Skip to main content

Earlier this month, Canadian Armed Forces veteran Shawn Lewis was told to leave small claims court in St. John's because he had a dog with him. Missy helps him cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the judge thought the animal was a pet. Shortly after, the judge called Mr. Lewis back into court and apologized, saying he had not recognized the animal as a legitimate service dog.

The judge's confusion is understandable. For centuries, people who are blind (and to a lesser extent, those who are deaf) have been using guide dogs. But in recent years, there has been a dramatic proliferation in the use of service dogs, therapy dogs and emotional-support dogs for all manner of medical conditions – PTSD, autism, epilepsy, diabetes and quadriplegia, to name only a few – not to mention non-medical conditions such as loneliness.

It's estimated that about 1,000 service dogs are in use by blind Canadians. How many more are being used for other invisible disabilities, real and dubious, is anyone's guess.

Blind Canadians can, rightly, take their service dogs everywhere – to restaurants, on planes, in taxis, to the movies and other pet-free venues – because the animals are not pets. They are literally the person's eyes.

Do we extend these same privileges to everyone else, even if their pooch merely provides "comfort?" And what about other animals used to provide service and comfort, such as horses, monkeys, cats, pigs, monkeys and ferrets?

If privileges aren't extended, who decides? If there are rules, who enforces them?

And how do we deal with the troublesome trend of people using fake credentials to get their pets on planes, or faking a disability (and the need for an accompanying animal) to jump the queue in amusement parks?

Canadian legislation about service animals tends to be vague and focuses almost exclusively on the visually impaired. There are hefty fines for refusing service to someone with a service dog, but little or no definition of what makes a service dog legitimate. There are few rules about credentials, or standards about how dogs should be trained (again, except for guide dogs for the blind).

Provinces are now trying to tackle these thorny issues, and realizing just how difficult this can be.

Nova Scotia has just wrapped up public hearings on how to modify and update its Blind Persons' Rights Act and the provincial Human Rights Code to extend protection to users of service animals beyond those who are visually or hearing-impaired.

Much of its focus has been on ensuring animals are well trained and certified. A number of provinces already demand that dogs be trained at schools accredited by leading regulatory bodies such as the International Guide Dog Federation or Assistance Dogs International.

However, there is no central registry to verify credentials, an issue that the Canadian Registry for Therapy Animals and Services Animals is trying to resolve in a voluntary manner. British Columbia has revised its provincial Guide Dog and Service Act, to crack down on service-animal impersonation, by issuing identity cards to owners and animals with proper credentials.

The problem is, this type of legislation places an undue burden on people with disabilities to prove that their needs are legitimate, rather than focusing on their rights.

Proponents of the B.C. bill argue that it is like a driver's licence, that you just have to pass the test once and you're set. But drivers don't have to pull out their licence and pass inspection every time they hit the road; under the new legislation, anyone could demand to see certification any time a person with a service dog attempts to enter an establishment.

Certifying everyone and everything is not the answer, either. A New Yorker reporter famously mocked the ease of obtaining credentials by certifying an alpaca, a pig and a turtle as therapy animals, and dragging them around town.

It has taken many decades of good work to ensure that those with service dogs are afforded access and have their human rights respected, and this is being threatened by a small minority of fraudsters and pet-obsessed people who fail to distinguish between the need for assistance and the privilege of having a pet.

In a world where every emotion is pathologized and our sense of entitlement knows no bounds, the definition of service dog has become, well, a dog's breakfast.