Service dogs are nothing new for Thames Valley schools
Thames Valley District School Board says it will have no problem meeting a new provincial directive
The Thames Valley District School Board likely won't have trouble complying with a directive from the province to allow service animals in classrooms. That new policy must be in place by the end of the year.
That's because the Thames Valley board has had a policy for service dogs since 2009. It's among half of Ontario's school boards that have policies on service animals.
Thames Valley's Superintendent of Special Education Andrew Canham said the policy provides support for students who need service dogs to have access to the curriculum.
The process of obtaining permission to bring a service dog to school begins with a written request from a parent supported by a letter from a doctor or nurse confirming the need, Canham said.
"It includes things such as the certification of the animal or the dog's vaccination records. And that's something we do on a case by case basis," he said.
Canham added that the information is reviewed every school year.
Right now there are about 20 service dogs in Thames Valley schools, he said. That number will vary. Some dogs will be in the classroom for the full school year, while others may be withdrawn as students work through difficult transitions, Canham said.
He's pleased with the way the policy has been enacted, but notes that having animals in the classroom can pose some challenges.
"We know that there are students that are allergic to certain animals. We do know that there are students that have phobias about certain animals. Of course, there are cultural sensitivities that we need to be made aware of and work around."
When issues arise, the special education team works with the school's administration to try to balance the concern with the needs of the student who is requesting the service animal, said Canham.
He says it's very important to communicate the presence of a service dog in a particular school to students, staff and members of the public coming into the building.
Sometimes a school assembly is held to ensure that students understand why the dog is in the classroom.
"While we don't get into the individual students' needs or what the dog is doing to support the student, we certainly talk about what service animals … can do to support our students," said Canham.
The superintendent said he anticipates some minor revisions will have to be made to the board's existing policy to address the language in the provincial directive, which speaks of service 'animals', not just service 'dogs'.
"I can say at this time we haven't received any requests for any other animals other than dogs."
All school boards in the province must submit their policies supporting service animals by Jan. 1.