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B.C. set to crack down on fraudulent service animals

Helen McFadyen leaves the new Service Dog park with her guide dog Opal in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Aug. 29, 2009.

PAUL DARROW/GLOBE AND MAIL

Dogs have long been recognized as man's best friend, but a new law set to take effect in British Columbia later this year is hoping to ferret out the fraudsters in their midst.

The province's newly revised Guide Dog and Service Dog Act is widely thought to be among the first in Canada to tackle the subject of service animal impersonation, an issue experts say has escalated sharply in recent years.

While there are no available numbers documenting the problem, service dog trainers and owners alike say their circles are increasingly abuzz with anecdotes of people putting official-looking paraphernalia on pet dogs in the hopes that they could then enjoy the same broad access rights as certified service animals.

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They say they've heard motives ranging from a reluctance to be separated from their four-legged friends during air travel to a desire to cash in on discounts most veterinarians offer clients with working dogs.

This new breed of impersonation schemes goes hand in hand with a growing diversity in the types of service dogs on Canada's streets, they said, adding updated laws like the one being finalized in B.C. are needed to help bring the issue to heel.

Laura Watamanuk, Executive Director of the Pacific Assistance Dogs Society, says public perceptions of service animals are often limited to guide dogs donning conspicuous harnesses to lead their visually impaired handlers.

The dogs emerging from her school, she said, have skill sets that address a host of other, less visible disabilities. These include alerting deaf people to the sounds around them, warning diabetes patients of potentially dangerous changes in their blood sugar levels and providing therapy for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There is a variety of working dogs which perform physical tasks for somebody," Watamanuk said in a telephone interview. "With a lot of disabilities not being visual, there's become a problem with the general public impersonating untrained dogs as assistance dogs. That really undermines our work in the industry for the past 30 years."

Since there are no federal regulations around service animal registration, the B.C. law proposes to tackle the problem by issuing all legitimate teams with provincial identity cards. Such IDs are available for certain pairs in provinces such as Quebec and Ontario, but the B.C. legislation has built-in regulations to cater to the changing population.

Dogs trained by schools accredited under the leading global regulatory bodies — the International Guide Dog Federation or Assistance Dogs International — will automatically receive a provincial ID.

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Those who seek canine partners from non-accredited facilities or take on the training themselves will have to have their dogs pass a provincial test to ensure their performance and behaviour are in line with international standards.

Such measures are being broadly applauded by many of the country's more traditional working dog teams.

Alan Conway of Guide Dog Users of Canada said dogs trained through less conventional channels could very well make exemplary partners, but also run the risk of posing safety hazards to their canine peers.

Improperly trained dogs are more likely to be aggressive towards other animals, he said, adding their poor behaviour could sour public opinion on service dogs in general.

Conway said his organization has reached out to most provinces in a bid to get them to crack down on fraudulent service dogs.

Responses ranged from the non-committal to the negative, he said, citing Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island as being willing to study the issue and naming Ontario and Saskatchewan as particularly unlikely to revisit their existing laws.

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Those legislations explicitly state that service animals are welcome anywhere their human handlers can go, but Conway said they're out of date and aren't equipped to deal with dogs who shouldn't be there.

He said "faking it with Fido" is all too easy in an era when official-looking harnesses, vests and identity cards are a few mouse clicks away.

One such vendor shares Conway's view that laws are out of date, but contends he still offers a valuable service by allowing people who want service dogs to cut through red tape.

Paul Bowskill's Hawaii-based website, Service Dogs Canada, offers a $200 "identification kit" complete with a vest, wallet card and certificate.

Bowskill said he always ensures buyers are familiar with the appropriate standards for service dogs, but concedes he has no way of knowing what use his clients make of the merchandise.

While he will refuse to issue a kit to a blind person hoping to use an untrained pet as a guide, Bowskill said canines performing simpler tasks such as helping steady someone as they walk can be of great value even without a lengthy training regimen.

"I disagree ... that the dogs need to be professionally trained and you've got to spend a lot of money to do it," he said. "A lot of these people don't have that money, and by putting a requirement on that, you'd definitely hurt people with disabilities."

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