In the past couple years, since starting Mary Ellen Humane Education Society, I've been asked how to get a service dog or a therapy dog. To answer this question, I found that taking a quick look at the internet doesn't cut it, is potentially misleading, and can lead to false assumptions. As you'll see below, I had to dig deeper than I might have if I was interested in a quick and easy way to get public access to restaurants, public transport, etc. for my favourite family pet, my dog. There are some stand-out services within the top-ten hits on Google which might have the solution for you. But websites trying to sell you Service Dog vests and telling you it's not legal to discriminate against people with disabilities or their dogs might not be telling you the whole story. If you see sites telling you all you need is a vest that designates your dog as a "service dog" to get you and your dog into any public facility, then you're getting a sales-pitch to buy a vest, not the bigger picture.
To learn about the bigger picture, here's the research I've done so far. Decide for yourself. I started with a broad search of "service dogs" and "therapy dogs". For folks considering getting a therapy dog or a service dog, it's important to know the difference between these two terms and what they mean.
What's the difference between therapy and service dogs?
Service dogs are trained from a puppy and are bred for various purposes including guiding a blind person or cueing an epileptic to take anti-epileptic medication. One example in the US where service dogs are provided is Canine Companions for Independence which, since 1975, has provided assistance dogs free of charge to recipients with physical or developmental disabilities. The training period is extensive but there is no cost to recipients. Canine Companions breeds Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and lab-golden crosses to be assistance dogs. Volunteers care for our breeder dogs and nurture newborn puppies for eight weeks. Canine Companions puppies spend the next 14-18 months with volunteer puppy raisers who provide basic obedience training, socialization, and care. Professional Canine Companions instructors teach the dogs to master over 40 commands in six to nine months. After training is successfully completed, the dogs can go through Team Training and be matched with adults, children or veterans with disabilities, or professionals assisting clients with special needs.
Various organizations can provide service dogs to veterans and first-responders with PTSD. For veterans or first-responders interested in getting a service dog, I would recommend googling veterans, first-responders, PTSD, and service dogs. However, know that you don't have to have a service dog go everywhere with you to obtain the benefits of a therapy dog trained to be a calming focus and a source of exercise for people with anxiety, PTSD, depression, or other mental health issues (see the recent Harvard Medical School report Get Healthy, Get a Dog).
In Canada, there are several options to have so-called service dogs designated. The term Service Dog encompasses a broad range of assistance animals that have been trained to assist their owners with their disabilities. According to Service Dogs Canada, for example, Canadian law requires public and privately owned establishments such as restaurants, hotels, retail stores, taxicabs, airplanes, theaters, concert halls, and sports facilities, to allow people with disabilities to bring their service animals onto business premises in whatever areas customers are generally allowed. In addition, Service Dogs Canada stipulates that a disabled person has the right to train his or her own Service Dog, either with the help of a trainer or without. Service Dogs Canada further states that there are only two requirements for a service dog to not be denied access to any public facility. Those requirements are, according to Service Dogs Canada, that the owner has a disability and the dog is trained to assist the owner. Service Dogs Canada goes on to say that if your dog is wearing a service dog vest, you will always be welcomed.
However, the law in British Columbia, where I am centered, gives a somewhat different picture. In addition to the two requirements above, an additional requirement for service dogs is that the dog behaves well in public. That is, the dog must be safe.
As indicated below, depending on your jurisdiction, the process of getting a service dog legally recognized as having a public access privilege is significantly more complicated than that.
What are the laws about Service Dogs in British Columbia?
When I checked out the actual laws in British Columbia regarding Service Dogs, I discovered that after your dog is suitably trained to provide assistance to a disabled person, it's necessary to apply for certification and registry to a designate of the Minister of Public Service in the government of BC. The success of the application depends on establishing whether the person with a disability and the designated dog are a "team". The laws of BC specify that:
"A guide dog team, service dog team or dog-in-training team may, in the same manner as would an individual who is not a member of any of those teams, enter and use any place, accommodation, building or conveyance to which the public is invited or has access, provided that the individual who is a member of the team ensures the dog that is a member of the team (a) does not occupy a seat in a public conveyance or a place where food is served or dispensed to the public, as the case may be, and (b) is held by a leash or harness."
I'm not a lawyer, but from my read of the BC laws pertaining to service dog teams, only dogs appropriately registered by the government-appointed registrar have the legal status of the public access privilege quoted above. In BC, not just anyone can certify a dog as part of a "service dog team", "guide dog team", or "dog-in-training team". The Guide Dog and Service Dog Act states that a "registrar" designated by government is responsible for determining proper certification and registration as a service dog, guide dog, or dog-in-training.
So, what are the criteria for registering a service dog and ultimately gaining the public access privilege? I looked up who the registrar is and also looked for the application procedures in BC. The necessary information regarding certification and registration of a service-dog/handler team is available here. These documents indicate there are two ways for dog and handler teams to be certified:
- Receive a trained dog from an accredited school OR
- Pass a public safety test
- An application for a guide or service dog certificate from either an accredited or non-accredited school
- A medical form confirming your requirement for a guide dog or a service dog - that is, specifying your disability - completed by a B.C. physician or nurse practitioner
- Written confirmation from a B.C. veterinarian or equivalent that your dog has been spayed or neutered
- A passport-sized quality photograph of yourself
- A copy of valid government issued photo identification such as a passport or BCID
If you decide to go the route of public safety testing, the Justice Institute of BC can provide this service. According to the current law in BC, then, this is the route people in BC are required to go through to have service dogs, guide dogs, dogs-in-training certified as safe to enter any public establishment without being discriminated against. AT LEAST IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, HAVING YOUR DOG CERTIFIED AS A SERVICE DOG MAY NOT BE A SIMPLE MATTER OF GETTING A NICE VEST THAT SAYS "SERVICE DOG".
To conclude the discussion of service dog certification, for people who believe they need a "service dog", I personally think one should do a lot more than merely sign off on their dog's capacity to be safe in public and purchase a vest, guided only by their own subjective opinion about whether their dog is safe. Psychologically speaking, just because vests are available for purchase and websites make distinctive statements about privileges your dog could have, you are being guided by the availability and distinctiveness heuristics; these are cognitive biases that could put you in legal trouble.
Lesson being, before putting out several hundred bucks for a vest, check your local jurisdiction's laws regarding training and testing requirements for the legal registration and legal privileges of service dogs.
Deciding to Get a Therapy Dog
Many folks who believe they need a service dog could be right! I would encourage those who are thinking about a service dog to carefully consider their medical needs for assistance necessitated by their physical or developmental disability, consult their physician or nurse practitioner regarding whether they would agree to vouch for your need of a service dog, and think about the intensive training and application protocol required.
For people who have mental or emotional disabilities, though, the value of having a therapy dog (even if the dog doesn't get access to public buildings) could be more than enough. Therapy dogs are NOT service dogs and by law may not be allowed access to public places over and above pets, but they can offer comfort. Therapy dogs are trained and tested in basic obedience. They can also be trained to a higher level which would involve rewarding desired responses to early signs of panic or isolation. Interaction with a therapy dog can provide therapeutic, motivational, educational, and recreational benefits to enhance quality of life.
The St. John Ambulance therapy dog program can work with folks who are willing to train their own dogs to bring them to the level of therapy dogs (including dogs who sit non-judgmentally while children read or dogs who visit facilities for seniors).
In addition, Lifeline Canada Foundation provides a process to certify therapy dogs for people with mental health issues in an effort to reduce the chances that mental illnesses might lead to suicide. Adults with mental illnesses can apply to receive a dog suited to them. The process provided by Lifeline Canada's Companion Paws program involves either requesting a trained therapy dog be provided or having one's own dog evaluated and approved as a therapy dog. To get your dog evaluated as a therapy dog, register for and attend a pre-evaluation workshop and a final evaluation run by expert dog trainers. One outcome is to get a vest designating the dog as a "therapy dog" but this vest doesn't in any way circumvent laws applying to any other pet.
Does Shake-a-Paw provide Therapy Dogs?
No. Nor do we provide service dogs. Instead, just spending time with friendly dogs can bring on a feeling of psychological well-being (see past Blog entry on Spending Time with Dogs) and one fun way to spend time with dogs is to learn and practice dog-training skills. Shake-a-Paw draws on the potentially therapeutic and motivational impacts of devoting time learning to train dogs.
Shake-a-Paw is an animal-assisted therapy program developed by the founders of Mary Ellen Humane Education Society, a non-profit Canadian charitable organization. Shake-a-Paw teaches youth with mental health issues to train hard-to-adopt dogs. These dogs could be newly adopted from shelters or come straight from the homes of dog owners who want some advice and training because their dogs are struggling to have good manners at home. The youth work with the dogs, twice a week, under the supervision of a dog trainer for 6 weeks (for a total of 24 hours of training time). After each 2 hour class, the dogs go back to the homes they came from. Over the course of Shake-a-Paw, the young participants develop and master dog-training skills, to learn about the process of dog fostering, adoption, and dog-related occupations, and discuss future directions for pursuing their motivation to help animals, especially dogs. Graduates of Shake-a-Paw are invited to volunteer with Mary Ellen Humane after graduation. All graduates are also invited to take a program called Stand-By-Me which, by following up on the skills and motivation built during Shake-a-Paw, provides training in developing a written plan to build a dog-related business.
Mary Ellen Humane is planning to launch a campaign in early 2018 when we will invite dog owners to allow youth to work with their dogs under the supervision of a certified dog trainer. By loaning their dogs to Shake-a-Paw, dog owners can benefit from learning some training tips, and can help out youth at the same time. After a 3 week evaluation period, dog owners will receive in-person advice and coaching and, after the program is over, they take home written tips and recommendations to move forward with their dogs.