Sorting out the confusion of service dogs — and the rights they hold
Service, therapy and emotional support dogs work to meet a person's physical and emotional needs
Every so often a story will pop up in the news: another Newfoundlander or Labradorian with a disability being denied access to a business or public space because they were accompanied by a service dog.
There's a great deal of confusion over personal assistance dogs and the rights they hold.
This has led, on the one hand, to business owners refusing service to people with disabilities and, on the other hand, to pet owners taking advantage of the general bewilderment to bring all sorts of animals into public places.
There are three types of dogs that work to meet humans' physical and emotional needs: service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. Each plays a different role, and each has different rights under the law.
Guide dogs for the blind, or seeing-eye dogs, are the celebrities of the service dog set — but a service dog is any canine that has been trained to perform specific tasks for a person with a disability. Other service dogs are trained to signal deaf handlers when fire alarms go off, to interrupt the obsessive behaviours of handlers with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or to open doors for handlers with mobility challenges.
Because the process is so intensive and time-consuming, it costs about $25,000 to train and place a single service animal.
Not only does a service dog have to do its job flawlessly — a human life depends on it — it also has to learn to be calm and quiet in public, to ignore other animals and people, even to toilet on command so that it doesn't do its business at an inopportune moment.
The multi-year training programs for service dogs are so demanding that only 30 to 65 per cent of animals ultimately graduate. The rest are "career-changed" and become family pets. Because the process is so intensive and time-consuming, it costs about $25,000 to train and place a single service animal.
Therapy dogs often wear identifying vests like service dogs, but these aren't career pooches. Instead, they're usually volunteers — family pets that work part-time with organizations like St. John Ambulance to comfort residents in nursing homes, patients in hospitals, or survivors of trauma.
Therapy dogs don't perform tasks. They simply make themselves available to be cuddled, petted or spoken to. As a result, aspiring therapy dogs don't need to go through any particular training; they're just tested to see if they're temperamentally suited to the role. They need to be relaxed, friendly, and most of all, unflappable.
The last category of canine assistants is emotional support dogs. These are pets whose presence improves the mental health of their owners.
Emotional support dogs don't need training, like service dogs, or a temperament check, like therapy dogs. The low qualifications of emotional support animals, though, doesn't mean these creatures don't play a genuine role in their owner's well-being. Having a pet has been shown to improve cognitive function in seniors with dementia and to hasten recovery from serious mental illness.
These are three very different kinds of dogs, and they have three very different sets of rights.
Under our provincial legislation service dogs have the legal right to go anywhere their handler can go, from grocery stores to hospitals, restaurants to taxis. They're the equivalent of any other accessibility aid, like a wheelchair or a white cane, and they shouldn't be separated from their handler.
Therapy dogs have no particular legal rights, but they are often given special permission to enter places animals aren't typically allowed to go, like nursing homes and schools, to bring comfort and cheer.
If you're a business owner or other authority, the only proof you need that an animal is a service dog is a note from a physician, nurse, or other qualified medical practitioner.
Emotional support animals in Canada have the right to travel with their owners for free but don't have any of the other access rights to public spaces that service dogs do. This is largely because there's no guarantee they've been trained to behave themselves in public.
So how can you tell a service dog apart from other types of working canines?
Your first clue will be what the animal is wearing. Service dogs normally sport a vest or other item emblazoned with "Service Dog," "Working Dog" or "Do Not Pet."
Your second indication will be the dog's behaviour. Service dogs are generally calm and focused on their work. They're not necessarily quiet, though; some service dogs are trained to bark as a way to signal their handlers.
What you shouldn't expect is to be able to identify a service dog based on its breed. The phrase "service dog" might bring to mind images of golden retrievers, but dogs of all shapes and sizes are trained to assist people with disabilities, from miniature poodles to Great Danes.
You also can't judge by whether a person "looks disabled" to you. Service animals can support people with invisible disabilities like epilepsy, diabetes, and bipolar disorder, as well as people with visible ones.
If you're a business owner or other authority, the only proof you need that an animal is a service dog is a note from a physician, nurse, or other qualified medical practitioner. This is the only document recognized in Newfoundland and Labrador as legal evidence of a dog's service status. There is no standard licensing or certification for service dogs that you should expect a handler to produce.
As for the rest of us, let's allow service dogs to get on with their crucial jobs in peace.