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San Diego veteran sues to keep support dog with him at recovery center

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Veterans Village of San Diego
Veterans Village of San Diego. Photo: wikipedia

A veteran has sued Veterans Village of San Diego over a dispute about keeping his support dog, a Great Dane named Arthur, at the recovery center.

The federal lawsuit comes as more veterans are getting service or support dogs for assistance with conditions from post-traumatic stress disorder to missing limbs, creating a new challenge for landlords, employers and health-care institutions.

Mike Roberts said Arthur is trained to wake him during nightmares caused by his PTSD. Roberts served honorably in the Corps from 1996 to 1999 and has a non-combat disability connected to his service, his lawyer said.

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Veterans Village officials forced the former Marine to remove Arthur earlier this month after the dog twice charged at outsiders when they entered Roberts’ bedroom. Once, a worker’s hand was nipped without breaking the skin.

Roberts’ contention is that he was either asleep at midnight or in the bathroom on the two occasions, and that the dog is under voice control when off leash in his bedroom.

“It is unconscionable that an agency that claims to support homeless veterans is engaging in actions that dramatically increase the impact of PTSD symptoms and risk of self medication,” said Roberts’ attorney, San Diego public interest lawyer Bryan Pease.

“VVSD has to provide a reasonable accommodation” for a disabled person, Pease told the Union-Tribune. “Then the question is, what is reasonable, and the fact that Arthur was off leash in the room, should this cause VVSD to go to this zero-tolerance thing where they get rid of Arthur?”

But a San Diego judge has sided, at least initially, with the recovery center and dismissed Roberts’ request for an emergency order allowing Arthur to stay with him.

The judge, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns, pointed to Roberts’ failure to keep the Great Dane tethered or crated at all times while at Veterans Village — which was part of an agreement the veteran signed when he first brought Arthur to the group home setting.

The judge also noted that Roberts only adopted the dog in January — as a rescue dog, not as a trained service animal. Roberts has said he got three weeks of training for Arthur after the adoption.

Burns ruled that a “reasonable accommodation” for a disabled person may include a therapy dog or service dog.

However, Burns wrote, “It does not necessarily include an unrestricted right to keep the dog of one’s choosing, and it does not include a right to unreasonable accommodations, such as refusing to keep a service dog under control, or keeping an aggressive animal.”

The Veterans Village CEO Phil Landis said he couldn’t comment on the lawsuit or a specific resident’s case. But he said the recovery facility supports the idea of service dogs, adding that seven other dogs are living with residents at the Pacific Highway campus now.

“Veterans Village has embraced the concept of service/emotional support animals as part of a treatment modality for our veterans since 2014,” Landis said in a statement provided to the Union-Tribune.

“Furthermore, we have partnered with the Helen Woodward Animal Center for a pet-encounter therapy program and are in discussions with Love on a Leash and the San Diego Humane Society to further animal interactions with our residents.

Roberts was paying $50 a day to board Arthur — which put a strain on his meager disability income of less than $600 a month. He said his only choices were boarding Arthur or becoming homeless in order to stay with the dog.

But Roberts recently found a temporary foster home for the Great Dane and is working toward leaving Veterans Village in favor of his own apartment, funded by a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and HUD housing voucher program.

Pease, who took the case pro bono, said he will continue with the lawsuit in order to help other recovering vets who might meet the same challenges at Veterans Village. The attorney said other vets have been forced to surrender their dogs under similar circumstances.

“I think it’s an important issue for people to be able to have that human-animal bond that is important for recovery,” Pease said.

“It’s the perfect story of somebody who is on the road to recovery — and then the dog is taken away.”

Estimates of the U.S. service-dog population vary greatly. The American Humane Society says there are approximately 20,000 service dogs in the United States, of which 10,000 are guide dogs for the blind.

Service Dog Central, an online community of service-dog trainers and owners, estimates that the number could be as high as 100,000 to 200,000.

jen.steele@sduniontribune.com, @jensteeley

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(c)2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune — www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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