About 190 guide and service dogs are helping Albertans with disabilities and medical issues — and providing more education on the provincial regulations regarding their access to businesses and services in the community.
On Monday, a complaint was filed with the Red Deer RCMP after a guide dog for an Edmonton staff member with CNIB (Canadian National Institute for the Blind) said he was not allowed inside a Red Deer restaurant. They were in the company of another CNIB employee.
“It just shows to me we have a huge hill to climb as an organization and as a society,” said Jung-Suk Ryu, CNIB director of public affairs.
“There are probably a lot of instances out there where people with guide dogs or service animals are denied access and they really wouldn’t know the avenue to report it. We knew that we needed to report it to the RCMP because it was breaking the law. Not everyone else would know so I think they go under-reported.”
Alberta’s Service Dogs Act, enacted in 2009, states that individuals with disabilities who are accompanied by qualified service dogs must be allowed access to restaurants, taxis, buses or any other location where the general public is allowed.
It is an offence to deny access to any public place to individuals who use qualified service dogs.
Those found in violation can be fined up to $3,000.
Ryu said when there is a denial of service, it’s usually a lack of understanding of what a guide or service dog does.
“They don’t understand this isn’t a companion for the sake of being a companion. This is a companion for an individual, in the case of vision loss, to walk down the street safely in a straight line or being able to avoid certain obstacles when travelling,” Ryu said.
John Wheelwright, executive director with Edmonton’s Dogs with Wings, which trains guide and service dogs and pairs them with people, said denial of service happens far too often.
“Usually when you explain it to an organization, a restaurant, a cab company, whatever, they say, ‘OK we get it.’ But it’s really something that needs some public awareness,” Wheelwright said.
“Would you say no to someone who is attempting to get into your restaurant in a wheelchair? Of course not.”
He said certified dog trainers also require access to businesses in the community while they train animals.
Dogs are trained to help a variety of people, for example children with autism, people with hearing loss, and many more medical conditions.
But Wheelwright said there is also the issue of people who buy a fake service vest and identification for their family dog.
“Very few people are going to fake a guide dog. That just doesn’t happen. But service dogs, yes, it is a growing problem because it’s easier to fake that.”
Guide dogs wear a harness with a rigid handle to provide more physical support for their owner.
People can be fined up to $300 for claiming they have a disability when they do not in order to bring their dog, which is not a service dog, into a public place.
The Service Dogs Act also addresses the rights of businesses.
Protection under the Act does not apply if the owner does not control the behaviour of their service dog. The dog owner can be asked to leave.
Ryu said it’s understandable for business owners to ask questions. But the rights of individuals with disabilities must also be respected.
“Vision loss can happen to anyone of us. We’re not immune to it. We may be one day in a position where we need to rely on service dogs.”