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Service Animals

Service Therapy and Support Animals

Val Cairney January 22, 2021 246

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Hello everyone and welcome to this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  Let’s talk about Service, Therapy and Support Animals.

This episode is one that I have wanted to do for quite some time and I’ve got some great interviews lined up for this topic that I know you will just love listening to.  So the topic of this episode is about animals, dogs primarily, that serve humans in specific capacities.  Service dogs, emotional support dogs, therapy dogs are categories of dogs that serve people to live a better life or to cope with difficulties that makes day to day living challenging.  I don’t know about you, but there seems to be quite a bit of confusion surrounding these types of dogs and the training they get or don’t get and what is their access capabilities?  There is also a rise is “fake” service dogs where people order a service dog vest off the internet just so they can take their dog into places they would otherwise not be allowed.  Yeah, we’ll talk about that one!  

So, let me start with the wonderful dogs that you see come to hospitals to visit patients, especially children, or go to long term care facilities to visit the elderly, schools or senior facilities.  In Canada these dogs are called therapy dogs.  According to k9partnersfor a therapy dog is trained to provide affection and comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, schools, hospices, disaster areas.  In Canada, St. John’s Ambulance has a programme for therapy dogs that a person and their dog may enroll into so that they as a team may visit these type of facilities. According to, “the therapy dog team consists of a volunteer handler and their pet companion dog.  These teams have undergone screening for suitability that includes criminal record checks, references, dog evaluations and canine vaccinations.  [The] members are volunteers that dedicate their personal time to bring the companionship of a dog to those that would benefit from some comfort and touch from a canine.”  St. John’s Ambulance’ programme is also specific in stating that “the Therapy Dog program does not assist individuals in training or certifying their personal pets to act as guide, assistance or service dog for themselves or family members.  Under current legislation, St. John’s Ambulance Therapy dogs have no special privileges that would allow access over and above any other pet dogs.  So, in order to become a therapy dog team, the person with their pet has to make application and follow the protocols and undergo an evaluation successfully.  And here’s another rule, they cannot be fed a raw food diet.  So, basically if you have a very calm and easy going dog that loves being pet and cuddled and doesn’t spook from machines, or different environments you may have a suitable therapy dog.  But, remember it is you and your dog that become the team.  Now, here is the thing, in this case, it doesn’t have to be a dog.  Cats are often willing therapy animals.  Therapeutic Paws of Canada specifically describes their volunteer organization as dog and cat.  Their description states that they are “a volunteer-based pet therapy dog and cat visitation programme.  Another organization Companion Paws “is dedicated to supporting Canadians in need while providing a second chance for pets in rescues….Companion Paws also offers a, Certify your own dog program” and this is offered in all provinces.   

Now we know how beneficial it is for a furry friend to come in to a hospital to lift spirits as well as visit those in long term care.  Not being able to have your own dog or cat in a senior’s home can be very heartbreaking, so I imagine the joy that a dog or cat coming in for visits must give to the residents.  But, here is another role of therapy dogs and I think this is really amazing.  Therapy dogs are used in therapeutic reading programmes.  Certified therapy dogs are brought in to schools or libraries and sit or lie quietly while the young human reads to them.   According to Therapy Dogs International, the relaxed atmosphere allows a student to practice the skill of reading.  Many of the children chosen for this program have difficulties reading and as a result have developed self-esteem issues.  They are often self-conscious when reading aloud in front of other classmates.  I remember in being in the primary grades when we would be asked by the teacher to read passages out loud to the class.  There were several children that really struggled reading out loud.  If we had this programme then, what a difference it would have made for these kids.  As for me, I was always a reader. I read books voraciously and I loved telling the stories I read to anyone who would listen.  Well not always were my parents up for another retell of Dr. Dolittle or The Incredible Journey, so guess who got to listen to me read?  Yup, our trusty dog Ginger who was the most patient kid friendly dog.  

Another role of therapy dogs is to be in airports.  Therapy dogs are meant to ease stress at many Canadian airports.  The practice first began in Canada at the Edmonton International Airport in 2015.  Now there are therapy dogs in Fort McMurray and Calgary Alberta airports, Halifax, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Thunder Bay, Regina, Toronto and Saskatoon to name a few.  And other countries have embraced this great role for therapy dogs as well.   

So, the role of therapy dogs is quite important.  They really provide joy, comfort and a patient ear to many who really appreciate their presence.  And we cannot forget the human who has volunteered to become a therapy team dedicating themselves to this wonderful role.  But, we also do have to acknowledge that therapy dogs are not in any way service dogs, so without permission that do not have any access over any other pet.  Most therapy dog or cat teams will be designated with a bandana not a harness to make sure there is no confusion with working animals.   

Okay so let’s take a look at Emotional Support animals.  According to CertaPet, in Canada an emotional support animal can be a dog, cat or a rabbit.  If you already have a pet at home, they could become your new ESA.  In reality, the only requirement for the right emotional support animal is that they share a special bond with you and can comfort you.  In Canada in order to have an emotional support animal, you must have an emotional support animal letter.  This must come from a qualified mental health professional who is allowed to practice in your province.  You must have this letter on your person at all times to gain access to areas that would otherwise not allow animals.  So different from a service animal, ESA’s do not require any training.  Now I have to admit, that scares me a little, considering you can travel with an ESA on a plane, train or ferry or public transport.  The whole thing around ESA’s is really quite whishy washy and this is where people have abused the privilege and scams have been reported.  For example, in Canada and the U.S. you do not have to register your ESA with any official or federal list, but there are scams on line that have registration sites for ESA’s.   So the Canadian Transport Agency allows people to travel with an ESA, but because as usual, there has to be people that take advantage, Air Canada has made it clear in their policies that only dogs are accepted on flights within Canada and to and from the United States. Now here is some language for West Jet that certainly creates some confusion.  West Jet states that they “will accept one service dog to provide assistance to a person with cognitive, physical or emotional disability.  Westjet and Westjet Encore only allow fully trained and certified service dogs in the cabin of the aircraft at no charge when on duty”.  Okay, so let’s interpret this a bit.  Emotional support animals are not required to have any training, nor are they certified through any governing body.   Based on their policy this would mean that an emotional support dog would not be accepted because it does not fall into the specified requirements.  Very interesting.  I can just see some poor ground attendant being yelled and screamed at by someone trying to bring their dog on board that they are saying is a service dog, when in fact it is an emotional support dog and there is no documentation of training or organization the dog is registered to.  Dogs from National Service Dogs for example, are not actually owned by the recipient.  National Service Dogs retains ownership of all there placed service dogs, therefore all NSD dogs carry accreditation papers.  This is why all service dogs from NSD have wonderful names but their actual names are NSD Blackie for example.  Now, because it says that the trained service dogs travel free of charge, there seems to be some grey area where, if someone pays for their emotional support dog can they bring it on board?  And to make matters worse, people have brought everything on board as an emotional support animal from pigs, miniature horses, monkeys and birds.  As for the United States, an article posted Jan. 8th 2021 states that “only dogs trained as service animals will be allowed on board planes for free.  Following a ruling by the U.S. Transportation Department last month that only trained service dogs will be allowed to fly for free as emotional-support animals, domestic airlines are putting their own policies into effect.  American Airlines announced [] that it would ban emotional-support animals in a move that will force most owners to pay extra if they want their pets to travel with them.  The carrier will allow animals in the cabin free of charge only if they are trained service dogs.”   Well, there we go.  It seems that the issue comes down to whether you pay or not.  But, some airlines are restricting emotional support animals to dogs only.  So that means that petey the peacock will not be joining his owner on board an aircraft.   

So I think the confusion and issues really are systemic.  The lack of specifics as to an emotional support animal is what is at issue here.  If this animal is so intrinsic to someone’s ability to function, then I think it would stand that some kind of screening process and certification should be in place to substantiate their importance.  And I also have been witness many times to someone trying to say their emotional support dog is a service dog.  And I actually think that often the person saying this doesn’t even actually know the difference.  When it comes to emotional support dogs, the legislations are not very clear.  In Canada, the laws will differ from province to province.  So federal and provincial law has to be looked at.  So, federally they will let an emotional support animal fly, but when it comes to housing, these laws are provincial.  And the only way to protect oneself with regards to access is by having a valid emotional support letter from an accredited Doctor who is in good standing and complies with the Canada Health Act.  So, that means that if someone wished to deny access to an emotional support animal, if that person did not have their letter on their person, they could in fact be denied.  So let’s get down to some nitty gritty here., states, “Emotional support animals in restaurants and stores contrary to popular belief, emotional support animals are NOT allowed in restaurants and other businesses.  Unlike service dogs, emotional support animals do not have the same level of access and each business has the right to accept or deny ESA”s.  According to Emotional support, “unlike a service animal, an emotional support animal is not granted permission to be in public places, like shopping centers, hotels and hospitals.”  Now in Ontario, there is absolutely no information about emotional support animals.  This is not a defined term under Ontario law.  And to make matters worse, there is ambiguous language that allows for interpretation that an emotional support dog is a service dog.  Well they are not and when I get to service animals I hope that becomes clear.  So, I think the fake service dogs we see and the people walking around grocery stores with what we know not to be a service dog, fall into this.  Business owners are too scared to confront people like this because they don’t want the whole political incorrectness to play out in the middle of their store with someone yelling about their human rights when in fact the worse thing is happening, which is the person is defrauding themselves and there is quite a fine involved if you are caught.  

Okay that leads to the big topic which is service animals.  The definition of a service animal is any animal trained to assist a person with a disability.  In Ontario a service animal is defined as not a pet.  While businesses can say, “no pets allowed” they can’t deny (a person) service because of (their) animal.   One of the persons who you will be hearing from in my next episode explained access in a very simple way.  Any place where the public is allowed to go, a service dog is as well.  For example, the public is allowed into a restaurant but the public does not go into the kitchen.  The same would apply to the dog.  Well that makes things very easy.  Service dogs are usually quite recognizable as they wear a specific type of vest, most wear a nose type leash i.e. a Halti and they specifically have indicators on their vests that they are working and are not to be petted.  They also have their organization clearing indicated on their vest. In the dog’s vest is usually their Doctor’s letter and any accreditation details from their organization.  A sure indicator that someone is faking their dog as a service dog is that there is nothing on the dog’s vest but the words “Service Dog” and the handler let’s people pet the dog.  So, basically if someone with an accredited service dog were to be denied access they would have a case through both the federal and Ontario Human Rights Codes, that prohibit discrimination based on disability and rejecting a service animal definitely fits that category.  A gentleman that had a service dog in my area would come to pick up supplies and order a taxi to take him and his dog home again.  He was clear when he called the taxi that it was for him and his service dog.  Well, I can tell you that on several occasions he was told that he would not be picked up because the available driver didn’t want a dog in his vehicle.  I had this conversation with him on a few occasions saying, that they can’t do that.  Well, what was he going to do?  He had to get home.  No human rights tribunal was going to pick him to take him home, so he just phoned a different company or Uber until someone would take him.  Tell me that’s right!   

Okay, so according to service dogs in Canada, “there can be serious repercussions for passing a pet off as a trained service dog, as well as public safety concerns if the dog is not properly selected, socialized and trained.”   The CFAS, the Canadian Foundation for animal-assisted support services announced that finally some of the standardization issues for service animals is finally going to be addressed.  Well let’s hope that gets going as soon as possible.  According to, “A person with a disability has the right to train his or her own Service Dog, either with the help of a trainer or without.”  So there is the option in Canada to have a service dog owner trained or programme trained.  There are pro’s and con’s to both and I think I’m going to let the experts on Service dogs speak to this in the next episode.   But, to do an overview, Service dogs undergo training for social situations, behavior requirements and specialized disability care? 

Basically the categories where service animals can help fall into: 

Sensory and neurological, development and intellectual disabilities, physical and psychiatric disabilities.  Physical disabilities can include ambulatory impairments, life threatening allergies or diabetes, plus many more.  Psychiatric disabilities can include, PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.  Sensory or neurological can include, visual and hearing impairment, autism and seizures.  Development and Intellectual disabilities can include downs syndrome or genetic disorders.   So, there are actually a lot of disabilities that service animals particularly dogs can help with, making life much more manageable for many people.  A program trained dog would be a dog that has been chosen for breed ability and bred through a very consistent and balanced breeding program.  The puppies go to “puppy raisers” who follow the organization’s rules for the 1st year and take their puppy to training at the facility. After the first year, the pups go through evaluation for what area that may show an affinity towards and if all goes well they advance to the next level of training full time at the organization’s facility.  The training will then begin for a specific disability and intensely focus the dog for service.  Many organization trained service dogs cost anywhere from $5000.00 to $10,000.00.  The non- profit organization usually has programs to make sure a person in need receives their dog and then there are fundraising efforts constantly in place to repay the organization for the costs incurred.   

Non-profit service dog organizations in Canada include, the CNIB, Canadian National Institute for the Blind.  The CNIB according to their website, “raise, train and match dogs with Canadians who are blind or partially sighted.”  A brief journey of a CNIB dog has puppies up to 8 weeks staying with their mothers and siblings.  From 8 weeks to 4 months they go to puppy raisers who socialize and train with support from the CNIB the basic skills of obedience and feeding routines.  From 4 – 15 months puppy stay with their puppy raisers who then up the training to expose them to as many environments as possible.  From 12 – 17 months training begins in earnest where the dog works with a professionally qualified guide dog trainer and is introduced to harness and basic guiding roles. Around 18 months the guide dog trainer and the guide dog mobility instructor match the dog to the guide dog handler.  The final step is for the guide dog to meet their new best and friend and handler.   

So, as you can see, the work involved is tremendous, so the cost for these dogs is quite merited.  The incredible amount of work involved to turn out a dog that will change a person’s life just makes me really wonder about this idea that someone can train their own service dog.  Let’s look at another organization.  Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides is dedicated to providing Canadians with disabilities, at no cost.  Lions Foundation has programs for vision, hearing, seizure response, service, autism assistance, diabetic alert and facility support where professional agencies are assisting individuals in traumatic situations. Lions Foundation as well has a central facility where advanced training takes place and where the client and dog guide will live for 2 to 4 weeks before heading out on their own.  National Service Dogs another organization as well receives no government funding and relies entirely on support from corporate sponsors, local community members, service clubs and annual fundraising.  NSD programs include, certified dogs for autism, certified dogs for PTSD, Certified assisted intervention, companion dogs and the “very important pets” that honour those from the programme that did not graduate through to placement.  COPE is another programme where service dogs are trained for the purpose of supporting clients with primarily mobility disabilities.  COPE dogs also go through a 2 year program and is also non-profit.   

So there is a lot to breeding, training and placing service dogs in particular.  Now, although there doesn’t seem to be a government standardization of service animals in place there is ADI.  ADI Assistance Dogs International is a worldwide coalition on non-profit programs that train and place Assistance Dogs and has become the leading authority in the Assistance Dog industry.  Through ADI there “is an accreditation and evaluation process that ensures that AdI Standards are implemented, maintained and are current to the highest standards around the world. “  Now that makes me feel a lot better.  If someone is in need of an assistance dog I would think having one that has come from an ADI accredited programme would be the most responsible thing to do to ensure that the dog is properly bred and trained and that the organization is adhering to standards and provides constant support to its clients.   

Okay that leads me to my pet peeves section.  

One of the worst things happening in the service animal area is the taking advantage of access and faking service animals.  Why, why, why would someone do this?  My husband and I were at an annual festival that we attend in the summer and dogs are not permitted on the grounds.  Fine.  We went into the entertainment beer tent and observed a dog, wearing a vest that said nothing but service dog on it, licking spilt beer off of the ground.  The people with the dog were doing nothing to stop it and then proceeded to feed it French fries!!  Service dog my aunt!  Not a chance.  No self-respecting service dog handler would allow that.  Plus, these dogs are trained, not to do that.  They faked this dog as a service dog just so they could bring it with them to the festival.  So, I guess they are over and above all the rest of us who left our dogs at home?  One day, a person came in to get some treats for their dog.  I looked out the door and outside was another person holding on with difficulty to a dog that was big and very strong wearing two collars, one a prong collar and a vest that said nothing but “service dog in training”.  With a prong collar?  The reason they didn’t bring the dog into the store I was told by the one who came in, was that the dog might hurt our cat as he is not good around cats.  Really?!  Well isn’t that just the best service dog?  So, was this a fake service dog or was this someone thinking they can train their own service dog.  If so, it’s not working.  Or if they were faking the dog for whatever reason shame on you.  Service dogs are and should be highly trained and behave with restraint and patience and focus.  I have never seen any service dog being trained using a prong collar.  Maybe I’m missing something here, but that certainly doesn’t give the image of a well-trained and trustable dog.   

So, I think governments are to blame for the ambiguity when it comes to this topic.  There should be clear federal and provincial laws and protocols that cover therapy animals, emotional support animals and service animals.  Their definitions should be clear and their access should also be extremely clear as well as the requirement for accreditations and certifications and medical declarations where required.  The confusion is what is causing the exploitation of access and misrepresentation.  Well I can’t wait for everyone to hear from my interviewees coming up and hopefully they can shed some light on some of the questions that still hang in the air.  And that’s the thing, we need to look into these issues so we are armed with knowledge because as I say, knowing is caring!  

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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