29 July 2016

Service Dog Legislation: Canada

The Province of Alberta is currently reviewing legislation on Service Dog access. The Canadian Government is also pursuing the development of a Canadians with Disabilities Act, and the Canadian General Standards Board is working with Veterans’ Affairs on defining standards for service dogs as well.

I've written a letter to as many of the involved entities as I figured were reasonable: Veterans Affairs, the Standards Board, the Ministers of Health for both Alberta and Canada, the Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities, and the Alberta Minister for Human Services. Lots of copies. I'm hoping at least someone will find what I have to say helpful.

Here it is:

As an Albertan with an invisible disability (PTSD), I would very much like to have clearer standards in place for service animals. I work with my dog, Ben, who keeps me anchored, reduces my hypervigilance, assists me with recovery from trauma nightmares, and helps me pace myself throughout the day. He is, of course, not a certified service dog … because there’s nowhere for me to go to get him certified. The only programs for PTSD dogs are for veterans and first responders, and there’s no route for owner-trained service animals to become officially recognized. I have been working with the JIBC Public Access Test as my guideline, and Ben could probably pass it now, though he’s only had about four months of public training. We rely on the courtesy and understanding of businesses and staff, and have not had any difficulties – but I do recognize that there are people who think that if they put a vest on their pet they can take it to the grocery store with them, and as it stands, it’s really difficult to address these kinds of problems.

I have a few suggestions I would like to share with you, including some proposed strategies for meeting the needs of disabled individuals who rely on service animals while at the same time recognizing the needs of individuals who do not want to have animals around them. My mother, in fact, suffers from a severe auto immune disorder, and must avoid most animals for the sake of her health: she and others like her should have access to places that are animal-free, just as people like me should be able to access public services with our dogs beside us. As Canadians, I’m sure we can find ways to accommodate both types of needs.

First and foremost, I believe that the standards of behaviour for service dog teams in public should be made clear and unambiguous. If business owners, staff, members of the public, and service dog owner/handlers were all clear on what a service dog team ought to look like, it would be much more straightforward to identify individuals who are abusing the privilege to bring pets along with them or who have dogs that aren’t yet ready for full public access. I know that my dog must lie quietly at my feet under the restaurant table, not sniff at merchandise on the shelves, and tolerate being greeted by strangers. I know that a dog who is pulling at the leash, stealing food from tables, or exuberantly racing around in circles is not in a working frame of mind. It would seem that not everyone knows these things, including some individuals who claim to have a service dog.

Service Dog Teams should:
·         Be courteous and respectful of others: keeping the dog out of the way of traffic (dog under the table, next to the chair, etc.), keeping the dog well-groomed and tidy, as well as cleaning up any messes created by muddy paws or bathroom breaks
·         Remain in working position while working: dogs should remain on the ground/floor at all times unless working at a task that requires being carried or seated next to their owner/handler (i.e. dogs should not sit on restaurant benches, ride in grocery carts, or sit on waiting room chairs)
·         Be aware and under control at all times: service dogs should be focused on their owner/handler and their tasks, and the owner/handler should be aware of their dog’s needs, providing breaks as necessary and supporting the dog in exhibiting good behaviour
·         Be clearly identified: service dogs at work need to be easily distinguished from pets with a vest, harness, leash, leash tag, or other means appropriate to their work and circumstances. This makes it much easier for business owners and members of the public to behave appropriately when meeting a service team.

Service teams that do not meet these standards of behaviour should be asked to leave the public space they are in. Repeated problems should be reported to the appropriate investigative body (bylaw? the local police?) and fines assessed as necessary.
Owner/handlers who are unable to perform all the necessary maintenance and management (mobility impaired individuals who cannot do bathroom cleanup, etc.) should have alternative supports in place. It’s your responsibility to ensure things are taken care of, one way or another.

If every business and member of the public were aware that this is what a service team should look like, there would be fewer misunderstandings and challenges to legitimate working teams. If you look and behave like a service team, then chances are really good you are a service team (and if you aren’t, well, at least you aren’t causing any trouble). Anyone causing trouble can be asked to leave without fear of reprisals (“I’m disabled! You can’t discriminate against me!”) because the standards of behaviour are clearly laid out and it’s not discrimination to insist that the rules be followed by everyone.

I do believe that official certification should be available to service teams that wish to pursue it. Those who are willing to simply behave according to the guidelines and accept that they may be asked to leave if they are not up to the standards should be able to do so … but businesses should also be allowed to request that only Certified Service Dogs be allowed on the premises (assuming such certification processes exist for all types of service dog teams, and in all provinces, which they don’t, at present). This would limit public access for uncertified service dog teams to “dog friendly” businesses, while still providing full access for those who are certified.

In order to be a Certified Service Dog Team:
·         the team should have to pass a standardized public access test (such as the one offered at the JIBC) overseen by an authorized test administrator
·         present a letter from a health professional (medical doctor, registered psychologist, or occupational therapist) indicating that this particular individual requires this particular animal for full time support
·         present documentation from a veterinarian confirming that the dog is in good health, up to date on vaccinations, and that the veterinarian is confident in the owner/handler’s ability to care for the animal on an ongoing basis
Certification should be valid for three years, with the same documentation required at renewal. It would be best if the application and renewal fee were kept to an absolute minimum, as individuals with disabilities severe enough to require a full time service dog have a good chance of being on a limited income. Certification should come with an ID card like a driver’s license, with a photo of the owner/handler and the dog, and businesses should be allowed to ask that it be shown.

Serious or repeated complaints about a service team should result in withdrawal of certification and require the return of the Service Dog Team ID card, with severe fines for not complying.

Both active and retired service dogs should be allowed to remain with their owner/handler, even in accommodations that do not normally allow pets.

Service Dogs in Training should have to pass a slightly different test, also administered by an authorized tester, with more emphasis on the trainer’s skills. Service Dogs in Training require access to public spaces in order to develop their skills, and their handlers must be highly educated about how to train a dog successfully, when to remove them from situations, and how to deal with the public: mistakes will be made, and trainers need to be able to address these issues to the satisfaction of the test administrator. Veterinary documentation should also be required for Service Dogs in Training, but medical documentation would not be necessary, as the trainer is not necessarily the individual who will work with the dog in the long term.

Airlines should allow all Certified Service Dog Teams and Service Dogs in Training to be in the cabin.

Hotels should allow all Certified Service Dog Teams and Service Dogs in Training to be in their rooms. Hotels should be able to set aside a certain percentage of their rooms as “animal free”, for those who have allergies and sensitivities, but should be required to have a miniumum number (or percentage) of rooms available for individuals travelling with service dogs. No additional fee should be charged for a Certified Service Dog or Service Dog in Training. Any damage to the room should be treated the same way as if any other guest caused it – by charging the guest for restoration.

Taxis should allow all Certified Service Dog Teams and Service Dogs in Training to be in their vehicles. Taxi companies should be able to set aside a certain percentage of their vehicles as “animal free” and individuals with sensitivities should be able to request such a vehicle when they call for a cab. No taxi company should be able to refuse to transport a service dog team: if the company does not have a vehicle available for the team, they are obligated to arrange for one from another company.

Businesses with additional hygiene requirements (swimming pools, health facilities, etc.) should be able to apply for exemptions from allowing service dogs in specific areas, and this would need to be assessed on a case by case basis with attention paid to meeting the health needs of all users.

I believe that there is also a need for a category of support animal that is below that of full time service dog, but above that of “just a pet”. This would be similar to the Emotional Support Animal category in the US: I would suggest Certified Household Companion Animal. This title makes it abundantly clear that the animal is not granted public access rights, but is expected to be allowed in any household. This makes room for individuals with varying levels of difficulties to have a designated support animal in their home, even if the accommodations would not normally allow pets.
Like with Service Dog teams, the expectations need to be clear and unambiguous.

Certified Household Companion Animal owners are required to:
·         present a letter from a health professional (medical doctor, registered psychologist, or occupational therapist) indicating that this particular individual requires this particular animal for at-home support
·         present documentation from a veterinarian confirming that the animal is in good health, up to date on vaccinations, and that the veterinarian is confident in the owner’s ability to care for the animal on an ongoing basis
·         crate or remove the animal from the premises when notified by the property owner 24 hours in advance of service / landlord / maintenance / cleaning visits
·         keep the animal under control at all times: quiet, within the owner’s designated space, out of common areas (except in the course of going to and from one’s home)
·         clean up all animal waste within a reasonable time: if the person is unable to do this themselves, then they must arrange for a cleanup service to come at a minimum of twice per week

Landlords, neighbours, and members of the public should report concerns to the owner in writing, and if not adequately addressed within three weeks, should write again, sending a copy to the appropriate enforcement agency (local animal control? bylaw? police?).

Certification should be valid for five years with the renewal process requiring the same documentation as the initial certification.

Businesses may choose to offer services to Certified Household Companion Animal owners at a reduced rate (e.g. hotels may waive or reduce the pet fee) but this would be strictly voluntary. No business except those providing long term accommodations (rentals, landlords, condominium associations) should be required to accommodate Certified Household Companion Animals. There are many pet friendly hotels for individuals wishing to travel with their pet, so this is not an undue restriction.

I am very pleased to see that the provinces and the federal government are working to clarify the regulations surrounding service animals and public access in ways that recognize the needs of varying forms of disability and the wide variety of assistance that dogs, in particular, can provide. If I can be of any assistance in your work, please do not hesitate to contact me. I believe that all Canadians have the right to feel safe and comfortable in their surroundings, and Ben and I are committed to being good citizens, good guests, and good examples to others.

PTSD Support Dog: travel

We went on our first Big Family Vacation with Ben. He did awesome.

My parents live in Ontario, near Niagara Falls, and my sister and brother in law live in New Westminster, part of the greater Vancouver area. We all met up here on Canada Day and had a fantastic time together!

We booked a condo right on the water through AirBnB... The owner was gracious enough to grant an exception to the no pets policy for Ben. My dad loves dogs and Ben was very happy to hang out with Grandpa Art, even on the train. 

We used all kinds of public transit... Trains, buses, a trolley in the park, a boat to get to Granville Island.

We had an absolutely awesome time, all of us.

Letter to the Minister for Sport and Persons with Disabilities

to The Honourable Carla Qualtrough

RE: Support for Canadians who are ‘almost’ disabled

In February of 2011, I was diagnosed with Delayed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At first, I thought that with a few weeks off work and some intensive therapy work I’d be okay … then I thought, well, maybe six months … then maybe a year … and now, five and a half years later, I realize this is not going to go away.

I did apply for CPP Disability but was denied. You see, I tried hard to do what I could – I thought a gradual return would probably work for me. I first tried self-employment (running an online craft supply store), and when that was too much, I obtained my first aid instructor certification and taught classes for a company that was extremely flexible and understanding of my health issues. After a little over a year, though, I realized that I was making too many errors and that the strain was adversely affecting me, so I felt it best to resign. During this time, I applied for CPP but was informed that because I was able to do part time work, I did not qualify for benefits. When I appealed the decision, after winding up the store, downsizing my hobby farm, and resigning from teaching, I was told that because I’ve written a couple of books and have residual income from their publication, and because I’ve stabilized to some extent with medication and treatment, I still don’t qualify.
I’m not quite sure what sort of employment the Powers That Be expect me to take on: even the most flexible and understanding of employers is not going to be happy with an employee who lives with fluctuating levels of fatigue and mental competency. It’s also important to realize that the primary reason I have stabilized is that I’ve resized my life to fit my limitations … yes, I’m no longer suicidal on a regular basis and I am more comfortable overall. This is not evidence that I ought to be working, it’s evidence that accepting my limitations has improved my health.

And now, even if I could convince the appeals board that my psychiatrist and psychologist agree that even part time employment would be unwise, it’s been too long since I worked full time and so I cannot apply for CPP Disability again. Had I crashed hard at the beginning, I’d have qualified … but because I held on as long as I could and did as much as possible to return to the workforce, the delayed recognition that my condition is chronic and more disabling than I had anticipated has disqualified me from obtaining benefits, despite having contributed for over twenty years.
I am fortunate that my husband has a well-paying job and that my family are supportive and take good care of me. It is, however, disconcerting to know that should my husband lose his job (a real possibility, as he’s employed in the oil field), or should I find myself unwelcome in my home (it happened before … the associated mess is how I ended up with PTSD), I’m not well enough to take up the economic slack and there are no safety nets to catch me.

I would ask that the government consider making space for those of us who have tried our best and not overcome our personal obstacles. The five-year window for CPP disability application seems to specifically exclude those who make every effort to remain in the workforce and then either decompensate further with time, or find that even flexible self-employment is too much.
I would also ask that the government consider expanding the criteria for the Disability Tax Credit to open the door for those of us who are ‘on the edge’ of being disabled. People like me are dependent on the good graces of our spouses and families, and that’s a scary place to be. If there were a category for people who “manage most of the activities of daily living in their current environs but require support and oversight”, this would ensure that should circumstances change we are already noted as being vulnerable and would expedite the initiation of additional supports in case of crisis. This would also provide a measure of financial security through the Disability Savings program.

I am very pleased to see the changes that our new Liberal government has brought about, and I hope that in sharing my experience I can help you in the development of the new Canadians with Disabilities Act. Those of us with impairments – both visible and invisible, severe and moderate - look to you for support and protection. Please keep the needs of the “borderline disabled” in mind as you implement change: just because we are more or less coping with things at the moment, just because we look like we are doing okay, just because we have found ourselves in a safe place for the present … none of that means we aren’t vulnerable. And as Canadians, we know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: please put protections in place to catch us before we fall, so that we can continue to contribute as much as we can and not draw on the public resources any more than necessary.

I have included a copy of my book, Just Keep Knitting, which I wrote early on in my journey with PTSD, if you’d like to learn more of my background and how I ended up where I am, or feel free to pass it on to someone who might find it helpful.

Thank you so very much for your time,

Lonna Cunningham B.Sc. B.A.(Hon)

Alberta, Canada

28 July 2016

That's it.

The news is so overwhelming I'm not looking anymore.

The bull has gone walkabout and I haven't seen him... Though he might be hiding amongst one of the neighbour's herds. 

There are ripe raspberries everywhere out back. Gooseberries too. 

Cherries are in the dehydrator. 

I knit for hours today. 

Now I'm reading a book. 

Some days, this is what coping looks like. 


06 July 2016

PTSD Support Dog: info cards

I created these cards to carry in my bag and hand out to people who ask about Ben.

If you have a PTSD Support / Service Dog and are constantly barraged with questions, or just want to help raise awareness, feel free to modify them and make your own. I got postcards printed at VistaPrint for a very reasonable price. 

They have been very well received by everyone I've given them to... The staff ladies at a tourist attraction we stopped at told me that Ben was the best part of their day, and they were really interested to learn about his job. 

Oh, and when we got on the Aquabus on Vancouver, the guy at the dock read Ben's jacket tag and muttered (mostly under his breath) "PTSD dog ... Cool."

Made my day, that did.