The Current

Should Canadian unions take up the cause for working animals?

They help us see, they calm us down and they can catch dangerous blood-sugar levels by scent alone. Service animals do life-changing work for humans every day. But who's looking out for them?
A Swedish labour union's initiative to explore extending legal rights and protections for service animals has garnered support from advocates who want to see similar standards here in Canada. (Nacho Doce/Reuters)

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From hospitals to homes and courthouses, service animals like dogs have important jobs — to help humans with therapeutic treatments, help them get around safely, and keep an eye — or nose — on their blood sugar levels.

And now a Swedish labour union is exploring whether these animals require legal protections in their workplaces, similar to what human workers have under the labour code. 

It's an idea Kendra Coulter enthusiastically supports. She's an associate professor of labour studies at Brock University and the author of Animals, Work, and the Promise of Interspecies Solidarity.

"There's a lot of things that we can learn about the relationships between social well-being, social solidarity and human-animal relations from the Swedish context," Coulter tells The Current's guest host Kelly Crowe.

Coulter points to Sweden's strong legislation at the national level that governs all animals as something Canada should strive for and says their robust regulations also protect the human workers who work with animals.

Devon MacPherson is on an advisory committee with the Canadian General Standards Board where she's working on developing regulations for service dogs.

Macpherson's dog Barkley helps her manage anxiety by warning her when anxiety levels are high so she can take actions to prevent feeling debilitated. 
Barkley is a therapy dog who helps Devon MacPherson manage her anxiety. (Julian Uzielli/CBC)

"Being a service dog is quite a taxing job. So we need to build in organize or structure in terms of breaks and whatnot."

She tells Crowe that in her researcher she found amongst service dogs, police dogs, sled dogs and other working dogs that breaks were never scheduled.

"After five hours you should get a half hour a break, or you should be able to this many times a day and I think that's a problem," says MacPherson.

Coulter says there needs to be more legislation and policies to protect animals, because they are being used for care in increasing numbers. That can mean anything from horses being used for farm-based psychiatric therapy programs to dogs visiting long-term care facilities. 

"The more that we're using animals in these ways, and there can be incredible benefits for the humans who are involved, we want to also be asking are the animals doing well, and what is needed?" explains Coulter.

Coulter says while organizations and individuals are well intentioned, ministries of health, even at the federal level, need to create standards for the workplace and look into a full legal system to protect all animals.

"It's not just about what do they do for us, but what do we owe to them?"

Listen to the full segment at the top of this post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese and Sujata Berry.