Service Dogs Welcome – a small town gets a big education

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“Service Dogs Welcome” reads the sign at our local American Legion.   About a week ago, a local restaurant owner had his head handed to him on a silver platter by the general public for having disallowed a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder from entering the establishment with a service dog specially trained to provide emotional support to a human with PTSD.

The public outcry against the owner of the diner, located near where I live, reached epic proportions thanks to social media and “film at 11” local news channels, with the story eventually making national news.  The restaurateur apologized, but only after a brief televised statement made outside of his establishment, during which he defended his actions, declaring “How much emotional support do you need to eat breakfast?”.  The apology came too little, too late, said the public.  But the PTSD-afflicted retired Air Force veteran who was turned away accepted the belated apology, and simultaneously endorsed a group of folks aiming to educate others about the effects of PTSD.

The deeper questions that have arisen in this small town as a result of this “terrible mistake” made by the diner owner is rather interesting, and sparked me to write about it on this month’s blog, which just so happens to be scheduled for publication on 9/11.

What is PTSD?  What is it like to be a person living with PTSD? What are the rules about service dogs in eating establishments, anyway?  Mr. Restaurant Owner admitted that he certainly did not know the answers to any of these questions, and he owns a restaurant! He humbly now admits he was ignorant about service animals for people with emotional disabilities, did not understand the scope of PTSD, and has stated that he will welcome service dogs in his establishment now.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of psychiatric anxiety disorder that results from an extreme emotional trauma experienced under life-threatening circumstances. People who have PTSD can have a multitude of symptoms including hyper-vigilance, startling easily, avoiding people or places that are reminiscent of the event, flashback episodes and upsetting memories and/or nightmares of the event, agitation, panic attacks, dizziness and fainting just to name a few. There are high rates of both divorce and suicide in people with PTSD. A specially-trained PTSD service dog enables the PTSD sufferer to go into public places by helping gauge the safety of the situation.  The dog can stop flashbacks or panic attacks by bringing the human into the present moment; can remind the handler to take medication, wake up in the morning, or assist the handler in public places.  The animal can also create a physical boundary in situations where the handler may feel unsafe, such as standing behind the person to offset feelings of being startled if another person approaches from behind.

The rules for restaurants and other public establishments regarding service dogs, including so-called emotional support service dogs, are pretty simple:  Federal law states that “service dogs can accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility where the public is normally allowed. The dogs must be tethered and under control.”

Despite the original negative publicity, including death threats to the owner of the diner, the story of the restaurant owner, the veteran, and the service dog has a happy twist ending! On Saturday, August 31st, a peaceful Labor Day Weekend rally, organized by motorcycle enthusiasts and other townspeople, was held in the tiny town.  The veteran, his service dog, and the restaurant owner appeared, together, at the event.  They each made heartfelt speeches; the boycott of the restaurant was cancelled by the previously outraged public; and the diner was open for business with one woman eating a tasty meal there with her service dog (whose name happens to be Cooper!).  The focus of the rally was to educate the public about ADA laws, PTSD, and service animals.  The whole thing was covered by the Boston Globe and other news organizations.  Folks have changed their minds about the diner, and we all learned something in the process.  After all, you do learn something new every day.

K.S. Mueller is a travel executive living in Massachusetts who writes essays about dogs, cats and other topics in her spare time. Check out her web sites:; and Follow K.S.Mueller on Facebook and Twitter.

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