Jack Klosinski and his 4-year-old Keeshond, Dixie, had their pick of eight dog parks, a pet-friendly pier, and a paw playground and beach in St. Petersburg, Fla.
When they moved to Augusta last year, their dog park selection dwindled to one. But what the two gained was a much-needed canopy of shaded trails and an area that treated pets as valued customers instead of potential health hazards.
Though St. Petersburg outranks Augusta in population, Augusta has what pet industry parlance calls a high “Fido factor.”
In downtown alone, Augusta matches all of St. Petersburg in pet-friendly cafés, 17. Plus, bars and coffeehouses are not bound by Florida’s public health codes, which in some cities forbid pets from hopping up on chairs and prohibit restaurant employees from touching a dog while serving food or handling tableware.
“The pet culture here is much more accommodating,” said Klosinski, while Dixie, a stray found on the side of a Memphis interstate, relaxed at Pendleton King Park’s Bark Park.
By 2015, Americans will spend a record $74 billion on their pets, according to market research firm Packaged Facts.
Pet owners, or “parents” as many call themselves, are being sold on the simplest of amenities.
Pet hotspots downtown include The Pizza Joint, Metro Pub and Coffeehouse and Eros Bistro, each of which serve dogs their own personal water bowl on patios.
“Whoever wants to come, we’re glad to have you,” said Darcy Hayes, the manager of Metro, one of the first establishments to welcome pets, opening its outdoor seating area to all breeds 13 years ago.
No federal laws apply to dogs in restaurants except for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires restaurants to allow service and guide dogs at dining areas.
The only major federal contribution to restaurant health codes is a recommendation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration against animals at a food establishment.
Florida passed a statute in 2006 allowing cities and counties to permit dogs in outdoor seating areas despite the state ban on animals on the premises. In Georgia, live animals can be allowed in areas not used for food preparation, storage, sales, or display if the contamination of food, utensils and linens cannot result.
When factoring in restaurant chains that allow pets in outdoor seating areas, the Aiken-Augusta area nearly tops the number of dog-friendly restaurants in Houston, which has 35, according to online reports.
Alexandria, Va., holds the coveted title of Dog Town USA in the Southeast, an honor bestowed by Dog Fancy Magazine.
Dog Fancy editor Ernie Slone said the magazine goes through an exhaustive process to determine a winner, analyzing 40 variables before naming a star community. Among the criteria are a city’s euthanasia rate – 70 percent in Augusta – and dog park roster.
Alexandria provides 18 exercise areas and fenced parks for dogs.
Augusta has only one “Bark Park,” 10,000 square feet of fenced space created at Pendleton King Park three years ago to allow dogs to exercise freely.
Chrislynne Kuhlke, a member of the Pendleton King Park Foundation Board, says the Bark Park sees steady traffic throughout the day.
Kuhlke takes her dog to the park every day she can. Her 3-year-old Boxer mix, Trip, is the facility’s recognized mascot.
“I consider it one of the best social events I do everyday,” said Kuhlke, a rental coordinator at the Augusta Recreation, Parks and Facilities Department. “The dog park is almost like a sorority-fraternity thing. I’ve met friends I will have for a lifetime. We’re really close.”
Kuhlke said the city is considering building a second dog park – possibly funded through the special purpose local option sales tax – and planning more events for pets similar to Howl-a-ween and Woof-stock, past celebrations that featured a 5K run and walk, costume contest and musical performances.
“Augusta is a busy city for pets, and I like it that way,” Klosinki said. “The tree cover, the hiking trails, it beats the beach.”