Service dog center of controversy


Article Courtesy of  The Sun Herald

Published May 19, 2005

NORTH PORT -- Wesley Betleyon calls JoJo his little kid.

"He's good at keeping elephants away," Betleyon jokes as the 7-inch-tall, 8-pound black toy poodle sits at his feet.

But then Betleyon turns serious.

"He's also a lifesaver."

JoJo has been with Betleyon for the past eight years, keeping him company through his wife's death, and through the move to La Casa mobile home park 10 months ago.

It was when Betleyon's wife was having seizures, dying of cancer, that they noticed JoJo was exhibiting some interesting behavior. The dog was able to anticipate the seizures.

"It was the home health nurse that first noticed it," Betleyon said. "So we had a trainer come from the American Kennel Association come and test him. He was certified as a service dog."

Now suffering from seizures himself from a brain tumor and muscular dystrophy, Betleyon said he needs JoJo, as does his housemate and childhood friend, John Farthing, who is wheelchair dependent from cerebral palsy.

When JoJo senses his owners are about to seizure, he will stand in front of them, signaling the onset. When the seizure begins, JoJo will lay on top of them, to keep them on the floor until the seizure passes.

The two said the La Casa Neighborhood Association has told Farthing, who owns his home in the park, to get rid of the dog after it received complaints from other residents that JoJo barks and runs through the park. Farthing and Betleyon said none of the complaints are true.

"There was a complaint about the dog barking and we're in a nonpet section of the park," Betleyon said. "Our neighbor (Linda Baskerville) even wrote the homeowners association a letter saying that barking dog belonging to people who were visiting her for several days."

Farthing and Betleyon hired an attorney, contending the dog is exempt from the no-pet rule because of both the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts.

La Casa's attorney, Scott Gordon of the Abel Band law firm, said the problem is not the dog, but his behavior. Gordon said the homeowner's association has received several complaints about the dog barking, walking in nondesignated areas and not being picked up after.

"Animals have rules to abide by just like the residents do," Gordon said.

Gordon also said although La Casa could evict them for noncompliance, the homeowners association would rather Betleyon and Farthing comply with the rules. They have two to three weeks to comply.

"This is not about being evicted as Mr. Farthing would like you to believe," Gordon said. "This is about obeying the rules."

Melinda Delpech, Farthing and Betleyon's attorney, said she hopes that the issue can be settled out of court.

"The association is required to make reasonable accommodations," Delpech said. "This is a matter of being aware of people's rights."