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Veteran with service dog denied service, reconciles with pizzeria

Peter La Fata, left, meets with John Welch,

Peter La Fata, left, meets with John Welch, Agatha La Fata, and Welch's dog, Onyx, at Villaggio restaurant in Massapequa on Monday, April 24, 2017. Photo Credit: America’s VetDogs

A military veteran from Commack and the owners of a Massapequa pizzeria have reconciled after a misunderstanding led to the man being denied service at the restaurant because he came with his service dog.

Last week, John Welch stepped into Villaggio with his son, Brennan, and his service dog, a black lab named Onyx. He approached the counter with the dog by his side and was told by an employee that animals were not allowed in the restaurant.

The employee said she didn’t notice the vest most service dogs wear in public and that she would not have asked Welch to leave if she had seen it.

“I just saw a wagging tail and told him dogs aren’t permitted. I didn’t see the vest because of the counter,” said Agatha La Fata, 24, who runs the business with her father. “It was all a miscommunication and we in no way meant to offend or upset John.”

Welch posted about the April 18 incident on his Facebook account, asking people to call and say the owner “violated” his rights.

“I was embarrassed, ignored and belittled,” the Marine vet wrote in the post.

Newsday was unable to reach Welch for comment.

Within hours, dozens of people had shared and commented on the post, which Welch has since taken down. Multiple other posts, including several showing Welch in uniform with Onyx, were shared thousands of times.

In the days that followed, the pizzeria was flooded with calls and negative Facebook comments, and it also received one-star reviews on the restaurant rating website Yelp, according to La Fata.

“It all just blew up on Facebook,” said La Fata, who also later took down the restaurant’s Facebook page.

The following day, La Fata and her father, Peter, reached out to Welch to apologize for the misunderstanding. Later that week, Welch penned another Facebook post, this time defending the business and asking social media users to “lay down your swords” and remove the poor Yelp and Facebook reviews of the restaurant.

“Their misunderstanding should not impact their ability to remain in business,” Welch wrote. “I have come to know [the owners] as caring, concerned, gentle people, fully supportive of veterans in every way shape or form.”

Welch met with the La Fatas at the restaurant on Monday to discuss the incident further and later posted a photo of the meeting on Facebook.

“Life, being so short, has taught me that anger can not remain for long. Once adversaries; now friends. Moving on together,” Welch wrote.

Welch told Today.com in an interview last year that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. He was paired with Onyx for that reason, according to Andrew Rubenstein, the director of marketing for Smithtown-based nonprofit America’s VetDogs, which provided Welch with the service dog.

Villaggio’s staff also underwent training on access laws with representatives from America’s VetDogs.

“Unfortunately, these kinds of situations do happen a lot in restaurants, where employees may see a dog and think that allowing it inside will be a health violation,” said Karen Greis, a consumer service manager for the nonprofit.

Greis said Villaggio employees were “extremely receptive” and “grateful” for the training.

“We learned a lot,” La Fata said. “I think most people don’t know about this and hopefully we can all learn from this experience.”

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