British Columbia

Veteran with PTSD says B.C. rules are a barrier for the service dog he depends on

William Webb, who was suffering flashbacks, night terrors and anxiety episodes after witnessing a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, says a service dog has given him a new lease on life — but differences in rules between provinces mean his companion is not automatically recognized in B.C.

Differences in certification between provinces prompts calls for nationwide standard

Canadian veteran William Webb wants to see a common set of criteria and standards for certifying service dogs across Canada. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

A Canadian veteran says he and his service dog have been kicked out of malls and off buses in B.C. because of different rules governing assistance animals between provinces. 

William Webb, who served in the Afghanistan war and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, is calling for a nationwide standard to prevent him and others from suffering similar indignity in future.

Webb relies on his psychiatric service dog, Jessie, a six-year-old boxer-cattle dog mix he first met in Manitoba, to function with a higher quality of life.

"I was a shut-in," Webb recounted of his life before Jessie, while sitting on the couch of his Courtenay, B.C., home.

"Jessie allows me to go out and have public access, to be in cultural events with my kids, to enjoy outdoor parks."

Jessie was certified as a service animal in Manitoba but Webb says changes to service dog rules in B.C. in 2016 mean she doesn't automatically qualify as one in this province.

He and advocates say the fractured sets of rules across provinces mean many dogs cannot freely go where their handlers go, creating another barrier for people with disabilities.

William Webb lived in Manitoba when he got Jessie but moved back to Vancouver Island, where he grew up, in 2016. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

Suicide-bomb attack

Everything changed for Webb when he watched a suicide bomber blow apart a bus near Kabul, Afghanistan.

The 2011 incident killed 17 people, including a Canadian soldier. Webb witnessed the explosion from another vehicle 200 metres away. He had to deal with the aftermath of the fiery scene.

The attack is still hard for the former artilleryman to talk about.

"Like most soldiers that suffer trauma, we minimize and deny what's going on," Webb continued.

He suffers flashbacks, night terrors and anxiety episodes.

Jessie, he explained, has been a great help for those symptoms, providing a comforting, physical presence and a distraction.

William Webb in a 2011 photo as a serviceman. Webb served in the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. (William Webb)

'They're not supposed to impede access'

Webb was living in Manitoba in 2014 when he was assigned Jessie by MSAR Elite Service Dogs. When he was discharged from the military in 2016, he decided to return to Vancouver Island, where he grew up.

In 2016, however, B.C. changed its rules so only dogs trained by groups that belong to Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) would be automatically certified.

Jessie was trained by MSAR Elite Service Dogs, which is not a member of the Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

MSAR is not listed as a member of those organizations, so, according to the rules, Webb has to take Jessie for a test every two years and get a doctor's note to certify her.

Before Jessie was certified for the first time in B.C. in 2016, Webb says, he was asked to leave Woodgrove Mall in Nanaimo, and was told to stay on the vehicle deck during a BC Ferries sailing.

Webb, who lives on a pension, said the whole certification process costs $350 — and he's refusing to do it anymore. His service dog certification card expired in November 2018 and he hasn't renewed it.

"It's wrong," he stated. "They're not supposed to impede access to people with disabilities."

At left, William Webb's expired I.D. card allowing him to bring Jessie as a service animal. At right is his current Manitoba I.D. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

When Jessie passed the B.C. test in 2016, it took only 22 minutes, Webb said. He reckons any reasonably obedient dog could do it.

By comparison, he says, when MSAR had to recertify Jessie according to its own standards, she and Webb were flown out to Manitoba for five six-hour days of training.

'We definitely need standards'

Joanne Moss, CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Animal Assisted Support Services, says it doesn't make sense for only two groups to certify service dogs in B.C.

If there was a Canada-wide standard for service dog training, she argued, it would allow more groups to provide the dogs, which are in short supply.

"We definitely need standards and standards that don't belong to any one particular organization," Moss said. 

An attempt to build such a Canada-wide standard collapsed unexpectedly in 2018, much to the disappointment of veterans groups.

Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth declined an interview for this story. In a statement, the ministry said both ADI and IGDF groups have high standards for training service dogs.

ADI secretary Laura Watmanuk said the organization accredits member training organizations to maintain a high standard but agreed it is a concern that there is no nationwide standard.

Webb wants to see a single national set of rules for service dogs in place — and for every dog to pass the same set of certification requirements. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

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