Brandon Weber takes a break from his salad to embrace Surge, a Great Dane, Friday in the outdoor dining area of Talent’s Avalon Bar and Grill. - Julia Moore

Man's best customer

TALENT — Teaching dogs not to beg at the table may have just gotten that much more important.

The state health department and Talent's Avalon Bar and Grill have started a pilot program to test the idea of allowing patrons' dogs in outdoor dining areas. It's the only such program in the state.

State health codes prohibit dogs from being in any eating area, with exceptions for service and patrol dogs.

But Eric Pippert, a food protection program manager with the Oregon Health Authority, said several restaurant owners, as well as dog owners, have told his department they'd like to see the rule modified, allowing dogs to be at tables as long as they are outside.

"We don't think the rule's in a vacuum," Pippert said. "Allowing dogs in dining facilities is one of the trends, you could say, that the food hospitality industry is interested in pursuing, so we're considering it."

Avalon owner Susan Schaffer was among those expressing interest in the idea. She contacted the state, after traveling to Portland with her own dog, to see whether her restaurant could allow dogs. She said she saw several instances of dogs sitting by their owners in outside dining areas, even though it was illegal.

She asked the state if the statute could be revised, and state health officials said no, but asked whether she was interested in being a guinea pig of sorts, testing whether the combination of dogs and outside dining would work. Schaffer agreed.

"I think it would bring traffic from I-5," she said.

Schaffer is required to make regular reports to state health officials about how the pilot program is working out. The findings will help determine whether the state health statute will be revised. Public comments will also be considered.

"I know there are two sides to every issue, and we listen to both sides," Pippert said. "I'm happy to hear what concerns people have about it."

Pippert said restaurants would not be required to allow dogs.

"Every proprietor will get to decide," he said.

The pilot program rules are still fairly strict. The dogs will not be allowed inside, and owners with "unruly" animals will be asked to leave. There must be a pet-relief and waste- disposal site nearby, and "accidents" must be cleaned up by the owner immediately.

There are other potential issues to consider, including the possibility of fights between dogs. Schaffer said the restaurant has liability insurance should there be a fracas, but noted the pet owners, not the restaurant, will be in charge of their animals.

"Where there are dogs, there will be incidents, (but) people are responsible for their own dogs," she said.

Pippert said there's no certainty the pilot program will become permanent in Oregon.

"We'll have a record of incidents or a record of absence of incidents," Pippert said. "When we know the facts a little better, then we'll be able to make a decision."

Ryan Pfeil is a reporter for the Mail Tribune.

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