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New law to guarantee access for service dogs

Pam Andrews has multiple sclerosis so her service dog Cyber helps her pick up things – such as the crutch Cyber is clutching – and pull open doors, among other duties. She’s thrilled at proposed new legislation that will include provisions to provide her and her dog access to businesses and other places, and fine those caught pretending their pets are service dogs.— Image Credit: Wanda Chow/NewsLeader

Pam Andrews and her daughter-in-law had driven an hour to take her then-two-year-old grandson to a regional tourist attraction from her home in Richmond.

Andrews lives with multiple sclerosis and uses a scooter to get around. After they paid for their tickets, she was told her golden retriever service dog Cyber wouldn't be allowed inside.

She said the staff there questioned her need for the dog and didn't care that she had government identification showing Cyber is a certified service dog. She called the Burnaby-based Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADS), which trained Cyber, and even they weren't able to reason with the staff.

Andrews, 53, got their money refunded but to make matters worse, when she asked to use the restroom before the long drive home, she was denied access again until the staff agreed to escort her to the washroom and back.

It's situations like these that are all too common for people with disabilities who rely on the support of service dogs. It's also one that's about to change, thanks to new provincial legislation introduced to guarantee service dogs access to anywhere the public is allowed.

"With these changes we can make sure that a fully certified dog will be appropriately recognized and won’t result in someone with a disability being turned away from a service," Social Development Minister Michelle Stilwell said when the legislation was introduced recently.

Violators such as stores and restaurants who refuse entry to service dogs will also face stiffer fines of as much as $3,000.

Disability Alliance BC executive director Jane Dyson said tougher penalties were long overdue and the current maximum fine of $200 was "grossly inadequate."

The proposed Guide Dog and Service Dog Act, if passed in the legislature, will replace the Guide Animal Act which is about 30 years old.

As it was, Andrews said she didn't file a formal complaint against the tourist attraction because "at the time there was no teeth to the act."

Laura Watamanuk, executive director of PADS which was one of the groups involved in creating the new rules, said the changes are a long time coming. Currently, the only real recourse would be to file a claim with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, a sometimes arduous task.

The new law would be enforceable by fines levied by police, she said.

Andrews' MS results in fatigue and difficulty with balance and bending down. Cyber helps out by picking up everything from a crutch to a dropped coin, pushing buttons, pulling open doors and the like.

"He even puts his own dirty dish in the sink," Andrews said proudly. A reporter even watched Cyber hold off on accepting a treat of kibble until Andrews gave him the go-ahead.

Despite all that, she's been refused service by taxis, restaurants and even a hotel—she'd booked an accessible room but was told she'd have to use a pet-friendly one, yet her scooter wouldn't fit through that doorway. So she left.

Meanwhile, she'll occasionally see people pretending their pets are service dogs to get access. Generic-looking "service dog" jackets are available to anyone online, she said.

And it's people with legitimate service dogs that are most affected.

"Sometimes I get refused access and they'll say 'we had a badly-behaved service dog once,'" Andrews said.

That shouldn't be the case if it's a certified and properly trained service dog whose owners would also carry proper identification, she said.

"It is commonplace," Watamanuk said of the fake service dogs.

The misuse is by "people wanting their animal with them for ease and convenience, which is not fair for those that the act is supposed to be supporting," she said. "It is right of access for [people with disabilities] but it's not right of access for somebody who just, out of convenience, wants to take a pet along with them on a flight or to the mall."

The new legislation will tackle this as well, by making such incidents of misrepresentation subject to fines as well. It would also require guide and service dogs to be trained by an accredited facility, or to get certified to those standards if they are brought in from outside B.C. or are trained by non-accredited schools.

Certified service dogs will have to wear visible standardized ID tags or cards to make their status clear to business owners, landlords and transit staff.

The interest that's been shown in the new legislation since it was announced is a sign that people's awareness of the issue is being raised, said Watamanuk.

"I think the people that are out there just taking their own dogs as a convenience are going to be a little hesitant in doing so next time. I really believe that."

Puppies-in-training will also be given the same access as fully certified dogs, said Watamanuk who noted currently businesses provide access only on a goodwill basis but are not legally required to do so.

Dogs are the only animals that will be certified and recognized under the new law. Watamanuk noted that there's an ongoing issue in the U.S. of people claiming other species of pets as often non-legitimate service animals, from monkeys and ferrets to kangaroos and pigs.

Andrews is also thrilled that certified guide and service dogs will have their tenancy rights clarified so they won't be affected by strata bylaws restricting pets.

And retired service dogs will be protected, so owners won't have to give them up after a new dog takes over their duties.

That happened with Andrews' previous service dog, Gem, who supported her for eight years.

"The dogs get very attached, very loyal, they're with you 24/7 and to rip that partnership apart [is difficult]," she said. In her case, she was lucky to find a friend who lived one building over who could take Gem as a pet, an arrangement that got the blessing of PADS.

Watamanuk said the new rules will benefit both people with and without service dogs.

"A very large component is also protecting the public," she said. If she's going to a restaurant, she wants to know she'll be able to enjoy her meal even if a guide or service dog is present.

"I expect that dog is going to lay underneath the table, be seen and not heard and not a nuisance," she said. "The public is allowed that right as well, as much as we're allowed access."

Andrews added, as a testament to the training of certified service dogs, she's often told when she's leaving a restaurant, "we didn't even know the dog was there."

The new legislation, if approved, is expected to take effect this fall.

Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by BURNABYNEWSLEADER
Note: Materials may be edited for content and length

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