Nfld. & Labrador

Woman with service dog denied service at Labrador City restaurant

After retreating to the kitchen, Debbie Samson said she was denied service and left the restaurant — a first for her and her service dog, Lily.

Restaurant owner says she wasn't sure if the dog was allowed

Lily helps Debbie Samson calm down during her seizures, as seen on this flight. (Submitted by Debbie Samson)

A Labrador City woman says she was denied service at a local restaurant after entering with her service dog.

Debbie Samson said she was asked to leave Baba Q's Smoke & Grill earlier this week, despite having eaten there with her dog before.

"I didn't understand. I said to [the manager], 'But I've been here before,'" Debbie Samson said. "She questioned that, and I showed where I was seated."

Samson said her arguments were rejected and she left the restaurant — a first for her and her service dog, Lily.

Lily was wearing a vest that says "Service Dog" and "Do not pet me. I'm working."

"She said something about hairs, concerned about her place and hairs," Samson said. "My dog doesn't shed."

Samson, who suffers non-epileptic seizures associated with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, said the incident was very hard for her.

She suffered a seizure after leaving the restaurant and needed to be calmed down by her service dog.

"It was extremely stressful," Samson said.

Lily is a post-traumatic stress disorder service dog. She was denied entry to a restaurant in Labrador City. (Debbie Samson/Facebook)

Samson posted about the incident on Facebook, saying she felt it was important to help educate people on her mental illness and service dogs.

"I think it's important to [talk about mental illness]," Samson said. "Because if we don't, we never stop the stigma and we never help people to understand. So it was never my intent to humiliate or anything like that. I just want to create awareness."

All about education, says restaurant owner

Baba Q's owner Denise Sirabian said she spoke with Samson after she entered the restaurant. She explained her concerns to Samson about having her service dog in the busy restaurant, saying she wasn't educated on what kinds of service dogs could enter a food establishment.

Baba Q's Smoke & Grill owner Denise Sirabian says she needed more education on rules for service dogs in restaurants. (Baba Q's Smoke and Grill/Facebook)

"I've known [her] family for pretty much all my life," Sirabian told CBC News Tuesday. "I had really tried to express my concerns very calmly with her and her husband.… I even had [said] to her at one point, 'If you gave me a chance and called me prior, I could have looked into it and I wouldn't be in this situation right now.'"

Sirabian has not spoken to Samson since the incident was posted about on Facebook.

"This whole situation wasn't about me not accepting her because she had a mental illness," Sirabian said. "It was more me trying to be aware of what were the legal rights and what were the rules and regulations [for a food establishment]."

Service dogs are now welcome at Baba Q's, Sirabian said, but dogs need to have a vest and papers indicating they are a service animal.

Samson said a return to the restaurant is questionable for her, as the stressful situation could serve as a trigger for her seizures again.

Clearer guidelines will help everyone

Nancy Reid, executive director of the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities NL, says the "real problem" lies in the Animal Service Act.

"We don't have the regulations established in the province so that an individual who is owning a service animal can easily say, 'Yes, this is my service animal and these are the regulations that qualify this animal as a service animal and myself as a user of a service animal,'" Reid told CBC Radio's On The Go. 

"Nor can a business that's open to the public say, 'Yes, these animals are permitted to enter because these regulations have been followed.'"

Reid said while both service animals and comfort animals are important, there is a clear distinction. She notes there is standardized testing and training that applies to service animals.

"A fire alarm goes off or another animal is there, and both animals interact with each other in some way.… There's no guarantee that an animal that is not appropriately trained is able to react appropriately in a public environment," she said.

Nancy Reid, executive director of the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities NL, says regulations need to be clearer. (John Pike/CBC)

She said it's easy for people to get a fake service animal designation online.

"[You] check a box, pay a fee and receive a vest in the mail for about $250 that says this is a service animal. In fact, it's not a service animal, but it's very easy to be misappropriately identifying an animal as a service animal," Reid said.

She said clearer regulations would go a long way in helping both people who rely on service animals and business owners.

"We have an act. However, we don't have an act that is complete with the regulations that it needs to support itself," Reid added.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Alyson Samson, Rebecca Martel and On The Go