Hagrid, a 9-year-old bichon frise, got to celebrate his birthday with a night out on the town for the first time this year. At the edge of the patio leading into Jilly's, a bar and grill in Ellicott City, Hagrid met Saba, a 4-month-old mixed breed who was just recently adopted from an animal shelter.
Julie Zinski, Hagrid's owner, said she couldn't be happier as she surveyed the scene (meanwhile, the two canines sniffed each other). Jilly's, encouraged by a new state law, is one of several establishments in the area welcoming patrons who come with dogs.
"I love it," said Zinski, one of more than a dozen dog owners who took their pets to the restaurant last Monday. "You feel guilty when you leave them home all day and then you go out and leave them alone at night. This is perfect."
Jilly's co-owner Steve Stanton's plan to bring dogs and their owners together for a "Yappy Hour" social event on the first Monday of each month grew out of a state law that took effect this year allowing restaurants with a designated outdoor dining area to admit dogs accompanying their owners.
"I didn't even know it was being discussed until the law passed and I read about it in the newspaper," Stanton said.
If it catches on, Stanton might want to consider a new name for his patio area — Club 941, in honor of the bill that was passed with little opposition in the legislature.
"People have asked me many times, 'Can we bring our dog out here?'" said Stanton, a retired Howard County police officer who has owned Jilly's for three years, about the same amount of time that he and his family have had Brocky, a part-beagle, part-pug.
As the law made its way through the Maryland General Assembly this year, some wondered if its backers had given enough thought to what would happen if pets acted out or fought at a restaurant. But Monday's event wasn't very yappy at all.
Maybe it was the time of day or types of dogs in attendance, but for the most part, the dogs — and their owners — were on their best behavior.
"They get along better than the people," said Buddy Mays, who along with his wife, Pat, decided to adopt Saba after seeing the dog's picture on a shelter's Internet site. "That's because we're not letting them drink."
State Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Howard and Baltimore counties, concedes that he didn't spend a lot of time researching the bill, but his decision to vote against it stemmed from the potential liability issues that could arise from confrontations between dogs — and their owners.
"Suppose two dogs get into a fight; the [restaurant] owner might be held responsible," Kasemeyer said. "There are also people who are afraid of dogs."
Stanton said most owners know if their pets are social enough to handle such a dog-centric setting.
"Is it possible that two dogs are going to get into it? Sure. But it's also possible that somebody is going to come and shoot the place up," Stanton said. "I can't control everything. But I think we have a pretty good handle on it."
Though he voted against the bill, Kasemeyer, a dog owner, was quick to add, "I hope it works."
So does Stanton, who like many business owners is trying to find ways to pump up sales in a sluggish economy.
Stanton said that his first Monday night of the monthly event — except for September, when it will be held the night after Labor Day — is part of what he hopes will be a trend toward a more family-friendly establishment.
"The new trend in restaurants is to stop kids from eating there," Stanton said. "We're trying to become more kid-friendly and have more of a family atmosphere. Dogs are all part of the family."
Stanton has to adhere to the new state law that requires him to notify the local health department 30 days before any event involving dogs and to post notice at his establishment. Owners are required to keep their dogs on leashes and not leave their pets unattended.
But Stanton said that many of the guidelines are "so vague" that he is still unclear how to proceed.
"How do I know what kind of dogs are people going to bring to the restaurant and how many are going to show up?" Stanton said."And how do I know 30 days before if a person is going to come to the restaurant with a dog?"
The event was organized by one of Jilly's former managers, the appropriately named Oliver Bone.
"This is more about social interaction for the owners. Where else can you bring your dog and have a beer?" said Bone, as his 21/2 -year-old Airedale terrier, named for legendary reggae star Bob Marley, socialized.
Brian Groumell sat cradling his 1-year old sheltie, Heidi, on his lap. Though Heidi seemed a little nervous about mingling, Groumell was surprised by how well the other dogs did.
"I expected more barking," Groumell said.
There was only one minor disturbance, when Saba, fresh from obedience school graduation, tried to get a piece of food away from Brocky. One of the dogs yelped, and Pat Mays quickly pulled Saba, named for a Caribbean island, away. Stanton said that he is in the process of developing a "doggie menu" that should be available in September.
Pat Mays said that Jilly's "is like a second home" for her and her husband. Now they have another reason to grab a meal or a drink.
"I think it's wonderful, as long as the dogs are friendly," she said.