Education about, not certification for, required for Service Dogs

Within the Service Dog (SD) community the issue of certification and registration for Service Dogs is a contentious topic. At the heart of the issue are the Canadian Charter rights to be treated equally regardless of disability and to move freely about Canada.

Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom:

Equality Rights

Equality before and under law and equal protection and benefit of law

15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

Affirmative action programs

(2) Subsection (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability. (84)

Mobility Rights

(2) Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right

(a) to move to and take up residence in any province;

Simply, this means that as a disabled Canadian Citizen, that I should be able to travel anywhere in Canada and that I should not be discriminated against because of my disabilities, regardless of where I live.

Unfortunately this is no longer valid for me, or for many other SD handlers.

In January 2016 British Columbia brought new legislation into effect. The intent behind the new law was probably well meant but its impact is not.

As of January 2016 to have my rights to be accompanied by my Service Dog in BC protected my dog must now be either:

  1. trained by a program that is accredited with either Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF), or
  2. my dog and I must be certified by the Justice Institute of British Columbia through my applying for, and subsequently passing an assessment.

To the uninformed this doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

First, why would you go to the trouble of training a dog yourself?

Why not just apply for a dog from one of the programs so that my access rights would be protected.

It’s not that simple.

There are just 8 programs accredited by Assistance Dogs International  in Canada. There are 15 listed in total, but of those 7 are based in the US which is impossible for many disabled people to travel to based simply on the distances and costs involved. Each of these programs not only specialise in specific types of service dogs, but they also specify the region in which they will place a service dog.

So moving west to east we have…

British Columbia

Alberta

Ontario

National

  • Dog Guides Canada, Lions Foundation: Guide Dogs (for the Blind), Service (Seizure, Diabetic Alert, Autism), Hearing
  • National Service Dogs: Service (Therapy, Autism, PTSD, Canine Assisted Intervention)

If we look at the International Guide Dog Federation accredited programs we can add one extra program:

The other four programs in Canada accredited by the IGDF are also accredited by ADI:

  • British Columbia Guide Dog Services
  • Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind
  • Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society
  • Dog Guides Canada, Lions Foundation

So in total there are just 9 accredited programs in Canada.

As you can see they are concentrated in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario and while 3 programs will place SDs nationally they’re located in places that can be a very long  haul for  a disabled person to travel to.

Now let’s look at the type of service dogs that they each train. There is an emphasis on Guide dogs for the blind and autism. Some train for mobility and hearing. Training for psychiatric work is almost non-existent and those that do, focus on training Psychiatric Service Dogs for first responders, usually specifically for PTSD.

Occasionally, programs will cross-train for multiple disabilities such as deaf/blind but for the most part they train a service dog for one disability.

So, if I were to decide to apply for a program trained dog there actually isn’t a Canadian program that will train a dog to meet the all the needs of my disabilities. But for the sake or argument, let’s say that I decide to choose just one disability and pick a hearing alert dog.

My only choice would be to apply for a SD from the Dog Guides Canada, Lions Foundation. However, when I investigated this back in January, I was informed that there would be at least a two year wait before I could have a service dog placed with me. I would also have to re-home my pet dog, before they would place a service dog with me.

Further a dog placed in a home from a program never belongs to the handler, it remains the property of the program so when the dog retires, or if it was unable to work due to ill health I would have to return it to the program.

Consequently this wasn’t a viable option for me.

As you can see getting a program dog isn’t that simple.

Now, thankfully for me, I live in Ontario and under the Accessibility for Ontario’s with Disabilities Act (AODA) I am currently allowed to owner/private train my Service Dog and still have my access rights protected. But here comes the caveat – that only applies in Ontario.

So, I have a perfectly well trained, outstanding Service Dog that I have trained myself and I’ve been invited to speak at a conference in British Columbia. Unfortunately, as of January 2016, in order to have my rights of public access protected in BC which are needed in order for me to be able to attend that conference I would now have to apply, in advance, to be assessed by the Justice Institute of BC at a personal cost of $200 plus the time and money to get to New Westminster, BC.

How I’d get to the Institute on arrival in BC I’m not quite sure as my rights to access public transport in BC are no longer protected until my SD and I have passed that assessment!

The good news is that if I did opt to put myself all this I’d only have to do this every two years!

I declined the invitation to speak at the conference as I wasn’t willing to put myself through that stress.

Can somebody please explain to me how this is in compliance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom?

Let me say that again, in order to simply go to British Columbia and go about my day to day life I am now required to take my Service Dog and for us be assessed by a standard (that is different to that required of ADI or IGDF program accredited dogs) at considerable cost to myself in terms of time, money and stress and I’d have to do it again every two years.

Worse still, the assessment required by the Justice Institute of BC is different to the Public Access Test required by the ADI or IGDF. In fact there are two components that are actually dangerous.

One component requires the handler and SD team to use an escalator, if the facility that the assessment is undertaken is has them. Escalators are incredibly dangerous for dogs. It is far too easy for their paws to get caught, however well trained they are, and consequently the vast majority of handlers will always use an elevator instead.

Secondly, there is a requirement for the SD’s leash to be held by the assessor, 20 feet apart from their handler, and to be kept there for at least one minute without any stress or vocalization on the part of the SD. If the SD is trained for medical alert, such as seizure or diabetes, that 20 feet and one minute could be the difference between a missed alert or not. That places the handler at risk.

So not only do I now have to incur the expense of the assessment but I also have to place my SD and myself at risk, and my dog is being held to a different standard to that required by those trained by an accredited program.

So am I against testing? Not at all. As you may recall Kai and I have been assessed against a test very similar to the ADI PAT test. I think that testing is very useful as an assessment of training and behaviour.

However, in my opinion testing, and consequently certification, is only as good as the day on which the test was taken. It doesn’t mean that the SD team will work just as well on every other day.

For illustration, let’s compare and contrast a program trained dog and an owner/private trained dog…

A program trained dog is usually socialized by puppy socializers, then returned to the program facility anywhere between 1-2 years of age for training. They’re trained at the facility with other program dogs. They’re matched with a handler and the handler comes to stay at the facility for, on average, two weeks, where the handler is taught to handle the SD. At the end of that time the SD and new handler undergo the PAT test. The test is administered by the program that just trained the dog, in the facility and area that the dog has been trained in, with a handler who has just completed an intensive course on how to handle the dog, and in the company of other SDs and their handlers.

This is not real life!

These SD’s come home and their handler’s may not come across another SD for months as they go about their usual business. As the handlers aren’t trainers, they rarely know how to (if they even have the opportunity to do so) maintain training for situations that they’re not experiencing often.

As a consequence, it is well known within the SD community to be cautious around Guide Dogs. Invariably they tend towards being a little dog reactive. They were not trained around strange dogs, but around other Service dogs which by definition should be of a calm temperament.

Their handlers, through no fault of their own due to the nature of their disability, rarely maintain training regarding ensuring that their dog ignores other dogs.

Programs, to be ADI or IGDF accredited, have to be non-profit therefore they simply can’t afford to maintain the training with these dogs once they’re placed in their homes.

Despite this service dogs placed from ADI or IGDF programs get a lifetime pass as far as the BC legislation goes!

In contrast I am constantly training my dog. We work on training every single day. I refresh Kai on things that we don’t come across often regularly. Because I trained him, I know how to train him, and so his training is constantly maintained. When we were assessed it was by a third party, a trainer that I’d never met before in a mall that we’d never been to before, with dogs that we’d never met before.

Can you see the inequity?

So as far as I am concerned testing and assessment are useful ways of measuring progress and establishing benchmarks but it’s the ability to use and apply the knowledge and training on a day to day basis that is more important.

So it’s usually at this point that the question of public safety usually gets brought up. If we don’t require testing and certification, how do we ensure public safety?

My first response is exactly the same – just because a dog behaved perfectly on one day for the assessment doesn’t mean that it will behave perfectly well on every occasion.

So, this is where education comes in.

The AODA requires that to use a Service dog I must be disabled. That I must carry a letter from my health services provider that states that I am disabled and that I need a SD to mitigate my disabilities. My SD must be apparently working, which is usually interpreted to mean clearly marked as a SD by a vest, or harness or similar and that it must be under my control. 

So if I were to try and abuse the law, in Ontario, and take my pet dog in a restaurant that doesn’t usually allow dogs then the restaurant would have every right to ask to see my medical letter, if it isn’t readily apparent that my dog is working.

How do you know if my dog is working or not? – it’s really simple — by the way that it behaves. You don’t need to see it do a task. In fact I can guarantee you that you probably have already have seen it complete a task, you just didn’t know it. Most of Kai’s alerts and tasks are subtle. I don’t usually require him to jump up and put his paws on my shoulders to tell me about a sound. That’s what he escalates his alerts to if I ignore all the levels before that. His first alert is very subtle. This is true for many of the SD teams that I know.

So if my dog isn’t under my control, that is that it is barking, whining, seeking attention, jumping up, lunging, scavenging for food or in any way not acting appropriately for a Service dog the restaurant management should ask me to remove my dog immediately. That is not discrimination. That is protecting public safety.

Somehow these two facts don’t seem to be understood by businesses in general let alone the general public.

Public access is incredibly stressful for a dog. Think about what we’re asking of it. The vast majority of pet dogs couldn’t handle it. Occasionally, you’ll see a well trained dog that can, for limited time periods; but for the most part even the dogs highly trained in obedience can’t maintain the standards required of a SD for the amount of time that a SD is required to do so. Think about other kinds of working dogs that you’ve come across. How many times have you seen a police dog, or an airport security dog, acting somewhat less than calmly?

For a SD to be in public with its handler it has been through extensive training and was initially selected for its suitability not only for the tasks it has to do for its handler but also for its temperament.

The vast majority of the time, people don’t even know that Kai is with me. We’ll have been sat in a theatre or restaurant for hours and only when we get up to leave, do people even know that he was there. Yet, he’ll have been working the entire time.

Which brings me to another point – if a SD is in public it’s working! It may look like it’s not to you, it may even look like it’s sleeping but it’s working.

You would not believe the hours that I spend training Kai to be calm and relaxed despite whatever chaos is going on around him. He’s trained to be calm so that he is paying attention only to what I need him to be working for, and not to be distracted by anything else.

I’ll post another time on appropriate SD etiquette!

Anyway, my point today is that testing and certification is not the answer to ensuring public safety.

Requiring the handler to be disabled, and for that to be confirmed by a medical professional makes sense. Asking me for my letter anytime you feel like it would be discrimination. I carry it, in case of a situation where you can’t tell that my SD is a SD. An example would be if I were to be out with Kai, without his vest for some reason – maybe a trip to the vets – and for something to happen to me. I would then happily show my letter to demonstrate that he needs to go with me in an ambulance, because he is not a pet dog.

However, requiring me to have to have myself and my dog assessed to be able to visit BC, let alone live there, is discrimination. I believe that it is a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.

Technically, the Charter would still protect me. However, in reality there has been a lot of publicity about the new legislation in BC and handlers there are reporting increasing access issues if they don’t have the appropriate documentation under the new legislation.

The Maritimes are proposing similar legislation to that of BC. Alberta (AB) already has similar draconian legislation; in fact theres is worse than BC in that there is no provision for owner/private trained SDs at all. So I would have no protection in AB, or any way of acquiring it either, if I were to visit AB.

One proposed solution to these issues is that there should be a national Accessibility for the Disabled Act across Canada, much like the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the USA.

As a consequence of these kind of arguments the Canadian General Standards Board has been tasked with developing a standard for Service Dogs. A committee has been struck and will be working on this for two years (2015-2017). The funding behind this comes from the Veterans Administration as they were finding that they were funding Psychiatric Service Dogs for Veterans that were of questionable quality and training.

Personally, I don’t feel that we need another standard. The ADI and IGDF PAT test has been used internationally for years. As highlighted above it’s already causing discrimination when a different test is being used in BC. Why would we want to invent yet another standard? Especially as it will only be guidance, and cannot be mandatory, as that isn’t the role of the Canadian General Standards Board.

Personally, I think that it’s time that we allowed the disabled to choose the supports that works best for ourselves. That we allow us to go about our business just like anybody else and that we educate people rather than setting more hurdles for us to have to climb.

If I am not disabled and I bring a dog in a non-pet friendly place then charge me. Make the consequences of faking a disability extremely serious.

If my dog is not behaving, and I do not have it under control, request that I leave immediately. Offer an alternative way of providing service.

In my experience the vast majority of handlers are mortified if their service dog is behaving anything less than perfectly. They immediately leave, without being asked, if they can’t redirect and refocus their SD straight away.

Dogs are living beings. They are not perfect. However hard you train there will alway be the unexpected. The mark of a well trained SD is not that it won’t startle at all, ever; it’s that it immediately calms and goes back to working after being startled.

It will not bite, growl or lunge despite provocation as not only is it trained not to but the handler will remove it if you are deliberately trying to provoke the dog. Handlers literally place their lives in their dogs minds and paws. We are not going to allow you to harm our dog, to provoke our dog, or to mistreat our dog.

So please don’t buy into the increasing emphasis on testing and certification and requiring the disabled to have to carry registrations for our dogs. We fought two world wars over similar requirements for a minority to be marked in some way as different. How on earth is requiring me to have my service dog wear a specific badge any different to requiring the Jews to wear the yellow badge/ the star of David on their sleeve?

Allow us the protection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, without further requirements on us.

Educate everybody in appropriate SD behaviour and severely penalize anybody that fakes being disabled to take their pet dog out in public with them; but please do not further discriminate against us.

Life as a disabled person is hard enough.

Life as a SD handler is not an easy one and it’s a fine line between the benefits we gain from the support of our SDs and the hardships we suffer from the ignorance of others.

Education is required. Not further discrimination.

Please don’t do something permanently stupid just because you’re upset due to a few bad examples.

One thought on “Education about, not certification for, required for Service Dogs”

  1. shame on BC that testing sounds like BS and it’s crazy like having a police record check done you are so right it’s good for that moment doesn’t mean it two months that it’s still valid … it may be but doesn’t guarantee it!

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