Minnesota veteran with service dog says restaurant service was denied in Brainerd

Published 3:38 pm Saturday, July 12, 2014

ST. PAUL — A military veteran who said he was asked to leave a Brainerd 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 in Brainerd. “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.

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“I don’t understand how this has escalated the way it has,” McCabe said. “We certainly would never knowingly offend any guest.”

Connolly, 55, 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 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 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.

There also was some confusion about whether the Connolly group had a reservation, which they did not.

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.

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.

“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 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.”

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.”

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. The Navy veteran said others suffering from PTSD should consider the service dog as an option. “He’s the best thing in the world.”