Service dog causes dispute between vet and East Texas restaurant

Published: Nov. 20, 2013 at 11:28 PM CST|Updated: Dec. 11, 2013 at 2:47 PM CST
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CENTER, TX (KTRE) - A disabled veteran is speaking out after he says he was harassed and told to leave an East Texas restaurant because his service dog was not welcome.

House Bill 489 was signed into Texas law on June 7 allowing individuals with disabilities to use their service dogs in all public places, including restaurants but the owner of Steaks & More Buffet and Grill in Center said he didn't know about the law. The law goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

Mike Cowden is a Marine suffering with PTSD and hearing loss from the Vietnam War and for three years he has had Janie, a service dog.

"This is what this dog is to him. His freedom in America," said Cowdens wife, Brenda Cowden.

Mike and Brenda Cowden say they are accustomed to receiving questions about the dog but never had to deal with anything like what happened at T/R's Steaks & More in Center.

"We were standing in line and one of the waitresses came up and asked us to leave because we had the dog and Mike said it's a service dog and she said you still have to leave," said Brenda.

Brenda says even after providing documentation of Janie's purpose and speaking to owner Tom Specter on the phone Brenda called the police.

"My husband. He's just mortified by this behavior. He's not one to be out and be noticed," said Brenda.

"It was stressful. Very stressful," said Mike.

The couple says the treatment didn't make them feel good at all. "Not wanted, not wanted in there and that's part of the problem because these guys with PTSD that's the way the feel to start with. Out of place," said Brenda.

Tom Specter, owner of Steaks & More did not wish to speak on camera but told KTRE he didn't know about the law and has only had to deal with 2 service dogs in his restaurant after more than 20 years in the business.

Specter says once the police came and it was clear that the dog was a service dog and it was the law they were allowed to stay and eat undisturbed.

Mike said, "They didn't handle it very well at all."

"They didn't even come and apologized to us about the incident," said Brenda.

When the service dog has on its vet-dog vest, she's Janie and she knows she's at work. But when the vest is off she's CeCe and she knows she's off duty and just a dog.

Janie was on-duty at Steaks & More and Mike says it was a good thing.

Mike said, "She knew I was stressed so she would not leave between my legs and that's what she's trained to do."

"Yeah protect him and calm him," said Brenda. "Keep him calm. He needed her so bad at this point because of his mental state from being harassed."

Janie was born and trained specifically to be Mike's service dog. She's trained to help him cope with PTSD and hearing loss.

"I'm able to get out now because I'm not worried about being in a crowd because she's right there beside you watching and she's has your back and she just makes you feel comfortable," said Mike.

Specter also told KTRE off-camera that he has respect for our service members and believes the whole situation could have been avoided if the Cowdens had explained that they had a service dog before bringing the dog inside.

The Cowdens say they are pursuing any penalties or damages that can be assessed for the alleged discrimination.

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