SALT LAKE CITY -- A snowboarding accident changed his life nearly five years ago. But thanks to a service dog, Dr. Gael Yonnet got his life back.
Then last week everything changed. That's when the organization that partnered him with Elon, a yellow Labrador retriever, took the dog back, saying Yonnet's lifestyle and job were endangering the animal.
Now there's an online petition to reunite the two.
Yonnet received Elon in August 2009 from the Canine Companions for Independence. The organization provides highly trained assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities, free of charge. The organization said after a two-week training program, the participant is given "custody" not "ownership" of the dog.
"You do get depressed at times," he said, "and having the constant companionship of the dog -- and he knows when I'm sad, and he knows what I need -- it's really comforting."
Since he got Elon, Yonnet regained the active lifestyle he had before he got hurt. He said Elon helps him at home and at work. With the dog's help he went mountain biking for the first time last year and in October 2010 he was able climb the top of Snowbird with Elon by his side.
"When I look back over the last 18 months of my life, he has always been a part of my life, so he's a part of me," Yonnet said.
Yonnet, who is a senior resident at the University of Utah hospital's neuro-rehabilitation department, said Elon also gives his patients hope. He said patients see that it's possible to live a full and active life.
But recently, his life became much harder. CCI met with Yonnet and Elon, for what he thought was a normal follow-up visit.
"They said, actually, 'Thanks for taking the whole day off, but we are just here to take custody of the dog for his own safety.'"
Yonnet said he was upset, holding Elon and crying. "I stayed 10 minutes holding him, and they said, 'If it's easier, we can call the police to take him from you.'"
"It's extremely rare for Canine Companions to ask for a dog to be returned from a team," said Jeanine Konopelski, spokeswoman for Canine Companions for Independence, said in a statement sent from their headquarters in Santa Rosa, Calif. "We've had many conversations and visits with Dr. Yonnet to help resolve numerous safety issues over the past year. We finally had to intervene to ensure the dog's health and safety."
The statement did not comment on the online petition.
Yonnet said he understood their concern, especially after hearing the dog was not on a leash at all times. But he claims Elon was never in danger. "He was off the leash, and I agree to that, and I apologize, but he was never in danger. I would never allow that."
The organization said, in a written statement, that over the past 35 years, it experienced the loss of 53 dogs due to traffic accidents and being off leash. It said that was why it placed restrictions on dogs.
"If all it takes for me to get my baby back is to put him on a leash, then I will do it," he said. "It's an easy solution. I just want my baby back."
For now Elon remains in a California kennel.