7 Ways to Dine with Your Pet in Metro Phoenix

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When some of us go out to eat, we'd rather see an animal on our plate than under the dinner table. But more and more, it's common to see pets at restaurants. So just when is this acceptable in Phoenix, and when isn't it? We dug to find out more. Here are 7 ways to dine with your pet in metro Phoenix.

See also: 13 D-Rated Restaurants in June in Metro Phoenix

Adopt a Fish The Maricopa County Environmental Services Department regulates and enforces the Food Code here in Phoenix, says Johnny Dilone, Environmental Services' public information officer. And the Food Code is pretty strict. It completely bans live animals from establishments that serve food, including restaurants, grocery stores, and bars, he says, with very few exceptions.

One unusual exception to this rule is made for fish -- edible or decorative -- in tanks. And yes, that rule was probably initially meant to allow for live (for the time being) lobsters but it extends to your pet, too. Got a lonely beta? Bring it along to lunch.

Bring Along a Service Animal The biggest exception to the Food Code's no-animals rule is made for service animals. This is backed up by state and federal legislation protecting the right of all citizens with disabilities to bring their service animals into restaurants. In Arizona, only dogs and miniature horses qualify as service animals under state law.

Technically speaking, service animals aren't pets. Rather, they are specially trained animals that help their owners to perform major life tasks, says Carrie Ann McCanless of the National Service Animal Registry. Arizona law outlines these tasks to include things like helping the blind to navigate and alerting the hard of hearing to sound, but also pulling wheelchairs, assisting individuals with seizure disorders, retrieving items such as medicine or a telephone for those who couldn't otherwise do so, and assisting those with psychiatric or neurological disorders in curbing destructive or impulsive behaviors.

McCanless says it's important to understand the difference between a service animal and an emotional support dog. Emotional support dogs are not service animals, she says. Service animals help their owners to deal with situations that could otherwise be life threatening, she says, and only in extreme cases do emotional support issues reach that level. A dog that helps with general anxiety is not a service animal, but a dog assisting someone with severe PTSD who might undergo a dangerous flashback episode could qualify as a service animal, McCanless says.

Emotional support animals do get some special treatment under the law. They can fly with their owners on an airplane, and they are allowed to live in otherwise no-pet housing, McCanless says -- but they are not allowed in restaurants. In fact, Arizona law specifically states, "the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort or companionship do not constitute work or tasks," the distinguishing actions required to make a dog or miniature horse a service animal.

Even traditional service animals can be excluded from restaurants at times. If an animal poses a health or safety threat, or "fundamentally alters the nature of the public place or the goods, services or activities provided," the law says, then it can be prohibited from entering. The federal government makes it clear that this second scenario is rare--it might include a dog barking so loudly as to interrupt a movie--and would rarely exempt a restaurant from its mandate to allow service animals inside.

And a service animal should rarely pose a safety threat to anyone, McCanless says. "The main thing is the training of the animal. If it's a service animal, it needs to be so well behaved that people don't even know it's there in the restaurant," she says.

Pretend Your Pet is a Service Animal Note: Chow Bella does not condone this; not only is it a federal crime, it's just plain wrong!

In most cases, your service animal can come inside a restaurant. How, then, is a restaurant to tell whether an animal is a service animal? This isn't as simple as it seems.

Get this: Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, owners are not required to have any documentation or identification to prove that their animal is a service animal so long as it meets the definition of a service animal outlined in the law. This means that any time you see a service animal with a vest or special leash or tag, its owner has voluntarily marked his or her animal -- these visual cues are in no way required. But countless organizations like the one McCanless works for -- the National Service Animal Registry -- do offer documentation to owners to help alleviate the hassle they may face in trying to bring their animals into restaurants and establishments where they might otherwise be unwelcome.

The process of registering a service animal is highly unregulated, McCanless admits. It's optional, to start, and getting an animal registered requires no documentation. Believe it or not, service animal registration is done on an honor system, McCanless says. She and her colleagues can do a bit of screening when people call to register an animal over the phone, she says, but many people register their animals online without ever having to speak to a registry employee.

For restaurant owners and employees, knowing whether a customer is being truthful about a service animal can be tricky in its own right. Under federal law, an employee can legally ask if an animal is a service animal required because of a disability, but it is illegal to ask for more detail than that. So with no documentation required and limited questions that can be asked, it seems it'd be hard for a restaurant employee to smell a liar.

It's important to remember that there are limitations on the questions that can be asked because someone with a service animal shouldn't have to answer twenty questions just to eat dinner. And of course, we should hope that people aren't actually abusing a system intended to help those with disabilities just so they can bring Fido to lunch. But it definitely happens, McCanless says. And "it gives people who really need them and have good dogs a bad name," she says.

Just remember: Pretending a pet is a service animal isn't without risk. It's actually a crime.

Find a Dog Friendly Patio So what about all those animals you see around Phoenix's dining scene that clearly aren't service animals? More often than not, restaurants are carefully abiding by the Food Code's ban on animals inside food-serving establishments by only allowing dogs outside.

In 2010, aware of this common scenario, the Department of Environmental Services enacted a new permitting process to regulate animals in the outdoor portions of restaurants and bars. Obtaining an official "Dog Friendly Patio Permit" is free, but requires more than just a pooper-scooper. Restaurants that want the permit must go through a rigorous application and inspection process before dogs are allowed outside.

The permit application process requires restaurants to detail how they will follow the strict rules entailed in the "Dog Friendly Patio Regulations" outlined by Environmental Services. This means explaining how animals will access the patios (there must be a separate entrance so dogs don't have to come inside); what signs the establishment will use to mark their dog-friendly status (their signs, in fact, must say in at least ½ inch letters "Dog Friendly Patio - Dog Access Only through Outdoor Patio. For violations, contact MCESD (602) 506-6616"); how the restaurant will avoid cross-contamination, and how they'll clean the patio (there can be no dog hair or "dog-related waste and debris," the code says, and the area must be hosed down every six hours while the establishment is open); and finally, they must list the dog-friendly chemicals that will be used in their cleaning process.

These regulations also ban employees from touching any patio pets, though restaurants aren't required to detail how they'll ensure their employees resist.

Find an Underground Dog Friendly Patio (Er, A Dog-Speakeasy?) Most of the Dog Friendly Patio Regulations seem reasonable, but some don't quite align with what many dog-friendly scenes here in the Valley look like. For example, the regulations say that all dogs must be on a leash, wearing a collar or harness, with their owner, at all times. And all dogs on an approved patio must also be properly licensed, the regulations say, with no dogs sitting on chairs or people's laps.

An employee at one local dog-friendly restaurant -- a popular spot in Central Phoenix -- admits to Chow Bella that it was cited for lacking a proper patio permit during its inspection last year. The restaurant applied for the permit, but was told it had to install a sign marking the patio as well as fences, a dog run, and a whole new outdoor patio surface that could be hosed down more easily. To one employee, this defied the purpose of having a dog-friendly patio. "People want to bring them out to socialize them with other people and animals," she says.

Without the required changes, that restaurant's patio permit was denied. The employee says the restaurant knows it isn't allowed to have dogs anymore, but the owners have decided to defy the rules and hope they don't get caught. They are ready to pay a fine when they do. Until then, this restaurant quit with its dog-friendly advertising, removed its animal-welcoming signage, and continues to allow dogs out back.

Become an Officer Patrol dogs are another exception to the no-animals rule in the Food Code, so long as they accompany a police or security officer. Patrol dogs, like fish, are only allowed in restaurants if there is no risk that they will contaminate food, utensils, linens, and equipment, the code says. And restaurant employees are banned from touching patrol dogs on the job.

Move to a Retirement Home Under the Food Code, pets are allowed in the common dining areas of nursing homes and assisted living facilities (as well as group homes), but only when meals aren't being served.

The next time you see a dog on a restaurant's patio, pet him if you like and ask to see the restaurant's patio permit if you don't. And if an animal is inside the restaurant, he better be a horse or dog and he must be a service animal, though you can't ask him -- or his owner -- to prove it.

What do you think about animals in restaurants? Should dogs (or horses) be allowed to join at the dinner table? Under what circumstances?

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