PET WORLD: Dogs are winning a place at many outdoor restaurants

It's an interesting lesson in civics, how popular culture drives law.

Across the country, people have been dining alfresco with their dogs at sidewalk cafes in increasing numbers -- from burger joints to fancy French restaurants. The pastime is popular in some major cities, including New York, Miami, Orlando and Chicago.

In Chicago, the department of health began to crack down on restaurants allowing dogs about two years back. In Miami, some diners complained about sitting near the hounds.

The response came fast in Florida from Gov. Jeb Bush. He signed a bill last year granting local municipalities permission to allow outdoor doggy dining. In Illinois, a similar bill recently sailed through the House and the Senate by an overwhelming margin and is expected to win Gov. Rod Blagojevich's signature.

Before you growl that we're turning French (in France, dogs are even welcome inside restaurants), in Florida and Illinois, the governments are allowing what people have been doing anyhow.

Besides, why not let the dogs out?

Big city politicians banter about "quality of life." Lots of mid-sized and smaller towns across America, which rank high on quality-of-life polls, from Alexandria, Va., to Aspen, Colo., have been welcoming dogs to outdoor eateries for years. There's lots of data to support that just seeing dogs wag their tails makes people feel good.

Of course, people who fear dogs don't agree that being forced to sit next to a mongrel feels good. However, if you're afraid of dogs, just don't go to restaurants that allow them.

There's no law mandating restaurants to admit dogs. When all is said and done, restaurants simply want as much business as possible. If enough people are repulsed by the appearance of canine clientele at sidewalk cafes and patios, most restaurants -- as quick as you can say "bow wow" -- will reverse their canine welcome policies.

I understand that some people are so allergic to dogs that they may sneeze at reading these words. Truth be told, though, it's one thing to have a dog in close proximity in an enclosed space and another to encounter a pooch outdoors. One Chicago patron complained to a restaurateur about severe allergic symptoms while he was seated outdoors, perhaps 10 feet away from his nose nemesis. A local allergist simply explained, "That's not an allergy case; that's a head case. Outdoors, the rule is clear: Don't touch the dog -- and allergies won't flare up."

Due to fear of disease, wait staff in Houston can't touch the dogs at outdoor cafes, and there are other stringent rules in place. Truth is, there are diseases people can get from dogs. However, when people dine outside, epidemiologists say they're more concerned about the threat from above; birds don't wear diapers, not to mention squirrels, chipmunks and other critters. Even so, outdoor dining has been around for a long time without a significant health risk.

As for dining near dogs, humans have been sharing their eating space with canines for thousands of years, and we're still here.

Of course, I'm all for prudent rules, such as leash laws to prevent a ruckus. Dogs do bark. Some unsocialized dogs should be sent home to dine privately. As one Chicago restaurateur puts it, "For every poorly mannered dog I see, there are 50 bratty kids -- throwing tantrums, making a mess. I can't send them home, though I wish I could."

When Chicago cracked down by fining restaurants that let the dogs out, here's what happened: Dog owners were bummed, restaurants lost business -- and, oh yes, the city collected money.