GREAT FALLS - One disabled veteran took to social media after he was shopping at Wal-Mart with his service dog, when he said another dog wearing a service vest attacked both of them and his son. If not for store employees, things could’ve gotten much worse.
Dog Tag Buddies, the veteran's dog trainer, posted about the incident on Valentine’s Day, describing how the stigma around service and support animals has only escalated as a result of the incident.
The veteran in question, Nicholas “Nick” Aristonic said he's not sure if that other dog was an official service dog, but one thing is for certain - the entire incident should never have happened in the first place.
"It was pretty intense," said Nick, who didn’t have much time to think as he did his best to protect his service dog and son from the dog, which had strayed from its owner.
"I tried to get in between the two dogs, and tried to kick the other dog to get it away from mine," he continued, explaining how the incident triggered post-traumatic stress disorder and gave him a panic attack. "My hands were shaking, I could barely breathe. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as I could."
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act getting your animal certified for service isn't mandatory for it to become a service animal, and misinformation can often lead people to think it's the same as a support animal and use both terms interchangeably.
"An emotional support animal is well and good, but they don't have the same rights as a service dog," said DeeDe Baker, who founded Dog Tag Buddies in 2015 after hearing how dogs helped her husband, another veteran, cope with PTSD.
What's even more shocking is how easy it is to get a vest for your dog, which is as simple as buying one online.
"It's really frustrating,” said Nick, “That owner put not only my dog, but also my son and almost everybody else in that store at risk."
Wal-Mart workers helped escort the attacking dog and its owner out quickly, but Nick said incidents like the one he went through only worsens the stigma against service animals, and especially the mental illnesses they help with.
"A couple weeks ago, I had an elderly gentleman in Wal-Mart yell at me, saying I'm not disabled so there's no way my dog can be real," he said.
The entire ordeal is not black and white, and comments on the Facebook post have led to more questions than answers about the incident. But either way, Nick encourages the public to take initiative and learn more about service animals.
KFBB did reach out to walmart to get a comment, but under store policy workers aren’t allowed to go on camera. Even so, there are signs posted at both stores in town saying only service dogs are allowed in.
Now that things have started to calm down a bit, Nick said he’s planning on filing a police report in the coming days.
If you want to learn more about service dogs, there is an event called Service Dogs, More Than a Vest on this Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 pm at Fetch Pet Boutique in Great Falls (1408 3rd St NW, Great Falls, MT 59404).
Plus, if you would like to reach out to Dog Tag Buddies, you can reach them at (406) 690-9853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.