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Service dog leads to social media backlash for tree farm

Sposato’s changes policy in wake of outcry
December 6, 2019

A military veteran’s service dog recently denied entry to Sposato’s Pine Hollow Christmas Tree Farm led to a social media firestorm.

On Nov. 30, military veteran Brenden Leets and his wife and her parents went to Pine Hollow on Hudson Road to purchase a Christmas tree. The farm was crowded, and Brenden, a former Marine, had brought along his medical service dog, Heidi, who helps him control anxiety issues brought on in part by being around crowds. When they tried to go onto the farm, however, management would not allow Brenden to bring Heidi, a 4-year old purebred German shepherd. Brenden said after five minutes of trying to convince Pine Hollow co-owner Shelley Sposato to let him bring Heidi in – service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act for medical purposes –  he got frustrated, and he left with his family.

“We explained to her that it’s a service dog,” Brenden said, adding that typically in those situations, they are allowed entry after they explain Heidi’s purpose for being there.

Leets’ wife, Felicia, then posted about the event on her Facebook page. The post went viral, with the anger directed at the Sposatos. 

Sposato said they asked Brenden not to bring the dog into the Christmas tree area for safety and liability reasons. She said there have been incidents in the past with dogs jumping on or knocking down customers, leashes tripping people, dogs urinating on trees or owners not cleaning up after their pets. Sposato said if someone is injured by the dog, it is a legal liability for the farm. 

Sposato said the Americans with Disabilities Act and Delaware Equal Accommodations Law do not require accommodations for service dogs in cases where bringing the animal on the premises could alter the nature or goods of a business, which could occur on a tree farm. She said they offered Brenden to leave the dog behind while he went into the tree area, but he refused.

Sposato said of the backlash, “It took us off guard.”

She said in hindsight, the situation could have been handled better, by offering Brenden and his dog the same access and transportation around the farm as other disabled and elderly visitors on their four-wheel-drive vehicle to choose a tree. Sposato said going forward, the farm plans to implement this policy for people with legitimate service dogs. 

Brenden said since his wife’s post went viral, they were offered a tree from Coastal Christmas Trees, which is affiliated with Winter Wonderfest in Lewes.