restaurants as dog-friendly zones, but they're not, and for good reason. Due to public health concerns, dogs are banned by federal law from any establishment that serves or handles food.

The lone caveat to that rule is provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and it allows those who need service dogs to have them at all times, overriding the aforementioned policy established by the US Food and Drug Administration. The existence of the caveat isn't really a problem — service dogs are necessary, helpful, and are highly trained animals — but the loophole it provides is.

That loophole allows regular, untrained folks to take regular, untrained dogs into restaurants under the guise of service.

"Under those provisions, restaurants are somewhat limited in that they can't be too forceful in their line of questioning," said Angelica Pappas, communications manager at the California Restaurants Association (CRA). "So I think that some people who want to bring their dogs know that and might think that they can get around the law that way."

And in San Francisco, the trend is particularly pronounced, creating a problem for those who work in restaurants.

"The most obvious issue you see [when a dog is in a restaurant] is cross contamination," said Terrence Hong, senior environmental inspector with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "A food handler might pet a cute dog, for instance, where service dog handlers go through training themselves and are more prepared for that situation."

Food can be contaminated with fecal bacteria — something many dogs just love to roll around in — in addition to just the unsightly hairs ending up in people's meals. The US Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six people (about 48 million) are sickened by food-borne illness each year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die, according to the CDC's last comprehensive study of the issue in 2011.

"Safety, too, is an issue," Pappas said. "There's no guarantee that all these dogs are well-trained and even having them on a patio is really no different than having them inside when it comes to that."

Florida became the first state to allow non-service dogs in outdoors seating areas in restaurants in 2006, and California had followed the lead of the Sunshine State by 2012.

"But the application of those laws is far more difficult than the black and white on a piece of paper," Hong says.

The ADA — the same law that allows service dogs to enter restaurants— is proving to be one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to identifying the fakes. The language in the ADA states that anyone entering a business with a dog claiming to be a service animal can be asked only two questions: Is the dog a service dog? What task is it trained to do for you?