Air Force veteran Holly Bolesky and Marine Corp veteran Amanda Houser say a manager of a Long John Silver’s in Anniston violated federal law when she asked them to leave Wednesday night because of their service dogs.
"I'm actually floored,” said Air Force veteran Holly Bolesky, whose service dog, Reagan, helps her with hearing difficulties and anxiety. “This is my first experience with a blatant disregard of the law."
Bolesky and Amanda Houser, a Marine Corps veteran whose service dog, Ranger, helps her with anxiety, say they were also shocked by the amount of support they received through social media.
"It’s just been a lot of really upset people," Houser said.
Houser said a friend who operates a Facebook page for veterans posted about the incident and from there, it went viral. In fact, Houser said that when she and Bolesky went to the Anniston Police Department to file a report at around 9 a.m., they found that the investigator had already heard about the incident.
Anniston police Chief Shane Denham said that early this morning he had an email sent to his staff detailing the rights of people with service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to Bolesky and Houser, a manager told the two veterans they could not have their dogs in the restaurant. Though they explained to her that Ranger and Reagan are service animals protected under the ADA, the manager said the dogs still had to go because customers might have allergies, Houser and Bolesky said. The two veterans and the manager agreed that they should call the police to resolve the issue.
Denham said that by the time the officer arrived, the employee and the two dog owners were arguing outside the restaurant. According to the chief, the manager returned to the store and told the officer she was leaving the issue to him, and Houser and Bolesky were allowed to take their dogs back in to finish the meal.
State law admits dogs
It’s a misdemeanor in Alabama to deny admittance to someone with a service dog in places where the general public is welcome. Both Bolesky, 26, and Houser, 31, say their service dogs help ease anxiety they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Each of the veterans said her PTSD stems from service-related incidents, but not from combat.
Service dogs help people with PTSD by allowing the animals to gauge whether owners’ surroundings are dangerous. The canines also are trained to calm their owners with techniques as simple as jumping on their laps. Bolesky said that Reagan is trained to alert her when her phone receives a call or text message, things difficult for her to notice because of hearing loss.
The two veterans said that before they left the police station this morning, they found out the owner of the restaurant franchise, Adel El-Sahn, had issued an apology and announced he will make a donation to Florida-based New Horizons Service Dogs, a nonprofit group that partners service dogs and people with disabilities. Bolesky said Reagan was trained by New Horizons.
Efforts to reach El-Sahn today were unsuccessful. However, Gary Gerdemann, a spokesperson for Long John Silver’s, emailed a statement from El-Sahn.
“One of our staff members was not fully aware of the important role that service dogs fill for veterans,” he said in the statement. “We have talked with all of our team members at the restaurant and emphasized that service dogs fill a number of important roles for people. We have also emphasized the gratitude and respect we hold for all of our veterans.”
El-Sahn also said that he and his staff invite the two veterans and their immediate families and service dogs back to Long John Silver’s to allow the employees to show their gratitude for the two women’s service.
By noon today, the restaurant advertised a discount for veterans and members of the military on its sign just off Quintard Avenue.
He added that though El-Sahn has not named the amount of the donation, Long John Silver’s will match the contribution.
Bolesky and Houser said they are happy for El-Sahn’s quick response and for the donation. But the two veterans say what they want most is to educate the public about the rights those with service dogs have. They said they hope the owner will educate his employees and post a sign stating service dogs are welcome.
“People need to understand that you can’t just ignore the law,” Bolesky said.
As the use of service dogs has expanded to include aiding people with autism, mobility issues and traumatic brain injuries, incidents like the one at Long John Silver’s have become more common, according to Janet Carswell, the CEO of 1 Boy 4 Change. The Georgia-based nonprofit trains service dogs and places them with injured veterans or children with disabilities.
Worsening the problem, Carswell said, is that the ADA does not require owners to provide documentation that their animals are service dogs. She said business owners are only allowed to ask animal owners whether their animals are service dogs and what services the dogs are trained for.
“You could buy a service dog vest on eBay, put it on Fluffy and get on an airplane,” she said.
She said the leading industry group for service dogs, Assistance Dogs International, has been lobbying for federal laws that establish a standard certification for training. Efforts to reach representatives with Assistance Dogs International were not immediately successful today.
Carswell said she would support such a law. Her 14-year-old son, Christopher, suffered a stroke and now uses a service dog. She said a nationally recognized certification for the animals would help convince people who do not see service dogs as legitimate therapy tools.