I’m asked on a regular basis about service dogs. The questions that I am asked range from, “Where can I get my dog certified?”, “How can I get a service dog?” or even “What is the difference between service dogs and therapy dogs?”.
Today was a specifically heavy day for questions. I truly don’t mind at all sharing my professional opinion, my understanding of the rules surrounding service dogs in Ontario, or the ways that I can be of service. Although, I feel I had a fairly decent grasp on the rules, I felt inclined to do a few google searches and make a few calls just to ensure nothing had changed.
Spoiler alert…nothing has changed regarding the official service dog (or animal) rules in Ontario to date. I did stumble upon Harris’ Private Member Bill 80 from December 2016 titled ‘An Act respecting the rights of persons with disabilities who use service dogs”. The title is quite a mouthful, but I did feel very comfortable with the content of the bill. Not being well versed in political processes, I wanted to verify that it had only been through a ‘first reading’ so I contacted The Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The woman I spoke to agreed that the bill’s title could have used work and verified that this bill had not received “Royal Assent” (a term I was not familiar with). With further research, it appears that none of the several bills brought forth by various MP’s regarding service dog regulations have surpassed a second reading or achieved their fancy royal status.
Next, I contacted The Ministry of Ontario Accessibility for Ontarians and reviewed the ‘Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Regulation 191/11’ with a helpful and friendly gentleman. To my knowledge, and his, this is the only official ‘law’ regarding the use of service dogs in Ontario. It covers the requirement of ‘providers’ to allow access to individuals with service animals as well as their support person. Funny enough, the gentleman on the line clarified that the law does not discriminate against any species of animal. I suppose I had been using the term ‘service dog’ throughout our conversation. Trying to combat my thoughts of how to train a service chameleon, I quickly scanned the act for any other references to service animals.
A huge area of confusion pertaining to service dogs seems to be the various labels being brought forth by businesses, organizations, trainers and other professionals. Typically, the terms Service Dog (SD) and Service Animal (SA) are interchangeable when referring to a Service Dog. This is not the confusing part. Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Emotional Support Dog (ESD), Therapy Dog (TD), Personal Support Dog (PSD), Personal Therapy Dog (PTD) and a plethora of other terms are floated around in relation to service dogs. No doubt people are confused! I almost confused myself writing them. In my professional experience, it’s best to simplify complex ideas so that the people who actually need the information can understand it. In my world, there are only four main categories, period.
- Service Dog (SD)- A dog trained to mitigate the functional limitations of an individual with a disability. These dogs are entitled to public access with their owner, support person or trainer.
- Therapy Dog (TD)- A dog who is trained to work with people other than their owner in therapeutic capacities.
- Companion Dog- These are pet dogs who must follow all the normal rules and bylaws.
- Working Dog (WD)- A dog trained to perform a specific task or job who is typically handled by a professional.
Keeping these categories clear and concise makes it easy to identify where your dog fits in and what ‘type’ of dog you are looking for. Service dogs are only available to individuals with a diagnosed disability where the use of a dog has been identified to be helpful by a healthcare professional. If you are not disabled, it is not only unethical but also illegal to claim that your dog is a service dog. If you want to use a dog to help other people, you are looking for a Therapy Dog. If you have a dog whom you feel is your emotional support, best friend and you want to bring him or her everywhere with you, welcome to the club, you are experiencing the joys of dog ownership like millions of other people around the world.
If you are a ‘disabled individual’ (a term I wholehearted detest) and feel a dog would be helpful for you, the first step is to have that conversation with your healthcare professional and obtain a letter that simply states “ Mr. Soandso has a disability and requires the use of a service dog.”. According to the current provisions of the law, once you have a letter and vest for a dog you’re ready to run to the pound adopt any dog and head to the grocery store, movie theatre or work. This is where I feel the current system is failing, but more on that in a later article.
My recommended next steps are to assess your capabilities and resources to care for a dog. Regardless of their label they are still dogs first, will behave like dogs and will have normal dog-care requirements even once the bulk of the training is completed. I find the best way to assess your resources is to make a simple chart (I love charts). Answering no to any of the thought-provoking questions I’ve given as examples doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t get a dog, it may just mean that more planning is required on your end.
My Service Dog Resources
Can you walk the dog or give bathroom breaks?
Can you exercise the dog daily?
Do you have a fenced yard?
Can you groom the dog (bathe, nails, brushing)?
Do you have enough space for a crate?
Can you participate in training activities?
Do you understand the basics of dog-care requirements?
Will you be able to be consistent?
Can you remember cues and training exercises?
Can you be aware of both your needs and your dogs needs?
Do you have other emotional supports in place other than your service dog?
Who will care for your dog if you are unable to during difficult times?
Can you accept that a service dog has a working lifespan and physical lifespan?
Do you have the funds to cover high quality food monthly?
Do you have funds to hire professional services for the areas you are requiring assistance (grooming, training, walking, etc.)?
Do you have funds to cover veterinary care?
Will you want to buy pet insurance?
Once you are ready on your end, and if you don’t already have a dog you’d like to train to be your service dog, it’s time to decide where you will acquire a dog. There are a few options to consider, all which have pros and cons. You will need to weigh your options and accept that there is ‘more than one way to skin a cat’, also… you should never ‘skin a cat’ (please note that despite my use of euphemisms, I am utterly opposed to all types of animal cruelty). There are three main ways to acquire and train a service dog.
1. Adopt a dog and self train.
2. Adopt a dog and self-train with the assistance of a professional (this is where I commonly come in).
3. Adopt a trained service dog from a reputable organization (you could choose a non-reputable one, but I would highly advise against it).
There are several organizations in Ontario and across North America who provide service dogs or service dog supports. Many of these organizations are non-profit groups or charities and can often have a rigorous application process and long waiting lists. That’s not to say that the process is not founded or worth the wait. Assistance Dog International (ADI) is an excellent resource to find reputable nonprofit or charity group who adheres to an ethical standard. It is important to note that ADI will only allow “..established nonprofit or charitable programs..” (ADI website), to apply for accreditation or membership. Should you choose to work with a private organization or business, such as my business (petintel.ca), you should always research their qualifications and experience prior to hiring them. The dog training/behaviour consulting industry is extremely unregulated so proceed with caution. Organizations such as Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers (CAPPDT), Association of Animal Behaviour Professionals (AABP), Certified Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) and Animal Behaviour Society (ABS) all offer memberships that professionals can apply for and associated standards and codes of ethics.
If you have chosen not to adopt a trained dog through an organization, you will need to find the perfect candidate yourself. This can be a difficult task considering all the emotions involved. Individuals find it hard to stay objective when choosing a dog or puppy so hiring a professional to help is ideal. I offer a Puppy/Dog Selection Program for anyone who wants help finding or choosing a dog for any reason. This starts with a detailed conversation with the people who will be involved in the raising or ownership of the dog where we identify the ideal dog candidate. We also explore where we will look for dogs; rescues, breeders, online (there’s a huge amount of controversy around this resource that I have opinions on as well), shelters, etc. Once I know what the client is looking for I will search for possible matches and assess individual dogs/puppies using a temperament assessment protocol (I have designed a functional assessment protocol specific to my company that encompasses, what I feel are, all the more important elements of industry accepted tests). From here it is always the client’s choice which ‘doggie in the window’ ends up coming home with them, but at least the options that are presented are reasonable matches and will give them both the best chance at success.
There are two main training areas that need to be focused on. The first is public access (PA) where the dog learns how to behave in public spaces such as restaurants, retail stores, public transport, malls and airports. This training can be started slowly from a young age. Slow, methodical and constructive experiences are ideal. The biggest mistake is overwhelming the dog and having unreasonable expectations. The second element is task training (TA) where the dog is ‘trained’ to do specific tasks for the handler that will help mitigate the limitations of their disability. I use the term ‘train’ loosely because it is my experience, especially when working with ‘invisible disabilities’ such as mental health issues and brain injuries, that the process of task identification and training happens organically as the relationship between the owner and the dog evolves. Attending organized activities, like group training classes or social clubs, can be awesome additions to a well rounded training process. If you are working with a dog coach privately, ask them for suggestions of what activities you should be doing with your dog between your sessions.
During the training process and obviously once trained, your service dog will be granted access to all public spaces. Don’t take this for granted. Yes, it is your right and yes, you have no obligation to disclose why you need a service dog, but don’t be unreasonable about it. People need to be educated and unfortunately, you will now be partially responsible for doing this. I’ve observed some people who are so sensitive about it and fear the repercussions of denying access that they are actually over-accommodating. Of course, you will get the occasional insensitive individual who doesn’t understand the law and becomes confrontational and pompous in their convictions. Take note of who they are and any information surrounding your experience then talk to someone higher up than them (manager, head office, member of parliament, or even the ministry) when you aren’t angry anymore. Lastly, do your part to make sure your dog is appropriate and non-disruptive to the public.
While there is no formal certification testing required or available for service dogs in Ontario, our business has become accredited by an organization called Canadian Association of Service Dog Trainers (CASDT). I still always encourage individuals to seek their Canadian Canine Good Citizen (CCGC) through Responsible Dog Owners of Canada (RDOC) as a starting point.
When client’s reach out to us, we first ensure that they meet our minimum service requirements: Have both professional and personal support outside of their service dog and coach; have full ownership of a physically healthy dog of an appropriate age; be both physically and emotionally capable to care for their dog's basic needs; have the financial resources to cover the cost of our services; have a complete understanding of the time commitment, resources and responsibilities associated with self-training a SD; have an acceptance that even with a full commitment to the process, there is NEVER a guarantee that their dog WILL become a service dog AND have an understanding of the current local laws regarding service dogs.
Next we perform an Evaluation of Potential Service Dog to help identify where work is still required and determine if the team has the main ingredients to be successful. Should the team pass this initial evaluation, we can begin working together. The process isn’t always straightforward and can take some shifts and turns, but a dedicated client and a well-matched dog make all the difference. Once the team is ready, we test them using CASDT’s Benchmark Interim Standard. This test is fairly straight forward and similar to the majority of public access test you will find set forth as an industry standard.
To the best of my knowledge, these are the ‘nuts and bolts’ of it all here in Ontario. There are dozens of groups working hard to set forth standards and regulations regarding service animals in Canada and Ontario. Don’t be afraid to seek professional support and make calls to the rule-makers for clarification. Eventually, standards will be modified and elaborated on (this would require a large group of dog trainers and industry professionals to agree on protocols and procedures in an industry that in itself is not regulated) however when this will happen and what the standards will be is yet to be determined. The best you can do is try to be part of the solution, not the problem and be a responsible dog or service dog owner.