More animals are out with their owners as summer approaches, pandemic restrictions lift and lives return to normalcy — something restaurant owners say they’re excited to see, even as one accessibility expert calls for sensitivity.
“There’s no surprise there that dogs were in high demand during the pandemic, and now we’re starting to see them out and about,” said Johnny Bonney, assistant general manager of The King Eddy.
Bonney’s restaurant in the ByWard Market has received many inquiries over the last year, asking if their space is dog-friendly.
“I definitely can see an increase like everyone else has noticed,” he said.
Kate Rutledge, director of operations at Zak’s Diner, says she’s noticed something similar.
“Absolutely. There’s been a huge shift over the past, at least, the last decade,” said Rutledge, who’s worked with the Ottawa restaurant for more than 20 years.
“We never used to see people coming to restaurant and [asking] to have their animals, other than of course a service animal… and now it’s very common.”
Rules, respect and sensitivity
Virginie Abat-Roy, a University of Ottawa professor in inclusion studies with expertise in the accessibility experience of service animal users, said that since COVID-19 restrictions have lifted she’s also noticed more service dogs out in public.
Many of her research participants who are service dog handlers chose not to go outside for a large part of the pandemic, Abat-Roy said, due to challenges with some public health restrictions limiting accessibility.
“We kind of became not as used to seeing service animals as much [but] it’s normal… they were always there,” she said.
In Ontario, service animals are allowed mostly everywhere by law — except for places like industrial kitchens or surgery rooms, Abat-Roy said. Service animals are highly trained to provide service to handlers with medical conditions or disabilities, and are equivalent of any other accessibility aid, like a wheelchair. Businesses can legally ask to see a doctor’s note as proof a person requires the service animal indoors.
But there are things that Abat-Roy cautions business owners and customers against asking.
“You cannot ask what their disability is. You cannot ask what the tasks of the dogs are, where the dog was trained. You cannot ask the person to demonstrate how the animal does a task,” she said.
Emotional support animals — pets whose presence improves the mental health of their owners — are not recognized by law in Ontario and Quebec, however, and don’t legally have access to places like restaurants like they do in the US, said Abat-Roy.
In those cases, it’s up to the discretion of the business.
And with loose regulations around the training and certification of service animals, Abat-Roy says people may fake having one to bring their household pets into a store or a restaurant.
“In the long run, we will have to address that, especially for legislation,” she said. “Definitely don’t do that. It [puts] you at risk, it [puts] the animal’s well-being and health at risk, and an accident can also happen.”
For instance, pet dogs might disrupt the tasks of a service animal, she said, or even get into an altercation.
“It’s also making accessibility so much more difficult for people who do need service animals,” Abat-Roy said.
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Case by case, say restaurants
It all means restaurants may have to juggle those regulations and the concerns of customers who are allergic or scared of animals.
Both The King Eddy and Zak’s Diner say it hasn’t been an issue so far, and service dogs are always allowed indoors.
The restaurants also welcome well-behaved pets on outdoor patios, but it’s a little more complicated inside.
Bonney says The King Eddy has no strict policy around household pets, but rather goes case by case.
“If it’s a 150-pound dog, that’s when sometimes we’ll have to sort of make a judgment call,” he said, adding that most customers understand that a restaurant is not generally a place for pets to hang out.
“From our experience, typically it’s kind of your purse dog, small dog, that are easily sort of held in their owner’s laps. Or they just sit under the table.”
I wouldn’t say it’s a dog-free-for-all at Zak’s, but it’s certainly something that we want to try and accommodate.-Kate Rutledge
Rutledge says small pet dogs are allowed inside Zak’s Diner if they’re in carriers and they’re not disruptive.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a dog-free-for-all at Zak’s, but it’s certainly something that we want to try and accommodate,” said Rutledge. “We want to be attractive to as many clients as we can be, coming out of the pandemic.”
Both restaurants say it’s all about trusting their clients, and they won’t necessarily ask for doctor’s notes or proof.
Abat-Roy encourages people to be open-minded, especially when seeing service animals working, and to give them space. She also notes that some service animals may not have visual indicators, like labeled harnesses or vests, which aren’t required by law.