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Room for guide dogs

Rufus, a 13-year-old black lab, is not a pet, says his owner, a Sundre senior.

“He’s more than a dog; he takes care of me,” said Jack Mortimer, 81, who has been legally blind since his mid-60s.

Mortimer said he’s still upset that Rufus, his guide dog for the past 10 years, was initially denied accommodations at a seniors lodge last month.

Mortimer is living with Rufus at Pioneer Place, an independent living facility in Sundre, but wanted to move into a residence that provided more care, such as the provision of meals, so he applied for a spot at Foothills Seniors Lodge, run by Mountain View Seniors’ Housing.

“They told me I couldn’t move in there with a pet. A pet!” he said. “They wrote me a letter about pets, pets, pets, explaining that pets could visit but not live at the lodge and I just about blew a fuse. ... Everyone loves Rufus. He hasn’t had one problem here at Pioneer Place.”

After taking his concerns to Sundre town council and the media, Mortimer said he met with Mountain View officials on Tuesday and was told Rufus could move into the lodge when a spot became available.

“But I haven’t decided if I want to move in there or not now,” he said. “I’m still upset about that letter.”

Rufus has never created an issue before; he’s even been on a plane to Colorado and was complimented by the pilot on his behaviour, Mortimer said.

Sam Smalldon, chief administrative officer of Mountain View Seniors’ Housing, said there was no “reversal” of a decision to allow Rufus to take up residence in the lodge.

“It was a conversation that didn’t get completed. Basically, the dog is permissible and so is Mr. Mortimer. Both have been accepted and both are on the wait-list for the first possible opening,” Smalldon said.

“It’s been addressed. It was basically a miscommunication,” he added, speaking to why Rufus was initially denied. “We were simply in the process of getting back to him on the issue and it got inflated to a higher level. We then had a meeting, clarified and both have been accepted. That’s all that happened.”

The non-profit seniors organization is developing a policy about guide dogs to avoid the same situation in the future, Smalldon said.

“This was new to us,” he said.

The situation made its way to the Alberta and Northwest Territories chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind earlier this week.

“Society needs to have a greater awareness about the work service dogs do on behalf of their handlers and that there is legislation at a provincial level and even the federal level that affords certain rights to people with disabilities, including those with visions loss, that are specifically designed to prevent this kind of thing from happening,” said John McDonald, executive direction and regional vice-president of the chapter.

“The dog is an extension of the person. The fact that we’re still talking about them like pets shows what a low level of awareness people have about the highly trained and expensive service dogs — a lot different than the family dalmatian.”

The Alberta Blind Persons’ Rights Act states in section five that accommodation is not to be denied to those who are keeping or customarily accompanied by a guide dog, so long as the guide dog is certified by the International Guide Dog Federation. The act also outlines that a person who contravenes section five is guilty of an offence and liable to a fine up to $3,000.

“At the end of the day it’s not about being critical or chastising any individual or organization,” McDonald said. “It’s about getting people to be educated about what it’s like to have a disability and how important these animals are to people’s independence and quality of life, as well as the fact there are certain accommodations they’re entitled to under the law.”

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