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opinion

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Recently, a local news item caught my eye. It was a CBC article by Rebecca Zandbergen, about a woman “and her miniature poodle,” who “were denied entry at [a] Holiday Inn.”

Ms. Zandbergen writes:

“The mother of 17-year-old triplets was recently denied access to a hotel in Woodstock in southwestern Ontario when she arrived with her service dog, Amora, a 15-month-old miniature poodle, which was wearing a red vest with the words ‘Service Dog.’”

Everything about this had me hooked. I had so many questions. Among them:

Were the 17-year-old triplets … poodles? And if not (and evidently not, though some poodles do reach that age), why are we hearing about them in this article?

Is Amora the poodle named after Amora the French mustard?

And why the journalistic insistence on using “which” rather than “who” in reference to little Amora? That choice would only get sillier later on, in such sentences as, “Staff questioned her about Amora, which has a traditional poodle cut,” as though Amora were a bit of topiary and not the exquisite animal in the photos. The poodle is a white version of my 11-year-old silver dog named Bisou, who recently died after a short illness.

Yes, I’m biased. I think miniature poodles are magical creatures and on a personal level cannot imagine someone greeting one with anything but delight. The thing that everyone says happens when you have human children, where the dog gets ignored, did not happen in our household. Bisou was, is, queen. I think it’s a travesty that OHIP doesn’t cover veterinary care. I am team dog.

But I also get where the pet-skeptical are coming from. As much as I would have liked to be able to bring Bisou inside coffee shops with me, I do remember the time when I saw a Yorkie enter a bakery in Naples, Italy, and I thought, “Wow, how European, how civilized,” and then this Yorkie proceeded to pee all over the bakery floor, eliciting the frantic application of paper towels.

Bisou, the author's dog of 11 years who, like Amora, the 15-month-old Service Dog denied hotel access, was also a miniature poodle.Phoebe Maltz-Bovy

Anyway, my big question, answered as satisfactorily as possible in the piece, was what service, precisely, Amora provides.

It turns out that Amora is specially trained to help her owner with “chronic, daily migraines and the resulting anxiety.” But the hotel saw Amora and, in an act of brazen anti-poodleism, decided that a dog that pretty couldn’t possibly be at work.

The Ontario service-poodle woes of 2023 are part of a bigger history. In a 2014 New Yorker exposé accompanied by memorable photographic evidence, journalist Patricia Marx brought an alpaca to a convenience store, a turtle to an art museum, and so forth, all in the name of calling out those who declare their pets emotional-support animals. Ms. Marx argued that such individuals are sneakily using sensitivities about disability to bring their animals around without question, all because “they don’t want to have to hire dog-walkers.”

In the article, Ms. Marx explained that “people with genuine impairments who depend on actual service animals” were “infuriated” by those who cry disability in order to, say, sit next to their feline companion on an airplane. Her stunts were, in a sense, in honour of the deserving service-animal owners. But is the distinction always so pat?

The line between a service animal and an emotional-support animal is whisker-thin (sorry), as is the one between the latter and a pet. There’s a bureaucracy in place, kind of, to make sense of these distinctions, but it falls apart upon examination. Once you set aside the handful of highly trained dogs doing things like (per the government website on this matter) “pulling a wheelchair” (miniature poodles, I love you, but you are not doing this), I’m not sure there is a meaningful distinction between a comfort-oriented service dog, an emotional-support dog and a pet.

And I mean this in both directions. Pets are calming and health-giving, whether or not their owners have a formal diagnosis. Plenty of people have undiagnosed psychiatric conditions, for all sorts of reasons. If someone is unknowingly self-medicating via bichon frisé, should they be any less entitled to bring their bichon to a restaurant than the person savvy enough to get the right paperwork, a savviness that might itself demonstrate a less severe disability, or, at least, greater access to (non-canine) support?

Conversely, the same reasons pets in public places can cause problems arise when the pets are in the special vest. Someone allergic to dogs will be just as allergic to one gnawing on a rawhide as one working as a guide dog. Even if – it pains me to say – the dog is a poodle. If you’re afraid of dogs, the knowledge that this particular dog on your subway car is helping someone else’s PTSD might not be much comfort.

The people who want to bring their dog everywhere make a good case, as do the ones who don’t want to be headbutted by a Newfoundland. It’s ultimately a case of competing interests. Or in very-online terms: Is it more ableist to bring your dog to the Whole Foods or to call the manager on the husky in Aisle 5?

But let us return to Amora. The ambiguities of service dog and pet ramp up near the end of the CBC piece. Ms. Zandbergen briskly goes from quoting a provincial spokesperson as saying that someone in a situation along these lines “may wish to contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario,” to mentioning that Amora’s owner “enjoys showing Amora at dog shows.”

Is parading a beautiful poodle one of the Ontario human rights? If so, you know what? Makes me proud to be Ontarian.