Pooch-friendly Dartmouth taproom finds itself in the dog house

Shortly after it opened a year ago, word started to spread that Brightwood Brewery in Dartmouth, N.S. was a place for pints — and puppies.

It started when Ian Lawson, co-owner of the craft brewery on Portland Street, would bring his German shorthaired pointer, Ben, to work.

Occasionally an employee would bring their dog. Then customers began asking if they could as well, instead of leaving them at home or tied up outside.

Lawson figured, why not.

"I believe dogs are family members," said the engineer-turned-beer entrepreneur. "Having a space that we could accommodate dogs, it just felt like something really special and the community really embraced it."

So began Brightwood's transformation into a dog-friendly establishment.

Yulanda Luka

It's a place where dog treats are kept behind the counter, a SPCA collection jar is next to the cash register, and a framed watercolour of Ben adorns a wall. Ben died earlier this year.

There's even a beer named for the dog, Ben's Brett IPA.

Anonymous complaint about dog at bar

But now Brightwood is in the dog house with provincial food safety inspectors over its canine-loving atmosphere. 

About two weeks ago someone complained to the Department of Environment, which carries out inspections at food service businesses, about a dog inside the bar.

Nova Scotia food safety regulations ban live animals in food establishments — with the notable exception of a "guide animal" as long as it "does not pose a risk of contaminating the food."

Yulanda Luka

The other exception is live edible seafood kept in an aquarium.

But Lawson doesn't believe pet dogs pose any greater health risk than service dogs.

After the complaint, an inspector showed up at Brightwood with a warning that subsequent violations could result in a fine or revocation of the food establishment permit.

Without that permit his beverage room licence would be in jeopardy.

So Brightwood has had to roll up the welcome mat for canines, and turn away about 30 dogs and their owners.

But Lawson believes the health risk is overblown. At Brightwood, the samosas and savoury meat pies are all cooked off-site and reheated at the bar.

Fear of dogs 'perfectly valid'

The surfaces, such as the concrete floors, and wooden and aluminum tables and chairs, are washable. There's very little fabric.

Lawson wonders if the real reason behind the complaint is a fear of dogs — which he says is "perfectly valid." He urges customers who might be uncomfortable around dogs to speak to staff so they can move to another table.

Rob Short/CBC

"We feel our spaces are large enough to accommodate people of all types, dog-loving and non dog-loving," he said.

Since the bar opened, there's only been one incident of a snarling dog that wasn't leashed.

"Just like an unruly customer, we ask the owner and the dog to leave," said Lawson. "It was the owner's fault, it's not the dog's fault. The owner refused to put this dog on a leash, so the dog is not being controlled." 

Petition to change rules

But Lawson isn't giving up the campaign to create dog-friendly businesses. He argues the food safety regulations should be amended to give inspectors the discretionary power to assess whether a dog poses a health risk.

He said health officers in Alberta and British Columbia have that authority, and thinks Nova Scotia should follow suit.

Rob Short/CBC

On Saturday morning, Lawson invited dog owners to bring their pets to Brightwood for a photo shoot. The picture accompanies an online petition directed at MLAs requesting a change in regulations to allow "dogs into a few more places, out of the thousands they are not allowed."

Since the online and paper petitions launched on Friday, dozens of people have signed their names to the cause.