Australia is finally catching up with other parts of the world where dog-friendly dining is par for the course. By Petra Starke
If you’ve ever dined at a restaurant in Paris, sipped espresso at a cafe in Rome, or enjoyed a slice at a New York pizza bar, chances are there was at least one dog under a nearby table, patiently waiting for its owner to finish doing the same.
In these and many other places around the world it’s not only considered totally normal to bring your dog when you go out to eat or drink, it’s often encouraged. Indeed, in French cafes after a certain hour of the day you’ll probably spot more beagles than baguettes!
Yet despite Australia having one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with 39 per cent of households owning a dog, bringing Fido to your local eatery can still feel like a bit of a taboo.
Contrary to what many might think, it’s not because our laws are more restrictive.
While under Australian law assistance dogs, like guide dogs, have always been allowed into any public dining area—both inside and out—it’s only in the last five years that pet dogs have had similar privileges.
In the past, the laws were a bit of a—pardon the pun—dog’s breakfast. While dog owners could bring their furry friends to eateries with outdoor dining areas in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria, they were forbidden in Queensland, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the ACT, due to health concerns.
But after an assessment by government regulatory body Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) found the risk of pet dogs transmitting diseases to diners was actually “low to negligible”, the laws were changed in October 2012 to give restaurant, pub and cafe owners the right to choose whether they wanted to allow dogs on their premises—though in outdoor dining areas only.
The laws can vary slightly from state to state but, as a general rule, dogs are allowed in an outdoor dining area as long as it isn’t enclosed, and can be accessed without needing to pass through another enclosed area—like, say, the main dining room.
Dogs must also be on a leash at all times, must not enter any food preparation areas, and must not come into contact with surfaces upon which food may be served. In other words, they have to stay on the ground. Dangerous or restricted breeds are not allowed at all.
But ultimately, it’s up to business owners to decide whether a dog can enter their premises; under the law, they may exclude a dog that is not an assistance animal for any reason.
“It’s a good thing that we now have a consistent approach across the country, but … it’s still a business owner’s decision at the end of the day if they want to allow dogs in their premises.”—Lorraine Haase, FSANZ
“It’s a good thing that we now have a consistent approach across the country, but it’s important to note it’s still a business owner’s decision at the end of the day if they want to allow dogs in their premises or not,” says FSANZ spokesperson Lorraine Haase.
Yet while Australian food safety laws may now be dog friendly, many restaurants and cafes still aren’t. That’s because making an eatery dog friendly isn’t always a walk in the park.
The outdoor dining area not only needs to be code compliant, but may need reconfiguring to allow more space so dogs can lie down, and help reduce instances of bad pet behaviour. This could involve removing some tables and chairs, therefore potentially reducing profits.
Staff also need to be comfortable around dogs and may require special training in how to manage animal behaviour if things go wrong—not to mention be willing to clean up doggy messes if owners don’t.
And while FSANZ may have decreed that dogs aren’t a health risk, there is still a lingering public perception that having dogs near food can be unhygienic.
Perhaps foremost is the fact that no business owner wants to alienate other customers: we Australians might love our dogs, but we don’t all love eating with them.
But deputy CEO of Restaurant and Catering Australia (R&CA) Sally Neville says demand for dog friendly dining is definitely on the rise in Australia.
“There is a growing demand for dog friendly dining as we see more families made up of adults and their ‘pet children’,” she says.
And the benefits to business owners can be significant.
As one of the only dog friendly eateries in the beachside suburb of Semaphore, in Adelaide, Whipped Bake Bar Cafe is regularly packed with local pet owners and training groups grabbing breakfast or brunch after their morning walks.
“Overall it’s about our customers: there are a lot of dog owners in [Sydney’s] eastern suburbs and it’s a nice thing to be able to offer them a space where their dogs are welcome.”—Tim Drake, general manager, The Sheaf, Double Bay, NSW
“It’s definitely been good for business, it brings so many people down. People just love the fact that they can bring their dogs here,” says manager Callum Dinnison.
“At one point, we had 19 border collies out the back because there was a border collie festival on, and the other week we had about a dozen greyhounds. No one has ever complained, we’ve never had any nasty dogs or barking. I think people know if they bring their dog to a cafe that it has to be reasonably well behaved.”
It’s a similar situation at The Sheaf hotel in Double Bay, one of Sydney’s most popular dog friendly pubs, where you’ll find patrons relaxing with their pooches in the beer garden at all hours of the day and night.
“I definitely think it improves business, but overall it’s about our customers: there are a lot of dog owners in the eastern suburbs and it’s a nice thing to be able to offer them a space where their dogs are welcome and they can come down and have some food and a drink and not worry about having to leave them outside,” says general manager Tim Drake.
“It really just adds to the experience of the venue and adds something a little different.”
She’s not in the hospitality game, but as manager of pet friendly accommodation website Holidaying with Dogs, which has more than 26,000 social media followers, Sarah Hemingway knows that going dog friendly can give a business a valuable point of difference when it comes to marketing.
“If you’ve got a good product, marketing yourself to dog owners is so easy, because they are always looking for stuff,” she says.
“You can do targeted social media marketing, and dogs are a great theme—you can use a photo of a cute puppy, and it’s so easy, it opens you up to an enormous market. Make yourself dog friendly and you always open yourself up to more dollars—bottom line, that’s what a business wants.”