Eating Out With Your Reactive Dog (without losing your mind)

Honey the golden retriever on the beach at Cape May.

My idea of dog friendly dining is digging for mussels on the beach.

Okay, so my dog Honey is Little Miss Perfect. I can take her to parades, malls, and even social media conferences without fear of being embarrassed or threatened with doggy jail. Most of all, I can take her out to eat on a pet-friendly patio.

But I haven’t always had confident and well socialized dogs. And I know from experience you can eat out with a reactive dog without losing your mind.

What is a Reactive Dog

“Reactive” is a way to describe a dog’s behavior in certain situations without judging it. It simply means a dog has a strong reaction to outside stimuli.

If your dog barks at strangers or becomes a fuzzy little psychopath when another dog walks by, taking him out to a pet-friendly restaurant may be the last thing you can imagine doing. But I have a little bag of tricks for vacationing with reactive dogs. And I have another for eating out with them.

Honey the golden retriever poses with a whale jaw bone.

Posing me with a whale jaw bone for an article on eating out with your dog? That’s just sick.

Before Taking a Reactive Dog Out to Eat

I’m assuming that if you’re thinking about dining out with your reactive dog that you’re actively working to lessen his reactivity. You’re doing training to help him focus on you instead of whatever jacks him up in the surroundings.

If you aren’t doing that, then stop reading this piece and start researching training and treatment for reactive dogs.

But if you think you and your dog have reached a point where you can manage his reactions, here’s how to plan a successful meal out.


Don’t just decide one afternoon you want to go for brunch at that cool place that has people lining up around the block. Do your homework first.

Honey the golden retriever at Sunset Beach.

Thank you for the warm welcome.

Is the restaurant truly pet-friendly?

I remember visiting a restaurant in Cape Cod that advertised itself in all the tourism literature as having dog friendly dining. As we walked up, the hostess came running out to give us a list of rules and a lecture on proper behavior. She then seated us in a far-off corner. I got the feeling the restaurant’s owners thought being dog friendly was a good business opportunity without actually liking dogs at all.

In contrast, when we go to Gecko’s in Cape May, the hostess asks where we think our dog might be most comfortable. They understand when I ask for a shady spot or one that limits my dog’s view of other diners. And they bring out a big bowl of water as soon as we sit down.

Can your dog sit in the restaurant comfortably?

Pet-friendly dining on Restaurant Row in my hometown is insane. They crowd as many tables onto the sidewalk as they can fit and all but the tiniest dog would find it uncomfortable.

I look for a dining area that has some shade, enough room between tables that my dog can lie down without being disturbed, and a location that screens other diners—perhaps behind some potted plants or on a lower level.

If your dog can’t relax, he’ll be up looking for things to bark at.

Honey the golden retriever looks at Cape May Lighthouse.

Pretty lighthouse. Do you think it has a restaurant at the top?

When is the restaurant least crowded?

If eating lunch at 11 a.m. or 3:15 p.m. gives you the best chance of having the place to yourself, take it. Remember, you’re the one asking your dog to eat out with you. He’s not begging you to take him to a restaurant.

Set Your Dog Up For Success

Reward your dog for not reacting. Or better yet, keep him so busy he doesn’t notice what’s happening around him.

If you’re eating, why not feed your dog at the same time by packing his meal into a stuffed Kong? Not only will your dog stay busy, but he’ll see that eating out is very rewarding.

Plan an Exit Strategy

You can’t plan everything.

A woman walks by with a Yorkie in her purse. Your dog freaks out at men with beards and the Ernest Hemingway club stops in for a few drinks.

If despite your planning your dog starts to react, get out of there. That’s why it’s best to have a friend who will pay the check and pack your food to take home.

Which leads me to another idea.

What If Your Dog Just Isn’t Ready

Let’s face it. Sitting calmly under a table in a restaurant is an advanced skill. And maybe your dog is too reactive for that environment—no matter how well you prepare.

Does that mean you can never eat out with your dog?

It didn’t stop me from eating out with Agatha and Christie. Picnic-style is the way to go when your dog isn’t ready for cute decks and patios.

Hot Dog Tommy in Cape May.

Honey is in love. What could be better than a man wearing a hot dog on his head?

In Cape May, you have to stop at Hot Dog Tommy’s. If you can find a quiet place to click and treat your dog for not reacting to everything happening around him, your partner can get a couple of dogs to share with you on a deserted stretch of beach or a quiet corner of the park.

It may not be the same as enjoying brunch and mimosas with your best friend sitting at your knee. But you’re eating out with your dog. And what could be better than that?

Honey the golden retriever in Cape May.

Y’know, I’m much heavier now and he still likes to pick me up. Crazy man.

Best City for Pet Travelers

Key West Florida is kicking Cape May’s butt in the competition. That is unacceptable.

Why should Key West win just because people have heard of it? Time to talk a little trash.

Here’s why you should NOT vote for Key West:

Zombie cats – One of Key West’s famous tourist destinations is Ernest Hemingway’s house which is overrun by six and seven toed cats. That’s just weird. I’m thinking these are zombie cats who want to eat your dog’s brain (light meal though it may be).

Heck, maybe they’re controlling Amy’s brain at Go Pet Friendly so they can carry out their nefarious plan to lure dogs to their town.

Okay, maybe not. But are you sure? Really sure? If there’s any doubt in your mind, go vote for Cape May now (fifth up from the bottom).

Celebrating the dark – Yeah, everyone makes a big deal about toasting the sunset at Key West. But that’s just crazy.

On the longest day of the year, Key West has 1 1/2 fewer hours of sunlight than Cape May. So why are they so excited about the sun going down? Unless the zombie cats are really vampire cats and they’re controlling everyone?

Ashamed to be seen with you – Yep, Key West has a marker stating they are the farthest south you can be in the U.S. Sounds like a teenager who’s pretending she’s not really with you.

Friends” have called New Jersey an armpit. But there’s no doubt she belongs in the U.S.

Vote for Cape May as the Best City for Pet Travelers. It’s a great town for dog lovers, foodies, nature lovers, and architecture buffs. And TripAdvisor ranked it as the second best beach in the U.S. and 9th best beach In. The. World.

Sorry there are no puppies in the video. You’ll just have to bring our own.

Go vote. And put those zombie kitties in their place.

Your Turn: How do you decide when your dog is ready for a new adventure, like eating out with you?

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  1. Never been to either place with or without a dog, but voted for Cape May 😉

  2. Ya know … I do kind of feel like my mind might be controlled by zombie cats – or maybe that’s just sleep deprivation! 😉

  3. Lots of Hemingway mentions today! lol
    I’ve visited the hotel in Havana where Hemingway lived and stopped for drinks at the rooftop bar he frequented – the mojito was good, but best in the world? I don’t know…

    I’ll be sure to go vote for Cape May… armpit or not.

    • Yay, Jen! Thanks for supporting Cape May. If you ever find yourself in NY, I hope you’ll come by. I’ll mix you a very special mojito. 🙂

      BTW, your countrywomen are kicking butts and taking names. Edmonton and Vancouver are both doing great.

  4. Thank you for all these wonderful tips.

  5. Great tips! Thanks for sharing. It really is important to do your research first before taking your dog to a place that is considered “dog friendly.” I know a lot of places that say they are, but then they make dogs sit outside of fence or they are tiny, cramped patios. Not really dog friendly in my opinion!

    • Yes, dog friendly that’s not really dog friendly makes me nuts. I encounter it a lot more with hotels that enforce weight limits, for example.

      Are you telling me my 50 pound, quiet golden is really going to be a bigger problem than a perfectly sweet but territorial terrier? Yeah, right.

  6. Such good advice. I take for granted that my dog is relatively calm at restaurants and coffee shops. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of training to get him this way. I think your tip about visiting the restaurant during quieter times is a great idea. Also, scouting it out ahead of time so you know what to expect and if it will in fact be a possible good place for your dog.

    Even though my dog is not reactive, I always try to sit in a corner so I can sit between him and oncoming dogs/people. Of course, every dog is different, and you wouldn’t want your dog to feel trapped, either.

    • It is nice when our dogs just happen to be good at something we enjoy. Honey is great in restaurants. If only I could get her to enjoy swimming. 🙁

      I agree with finding a quiet seat as well. It protects Honey’s tail from being stepped on and keeps her from looking disappointed every time a waitress walks by without petting her.

  7. You got Toby’s attention with this one… “I’m thinking these are zombie cats who want to eat your dog’s brain.” LOL!

    I can’t imagine eating out with Leah. I’d be too afraid a child would try to pet her before I could stop them. I’ve done it with Toby, but there’s a big difference between protecting your lunch from being bitten than from protecting small children from the same fate.

    • Increasingly restaurants are banning children. I wonder if there are any that allow dogs but not toddlers? 🙂

      But I understand your worries. I hate seeing children rush up to Honey. I honestly believe she’s bomb proof re: biting. But the child doesn’t know that.

      When a child asks from a polite distance if they can pet her first, I really lavish them (and their parents) with praise.

      • It is great when a kid asks…although….I was waiting at the vet’s office once with Leah, and a small boy asked to pet her. Yay!

        Except, when I said No, he started pouting…

        And then, when the next owner walked in with their dog, he asked to pet the dog, they said “of course” – and he stuck his tongue out at me!

        My jaw dropped. LOL! But at least he just was mad at me, and not crying that my dog bit him.

  8. I can take BJ to outdoor restaurants. After a few minutes of fussing, he settles down under the table and naps.

  9. We brought our reactive dog to his first restaurant at Geckos in Cape May. The waitress thought our dog was barking at the neighborhood cat… Um yea, that cat is is the problem…. Anyway, they were very accommodating. Also check out Happy Acres for their pet friendly cabin rentals and on site dog park.

    • Geckos is a great place to explore with your dog. You’re right that they’re very accommodating. And those few tables on a slightly lower level provide shade and a visual barrier from all the other excitement.

      Happy Acres sounds interesting. Many camping places don’t allow dogs in the cabins.

      • Mike Webster says:

        From the Husband:
        I’m glad to see someone else knows about Gecko’s. It’s one of our favorites.

  10. If it makes you feel any better, I’m about as far north from key West as you can get without leaving Florida. I’ve never been to Cape May. I HAVE been to Key West and zombie cats aside, it was a lot of fun. Cape May might do better if New Jersey had more representatives like you and Honey and less of people like Snooki and JWoww.

    I always enjoy reading your blog, your blog so much so that I am giving you the “Sunshine Award” (… for details). I know I don’t comment much, but I really do read your stuff regularly! Thanks for always making me smile. — Kelley

  11. Top tips!!

  12. Oh, Pamela, I love your big heart. <3

  13. Thanks for these tips. I’ll keep them in mind.

    Rodrigo is funny, because he’d love to go to a restaurant and he’d bask in the attention. I should take him to a sidewalk cafe at a less crowded/busy time to see how he does. I bet he’d enjoy it and it’ll be great for socialization.

    He’s getting better on the trail. Slowly. 🙂

  14. Thanks for the shout out Pamela!! I think Sampson could do dining out fairly well, Delilah not so much.

    I think she could handle the people, but if someone dropped a cracker….it’d be all over. 🙂

    Sorry Cape May lost, it does sound like a lovely place.