‘Better behaved than some patrons’: should dogs be allowed inside all Australian pubs?

Sydney pub The Lord Gladstone has a simple policy around dogs.

“If your dog’s a pain in the arse or makes a mess or carries on, it’s not welcome here – just like a patron,” says publican Ben Johnson. “As long as your dog’s well behaved and you clean up after it … I don’t give a fuck.”

The Lord Gladstone is one of many dog-friendly Sydney watering holes. As Johnson sees it, there are obvious reasons to allow our pets at the pub.

For one, “in 2023, dogs are a true extension of someone’s family – people are choosing to get animals instead of having children. People like to bring their dogs out because they consider them part of the family or their best mates, which I can wholeheartedly understand”. And for two, “It’s fun … it just makes the pub more endearing to our patrons”.

Woody the dog sits at the bar at the Lord Gladstone in Chippendale, Sydney
Woody the dog sits at the bar at the Lord Gladstone in Chippendale, Sydney. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

It’s a sentiment many agree with – very strongly. Earlier this month, a Melbourne council sparked online backlash after letter-dropping pubs in the area to remind them that for food safety reasons, dogs are only allowed in outdoor beer gardens. In response, a Change.Org petition has collected over 14,000 signatures in support of a dog’s right to visit the entirety of a pub.

The City of Yarra, the council at the centre of the dispute, say it is just enforcing the law, and only wishes to educate businesses on how to comply with these laws so they can avoid penalties. But the Change.org petition calls those laws “outdated” and out-of-step with contemporary dog-friendly culture.

All Australian states and territories have an agreement to enforce a national food safety code set out by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). It is a national standard that prohibits dogs in kitchens and indoor dining areas, with the exception of service animals. The Food Standards Code was, however, amended in 2013 to allow for dogs in outdoor areas at the discretion of business owners. Enforcing the laws, however, is up to local councils.

The sticking point with letting dogs inside – and what the City of Yarra is concerned about – is the potential for dogs to contaminate food. Their faeces can spread pathogenic organisms, which could cause food-borne illness. However, a risk assessment prepared by FSANZ as a supporting document for the 2013 change in standards found that situations where human illness has been caused by consumption of food contaminated by pathogens originating from an infected dog are “most likely rare”.

Dr Tiffani Howell, a researcher at La Trobe University who studies the relationship between humans and animals, says other parts of the globe are more permissive with where we bring our pets.

“The rules about where animals can go, particularly dogs, does appear to be much stricter in Australia than in some other parts of the world. So, for example, in much of Europe and the UK – Italy, France – it’s really not uncommon to see dogs out and about; you see them in restaurants and cafes sometimes, and you can see them even in supermarkets and things. You don’t really see that in Australia.”

But food safety expert Erina Male, of Food Safety Consultants Australia, feels the risk of food contamination from dogs is significant enough to make it worth keeping the current laws in place.

“I don’t think they should be inside. I do think that outdoor dining is acceptable,” Male says. “They’ve made this exception with outdoor dining because it’s more ventilated. And I think it should stop there … There’s a place for animals and I just don’t think it’s inside a food business.”

Biscuit the dog at the Lord Gladstone
Biscuit the dog at the Lord Gladstone, one of the many dog-friendly Sydney watering holes. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Previous attempts at changing the law to bring dogs inside haven’t been successful. Now-retired Greens MP Jamie Parker introduced a bill to change the laws that kept dogs from being allowed inside pubs in 2017, after a crackdown from Sydney councils similar to the one led by City of Yarra this month, but was not successful.

Laws aside, some patrons object to the presence of dogs in pubs on other grounds.

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Frequent Sydney pub-goer Joey, who lives in Sydney’s dog-friendly Inner West, prefers that dogs aren’t there when he’s having a pint.

“I don’t think dogs especially enjoy being there – they just sit there anxiously – so I feel like the feeling is mutual,” he says. “Pubs are crowded, noisy spaces where humans get unpredictable. [Surely that’s] a dog’s worst nightmare.” Other pub-goers the Guardian spoke to cited the potential for dogs to be a trip hazard and distracted owners not monitoring their animals as reasons to leave them at home.

But some pet owners say it should be at the discretion of the individual, not the law, where they bring their dog.

“I think there should be some quality control on dogs … if you know your dog is a fucken’ shithead, don’t bring him to the pub,” says pub patron Toby Allen, whose dog, Woody, is regularly by his side at venues like The Lord Gladstone and The Cricketers Arms in Surry Hills.

“I only go to pubs that allow dogs, otherwise you have to rush home to them,” Allen says. And pubs that allow dogs are, he feels, simply “better”.

Benny Johnson with Woody the dog
Benny Johnson with Woody the dog. It’s the humans, Johnson says, that you’ve really got to keep an eye on. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The Lord Gladstone is firm in its pro-dog stance. Johnson says the only time they’ve had to ask a four-legged patron to leave was due to excessive barking, not any concerns around food safety.

“Any dog that would go out of its way to jump up on a table or have a go at someone who’s eating – I would like to think that the owner would know that they’re capable of that and not bring them,” Johnson says. “But we’ve never had that problem … We have dogs that are better behaved than some of the patrons that come in here.”

And it’s the humans, Johnson says, that you’ve really got to keep an eye on.

“Nine out of ten people who see a dog go, aw, a dog, how cute! … The one person out of ten is the one you have to worry about.”

The Guardian