Commission tackles issue of service dogs
By: Mary Agnes Welch
Posted: 02/27/2015 3:00 AM | Comments: 39
Last Modified: 02/27/2015 6:05 AM
DISABLED people with service dogs still face confusion and confrontation when trying to eat at restaurants, take taxis or even rent apartments.
And businesses stuck refereeing conflicts between customers want better rules.
That's the upshot of a series of public consultations on service animals held by the Manitoba Human Rights Commission last fall, consultations that were prompted by a boom in service dogs, especially for invisible disabilities such as anxiety or epilepsy.
The commission released its report summarizing the feedback Thursday and recommended more public awareness, including perhaps a TV and radio ad campaign.
"Even today, barriers still exist for individuals who are blind and/or deaf and use service animals," wrote the commission. "It appears, however, that it is individuals with invisible disabilities using service animals who currently experience significant barriers and whose rights are not well-understood by employers, service providers and landlords."
The commission's report comes in the wake of several controversies about service dogs, including the 2011 case of a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who was kicked out of a Brandon bar, along with his service dog, Gambler. Master Cpl. Bill Nachuk was told by staff his dog could not be in the bar, even though Nachuk presented the paperwork that certified Gambler was an official service dog. Brandon police, who were also involved, sided with the bar's management. It was against police Nachuk filed a human rights complaint. Police settled the complaint for an undisclosed amount before a formal hearing could take place.
More recently, Winnipeg teenager Mackenzie Lough has spoken out about the harassment she sometimes gets when she brings her Pomeranian into restaurants and stores with her. The small dog is a trained service dog able to help Lough manage her depression, anxiety and social phobia and to detect when she has forgotten to take her medication or may be about to harm herself.
Complaints to the human rights commission about service animals are on the rise. There are currently about 10 complaints working their way through the commission's process, and staffers say they get about one call a week from people asking for information about service animals.
"We have not done enough education in this province, and all of Canada, about the fact that the role of service dogs has really expanded," said commission chairwoman Yvonne Peters, who is blind and has had a service dog for decades.
At last fall's consultations, disabled people said they were fed up explaining to waiters, landlords or store staff the rules governing their service dogs.
"Many thought the simple message to convey to the public was, 'Service animals are allowed wherever the public is invited,' " said the report.
But business owners told the commission they felt caught in the middle, often trying to mediate between a disabled person and other customers who might be allergic or resent the presence of an animal in a restaurant or store.
Scott Jocelyn, executive director of the Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association, said it's unusual for his industry to ask for more regulations, but he said clearer rules on service animals are a must.
He said restaurant owners and staff want clear rules they can rely on when mediating between customers, especially if the animal isn't an officially certified service dog but still important to a person with anxiety or depression as a source of comfort and support.
"It can be complicated to know the right thing to do," said Jocelyn, adding staff never want to find themselves making a judgment call on whether a customer legitimately requires the help of the animal.
The commission's report recommends the province establish a working group on the issue of service dogs, and Jocelyn said he hopes that group will create some kind of certification or standardized identification for animals to help business owners.
Do we need a better definition of what a service dog is? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2015 A4
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