Disabled veteran accuses Keystone business owner of using his dog to attack service animal
A disabled Marine Corps veteran is accusing a Keystone business owner of using his dog to attack the vet’s medical service dog, causing injury and perhaps permanently ruining the dog’s service training. The incident occurred during Keystone Adaptive Center’s Semper Fi adaptive snow sports event for disabled and wounded military veterans last week. The Summit County Sheriff’s Office said an investigation into the incident is underway.
Manuel Rivera, who is fully disabled with severe epilepsy, served in the Marine Corps for 10 years. During that time he worked in logistics, planning and ground safety. He was the point person who figured out how to get grunts and their gear from point A to point B.
Rivera served a seven-month tour in Iraq as a ground safety specialist and saw combat. Rivera believes that the now-infamous “burn pits” the military used to incinerate trash in Iraq is the cause for his epilepsy. An epileptic seizure in 2012 made Rivera fall and hit the back of his head, causing a traumatic brain injury. Rivera now regularly suffers from flashbacks, cognitive disorder, depression and night terrors. He was medically discharged from the military in 2014.
Rivera’s service dog, Tank, is a German shepherd who has been specially trained to detect seizures and prevent falls that could lead to injury. Tank has been serving Rivera as a seizure alert dog for six years, and Rivera said his training cost at least $50,000.
“He can detect a seizure coming five minutes before it even happens,” Rivera said. “He’s not a pet, he’s a medical tool for me that gives me independence.”
Rivera is part of Team Semper Fi, a program that helps disabled veterans recover and thrive with sports and athletics. Last week, Keystone Resort and the Keystone Adaptive Center hosted Team Semper Fi for free snowsport lessons and riding. Rivera, who lives in Jacksonville, North Carolina, was attending the event as a snowboarder along with some family members.
While getting food around 7 p.m. on Feb. 12 at the Pizza 101 restaurant in Keystone, Rivera said that he was standing outside the pizzeria with Tank and another veteran when a man “smelling like alcohol” came up to him and asked about his service dog. Rivera said he explained to the man that his dog was a medical service dog. The man told Rivera to “get his dog out of the way” of the sidewalk as he was going to leave with his own dog.
Rivera said that the man, later identified as Steve Cain, owner of Snowdance Sports ski rentals next door to the pizzeria, left for a bit and came back with a leash. Rivera saw a dog in the store window and figured Cain was going to retrieve his own dog. Rivera said he has a special leash for Tank that doesn’t allow the dog to be more than 6 inches away from his body, and he held it tight expecting the other dog to pass by.
What happened next depends on whom you believe. Rivera, his son and another veteran in his party attested in witness reports that Cain opened the door to his store, grabbed his 50-pound lab-mix dog by the scruff of his neck, and pushed his dog at Tank as he and Rivera were standing about 10 feet away. Rivera insists the act was malicious and that the man was trying to get the dogs to fight.
Cain said that there was no malice involved, and in fact the situation was caused by Rivera not moving his dog off the sidewalk when being told to. Cain denied siccing his dog on Tank, and also denied being drunk or belligerent.
“It wasn’t a big deal at all,” Cain said. “They just got into it for a second before I pulled him off. I thought it all ended there.”
Rivera said he tried to protect Tank by getting in between him and the other dog. Tank, who is already specially trained to not engage other dogs, also has his canine teeth shaved down to blunt them, making him defenseless. Rivera said Cain’s dog managed to bite or scratch Tank on the leg and drew blood. Both men say the other did not try to separate the dogs when they started fighting. Cain eventually intervened and separated the dogs at some point. Cain said it was within a second. Rivera said it was more like 20 seconds.
Rivera, his son and others who witnessed the attack confronted the man, who Rivera said reacted belligerently, saying his dog could defend itself and that after five minutes or so of fighting the dogs would “become best friends.” Rivera insists that is evidence of Cain wanting the dogs to fight, while Cain insisted he did nothing of the sort and that the incident has gotten overblown.
“They were doing what dogs do, and it only lasted a second,” Cain said. “This has gotten way out of control.”
Rivera said he tried to educate Cain about his service animal, and that Cain came back and tried to aggravate him before leaving. Cain said the incident ended amicably, with both men shaking hands.
Rivera said that Tank’s leg was bleeding overnight, but he couldn’t afford to take him to a veterinarian to see how serious the injury was. He also claims to have suffered flashbacks that night.
The next day, Rivera contacted Keystone Emergency Services, who in turn contacted the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and Summit County Animal Control and Shelter. Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons confirmed Tuesday that an active investigation into the incident is underway by animal control. Depending on what the investigation reveals, there may be possible charges brought by District Attorney Bruce Brown.
In the meantime, Rivera went back to his home in North Carolina with Tank, who he says is currently unable to do his medical service duties due to the attack.
“This dog isn’t working for me anymore,” Rivera said. “Any dog that comes near us, he’s focusing on them and not on me. His training might be ruined, and now I might have just a $50,000 pet now. I’m scared to start with because the seizures are not a fun thing. I’m anxious because if I have flashbacks, Tank’s the only one who can calm me down.”
Cain’s account of the event puts the blame squarely on Rivera because he refused to move his dog away when asked and put the dogs in that situation. Cain also said Rivera seemed to be “mentally handicapped” and was the instigator of the confrontation.
It is unknown if animal control’s investigation will lead to any charges, but Rivera said he is considering filing a federal lawsuit against Cain for the crime of interfering with a service animal.
“I just don’t want another service dog to get attacked there,” Rivera said.
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