New Brunswick

Mom whose son relies on service dog wants clearer rules on emotional support animals

Heather Richards-Dalling, whose son has a service dog, said the rules around service animals and emotional support animals should be more clear.

Miramichi woman says ridiculous emotional support claims make life harder for those relying on service dogs

Alder the service dog can press a button to call for help when his master, Cody Richards, has an epileptic seizure. (Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides)

Heather Richards-Dalling says people have gotten carried away with their emotional support animals. 

From taking marsupials to McDonald's to peacocks on planes, "it's definitely ruined it for those who legitimately need their animals," said the Miramichi woman, whose son has a certified service dog that allows him to live independently. 

"It makes it a lot harder for people who already have a lot of challenges in life. It's not fair." 

Richards-Dalling said people have become so fed up with all of the ridiculous claims that those who have legitimate service dogs, like her son's dog Alder, are suffering. 

Cody Richards uses a wheelchair and Alder is trained to open doors, pick up and retrieve items, and turn the lights on and off. He also presses a button to call for help when Richards has an epileptic seizure. 

"Landlords are fed up with people saying, 'Oh, yes, my dog's a service animal.' But then the dog barks and barks and barks," said Richards-Dalling, who is moving back to Saint John to help care for her son. " And I mean, for people like Cody, this could mean living on the street." 

Alder is a certified service dog from the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides. (Mia Urquhart/CBC)

She believes pets should have to be trained and certified in order to be called emotional support animals. She said people shouldn't be allowed to take their pet snake anywhere, just because they enjoy its company. 

With a son who relies on a potentially life-saving service dog, Richards-Dalling believes she's in a good position to be critical of the people who have made a mockery of emotional support animals — but also because she has one herself. 

She suffers from anxiety and depression, and Roo, a four-year-old Chihuahua, helps her cope. 

Roo has no formal training. She was adopted as a pet, but grew into her role providing emotional support. 

"She seems to have that sixth sense of knowing when I'm not in a good place," said Richards-Dalling. "Animals are very sensitive that way. 

"There's just something magical about these animals knowing when you need them." 

Heather Richards-Dalling said her Chihuahua, Roo, grew into her role as emotional support animal. (Submitted by Heather Richards-Dalling)

In New Brunswick, the rules aren't entirely clear about what constitutes a service animal. 

The government's Guideline on Accommodating People with Service Animals states: "It is not necessary for an animal to be professionally trained or certified as a service animal for the Act to apply. An animal that is trained, including self-trained, to provide personalized assistance for someone with a disability may be a service animal for the purposes of the Act."

As for emotional support animals, the documents says, "The use of an animal that is not a service animal but instead a companion, emotional support or therapeutic animal may still be protected under the Act if the animal is part of a person's treatment for a disability. A person seeking an accommodation for the use of such an animal must be able to show that he or she has a need to rely on the animal for a disability (e.g. through documentation from a physician, psychologist, etc.). The benefits of pet ownership that are enjoyed by everyone (including those without disabilities) are insufficient to show reliance."

There are also therapy dogs. Usually, they're family pets that provide comfort to nursing homes residents, patients in hospitals, school children, or specific therapy groups. 

They're not trained to perform specific behaviours. They just hang out with people. They're there to be patted or cuddled as needed. 

Normally, they have to be certified through an organization, and that usually just focuses on ensuring a sound temperament for the job. 

Other provinces are more clear about what constitutes each category. 

Gina Lijoi, the director of programs and client services for the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, where Alder was bred and trained, said there's a big difference between service dogs and emotional support animals. 

Gina Lijoi, with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, said there are "fairly significant differences" between certified service dogs and emotional support animals. (Submitted by Gina Lijoi)

"They're very, very different, and that's not to take away from the value that an emotional support animal can provide to its owner. However, service animals are born and bred and trained to, in some cases, perform life-saving activities for their handlers. So it's very difficult to compare the two."

The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides has its own breeding program, explained Maria Galindo, communications manager for the non-profit organization. 

Dogs are trained for 12 to 18 months before they're paired up with a person, she said, and training continues for the dog's whole life. It costs about $35,000 per dog and roughly 150-200 dogs are trained each year. 

"Training for service animals is extensive," said Lijoi. "They're trained by people who in some cases have decades and decades of specialized experience. They represent a tremendous investment."

She said the rules shouldn't be the same for emotional support animals. 

"I think they need to be different because we need to ensure that the rights of people with medical and physical disabilities are protected. And when we begin to blur those lines, it becomes easier for people with medical and physical disabilities to also be denied basic human rights. And that is something that we all need to be vigilant about."

More education needed

Even with clear guidelines in place, there are ways around the rules, says Bill Grimmer, a professional dog trainer in Shediac. 

Grimmer said he has seen examples of doctors writing prescriptions for service dogs and emotional support animals that aren't properly trained. He's even heard of some professionals writing the authorizations in exchange for a fee. 

Allowing an animal without proper training or screening to accompany a person wherever they go could be putting the public at risk, he said. A dog might be able to perform a life-saving task, but if it bites someone or disturbs an entire restaurant, it shouldn't be given the same rights as a true service dog. 

Grimmer said service dogs are trained to perform a specific task and to behave properly when in public. He said "public access testing" should be a part of service dog certification. 

Snakes on a plane

Faced with a menagerie of requests to allow all sorts of emotional support animals on planes, the airline industry made changes earlier this year. 

Air Canada altered its policy on March 1 to prohibit emotional support animals in cabins. 

Smaller dogs and cats that can fit inside a specifically sized carrier, as well as service dogs, are still accepted.

In an email, Air Canada said the new policy is a result of changes to the rules in the United States. 

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) revised its regulations and no longer requires airplanes to accept emotional support animals. Legitimate service dogs, however, will continue to be allowed on board. 

According to WestJet's website, that airline still accepts emotional support dogs inside airplane cabins — an update to its previous rules, which allowed a much broader range of animals.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mia Urquhart is a CBC reporter based in Saint John. She can be reached at mia.urquhart@cbc.ca.

With files from Kate McGillivray

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