Veteran with service dog says he was denied indoor service at area restaurant
A veteran who said he was asked to leave an area restaurant because he was with his service dog said the experience was humiliating and he wants to raise awareness before it happens to someone else.
"It's been a miserable 10 days," said Navy veteran Paul Connolly, of Brainerd, of the time since he and his service dog, Cooper, were asked to leave the dining room at Iven's on the Bay. "It felt awful."
Sara McCabe, manager at Iven's, said the incident - on a busy Friday night before the Fourth of July - rose from a miscommunication and the veteran wasn't refused service.
"I don't understand how this has escalated the way it has," McCabe said. "We certainly would never knowingly offend any guest."
Connolly, a 55-year-old veteran, joined the Navy in 1976 and served until 1982. He trained as a SEAL and spent his Navy career working in and on nuclear weapons. He said he also spent an extended time with threats to his life after taking part in a Naval Criminal Investigative Service sting to nail a drug dealer.
He suffers from nightmares, panic attacks and depression.
"I wake up in the middle of the night," Paul Connolly said, "always on the ship."
It was through the Veterans Administration that he learned of service dogs for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Patriot Assistance Dogs (PAD) provides dogs and training at no cost to the veteran. The veteran has to be under the care of a mental health provider with a recommendation that a certified psychiatric assistance dog be part of the treatment.
Cooper, a 3-year-old Australian shepherd border collie mix, reminds Paul Connolly to take his medications, wakes him during night terrors and calms him during panic attacks. Nancy Connolly said the PTSD is a barrier to her husband's ability to interact with others.
"It took a lot for him to go out on a Friday night," she said. "He never would attempt it without having that dog with."
On June 27, the couple was meeting friends at Iven's on the Bay north of Brainerd.
After initially preparing to seat the Connollys as they waited for six others to join them, the Connollys said staff members came back and asked them if they could prove their dog was a service dog.
The Connollys said they offered to provide an ID with the law covering service dogs but before they could get it out the staff member left and later came back saying they would have to go outside because someone in the restaurant was allergic to dogs. Nancy Connolly said when she objected, saying the service dog was federally protected, an Iven's manager questioned how they would know if it was a real service dog, adding anyone could buy a service dog vest online.
McCabe said there was a miscommunication where a host initially thought the Connollys had a reservation and so a table was prepared inside, but then somehow found out they didn't have a reservation and realized the tables were reserved for others. The Connollys said they stated from the start they didn't have a reservation as that was one of the first questions when they arrived.
McCabe said a server told her another patron, who said they were allergic to dogs, questioned if the dog was a service dog because he wasn't marked, and an employee may have then asked the Connollys if they could prove Cooper was a service dog. McCabe said she didn't witness the exchange, but things escalated quickly and she heard parts of the interaction from the kitchen.
The couple had pamphlets, but McCabe said they were accustomed to service dogs in vests. At that point a table on the deck was being prepared and offered. McCabe said other service dogs have been in the restaurant, then noted in 10 years they had one other service dog inside. But McCabe said there have been others since this incident and they were wearing vests.
The Connollys said it was after the interaction about the dog they were told they could be seated outside and a table was being prepared on the deck. The couple was never asked to leave or remove the dog from the building, McCabe said. "It was more of we don't have room for you," McCabe said.
The whole issue caught them off guard, McCabe said.
While people may be more familiar to the blind using a dog in a harness to navigate, service dogs cover a variety of medical conditions and are not required to wear vests. Cooper wears a scarf that notes he is a PAD dog in training. The dog works weekly with a trainer and is expected to be fully certified in August. The Connollys also carry a laminated identification card and brochures about Patriot Assistance Dogs.
Nancy Connolly said she continued to speak to Iven's staff after her husband and Cooper left the restaurant. She was joined by one of the friends they were meeting for dinner, Jim Woodruff, chairman of the Minnesota chapter of Tribute to the Troops, a nonprofit that works to recognize service men and women who lost their lives since 2001. The organization raises money for scholarships for the children of those fallen service members.
Woodruff said he was horrified when it was explained to staff the service dog was for a veteran with PTSD and still they would not seat him in the restaurant.
"I was quite shocked," Woodruff said. "I could understand it if they didn't know at first but when it was explained they just didn't seem to care."
Woodruff said it's the first time he's witnessed such an incident.
"I do know those assistance dogs are lifesavers for a lot of veterans with PTSD and emotional stress," Woodruff said, adding the dogs' service is invaluable. "This guy served his country, put his life on the line, was a SEAL. ... I think we owe these people the courtesy to try and pay them back."
Crow Wing County Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom happened to be having dinner at Iven's that Friday night.
After talking again with staff but still denied being seated, Nancy Connolly asked for the attention of the dining customers, saying she wanted everyone to know they were being denied because of her husband's service dog and they were leaving, but it wasn't legal or right.
"The restaurant erupted standing and clapping for them," Nystrom said. Someone yelled out to let the dog stay. Nystrom said she's never been some place where rhythmic cadence clapping spontaneously began in the crowd. Some patrons came out, including other military members, and thanked Paul Connolly for his service.
After leaving the restaurant, Nancy Connolly called the sheriff's department to report the incident. Deputy Scott Friis responded and met her back at Iven's. Nystrom spoke to the Connollys and said when she was leaving the restaurant the deputy was interviewing people.
According to the Crow Wing County Sheriff's incident report, Friis met with managers Eric Berreman and McCabe.
The sheriff's incident report stated Berreman and McCabe were under the assumption a certified service dog needed to wear an orange vest. The report stated the managers apologized and said they would speak with the owner and train staff on the law.
McCabe said the short summary on the sheriff's report doesn't detail the extended time they talked, the commotion and confusion. McCabe said she's been in the industry 18 years and never dealt with a situation like this before.
"It really became a spectacle," she said. "It got very out of hand very quickly."
Some patrons left after the Connollys weren't seated. Patrons with well-behaved pets are always welcome on the deck, McCabe said, and they try to accommodate customers without reservations on the deck or in the bar. That Friday, she said, was more about the full restaurant than the dog.
"We've never turned away anybody for any reason in the 10 years since I've been here," McCabe said. "I do know they were never asked to remove the dog from the building."
The Connollys said it raised their understanding of discrimination and how that must feel for people with disabilities or those who are judged by the color of their skin.
"Service dogs do not have to wear vests," Nancy Connolly said. "It was devastating for us to feel discrimination. I really did feel it that night."
Nystrom later called the Connollys and invited them to come to the Crow Wing County Board meeting, which they did last Tuesday.
"We were very humiliated. We were embarrassed. Basically we were getting kicked out of a restaurant, that's never happened to us before ever," Nancy Connolly told the board. "Now I really truly know what discrimination feels like and I've never felt like that before. We were both in tears."
At the Crow Wing County Board meeting, Commissioner Paul Thiede said he appreciated Connolly's military service. Thiede said when he saw the couple walk in the historic courthouse with Cooper he didn't see a service dog. It was the first time he heard of a Patriot Assistance Dog.
"So maybe some positive may come out of this, but I'm personally not a dog lover and I don't like sitting next to dogs eating dinner so I think we all need to be aware there are two sides of the story," Thiede said.
Nancy Connolly said she was once terrified of dogs but knew her husband needed this dog. Cooper, she said, saved her husband's life. She worried about veterans with PTSD and service dogs who face this reaction but don't have an advocate to speak up for them.
"They would go home and they would not come here," she said. "That's why I'm here."
Nystrom said Nancy Connolly spoke passionately and convincingly at Iven's and she also felt sorry for a male manager who was moved to tears.
"It's a good teaching moment," Nystrom said.
Crow Wing County Board Chairwoman Rosemary Franzen researched the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), saying people can be asked if their dog is needed or what tasks the dog is trained to perform but not about their disability. The only reason the service dog may be excluded is if it is threatening or isn't housebroken, Franzen said.
"You had every right to be there and thank you for taking the bull by the horns and doing something about this," Franzen said.
Crow Wing County Veterans Service Officer Bob Nelson reported there are nearly 5,800 veterans in the county and an increasing number of veterans are receiving service dogs. Nelson spoke with the Brainerd Lakes Chamber about a reminder of the ADA requirements to area businesses.
"Look for ways to find these to be identified as a service dog," Thiede urged Nelson. "I think that's one of the problems. ... Quite frankly, I can envision a situation where I would get upset thinking someone was just bringing their dog into a place. So if there is anyway we can make a positive out of this, I think you are right, I think the positive as you are saying is raising the awareness. This is a whole new kind of therapy. I'm certainly not denigrating that at all."
But Thiede said they need to find a way to help people identify it. Nelson noted awareness and understanding of the law is key. Nystrom suggested a letter from the Veterans Service Office to area restaurants laying out regulations and penalties.
"I would love to see that come out on our stationary," Nystrom said.
On Thursday, the Connollys wondered if anything would come from it.
McCabe said she talked to other restaurants in the area and none have had this issue but everyone was under the impression the dog needed to be marked. McCabe said they apologized repeatedly.
A teaching moment
Paul Connolly said he hopes people become more aware of veterans dealing with these problems. He said they didn't get these problems on their own but from serving their country.
For Woodruff, he hopes Iven's reaches out to a trade organization in the restaurant industry to help address the issue.
"It has to start somewhere, why not Brainerd," Woodruff said. "Paul's not the only guy out there that has an assistance dog. I would hope these people are made aware and reach out to others so incidents like this don't happen to another veteran."
McCabe said she spoke with all her staff about the regulations for service dogs and they want to offer a seminar for their staff, which other restaurants will be invited to attend.
"I certainly don't want this to happen to any other family that has a service dog or any
other restaurant to be in this position either," McCabe said.
Paul Connolly said it's taken days for him to get back on track after the incident at Iven's. As for Connor's benefit, the Navy veteran said others suffering from PTSD should consider the service dog as an option. "He's the best thing in the world."
About Patriot Assistance Dogs
• Patriot Assistance Dogs provides psychiatric assistance dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other psychiatric symptoms.
• 75 percent of dogs in the program come from shelters or private party rescues.
• Dogs are trained to assist a military veteran, who is dealing with psychiatric challenges, both at home and in public settings.
• Dogs and training are provided at no cost to the veteran. Mentors work with the dog and the veteran.
• A two-year probationary period is followed before ownership of the dog is signed over to the veteran.
• Dogs protect the veteran's personal space, initiate contact, provide comfort, interrupt a panic attack and redirect a veteran's attention, wake the veteran from night terrors, remind a veteran when to take medications, in some instances can deliver dropped items.
• Testimonials from veterans include statements that the dogs have saved lives and allowed fathers to go to their children's activities. "I cannot imagine life without him. He has changed my life that much."
• Patriot Assistance Dogs trained and certified 20 dog/handler teams in its first 30 months of operation. The organization is based in Detroit Lakes. Costs for each dog is reported at $10,000. Fundraising has covered program costs.
• For more information, go online to www.patriotassistancedogs. org or call 218-847-4100.