Why Canada Needs a Service Dog Awareness Week

What does Black Ivy have to do to win a little respect? 

By Si Si Penaloza

   

Get Leashed has been avidly following the case of an Ontario family advocating for the rights of their son and his service dog. We were gutted to learn that the family of an autistic boy lost the bid for his service dog to attend school. For children on the autism spectrum, a service dog can be just the comforting and grounding presence they need. An accredited service dog can help to calm them when feeling overwhelmed, keeping them safe, and give parents a little bit of an added safety net. No small feat for four paws, but service ace Black Labrador Ivy is clearly up to the task with her charge.

 
Photo: Fee Family

Yesterday, Ontario’s human rights tribunal ruled that a nine-year-old boy can’t bring his service dog with him to class. The tribunal, says Kenner Fee’s family, failed to prove that having Ivy in the classroom would help him with his education.

According to news reports, Adjudicator and tribunal vice-chair Laurie Letheren found that the Waterloo Catholic District School Board took all necessary steps to evaluate whether the dog was needed in the classroom, and supported the board’s decision not to allow the service animal to sit beside Kenner during lessons. The tribunal heard from Kenner’s family that his autism leaves him prone to agitation, emotional outbursts and even bolting from his surroundings, but that having Ivy beside him significantly helps regulate his behavior.

The ruling comes rather hot on the heels of a June 2017 news report of a Toronto mother who says they were “humiliated” after her son’s service dog was denied entry to not one, but two restaurants in a row. She told reporters restaurant staff tried to push them out the door. 13-year-old Bryan Sinato and his service dog Saxon. According to Lorena Sinato, Saxon is her son’s connection to the rest of the world. Sinato has cerebral palsy, is legally blind and autistic. Saxon gives him the confidence to go to everyday places.

The reality is, people that have invisible disabilities are targeted. School officials, restaurant staff and train attendants can’t “see” autism, epilepsy, bipolar disorder or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.. Yet these are the very conditions that are often alleviated with a registered service dog or therapy animal.

In March 2017, two Vancouver teens who are on the autism spectrum say they were kicked off the SkyTrain because of their service dogs. Annika Giesbrecht, 15, and Chloe Wildeboer, 17, boarded the SkyTrain at King George station in Surrey with their dogs and were followed on to the train by an attendant. The attendant then spoke to them about their dogs and asked to see proof that they were service animals.

“The dogs were sleeping under our seats like they’re supposed to and she just came and approached us after the doors closed,” Giesbrecht told reporters. Wildeboer said she was about to obtain her service dog certificate that day. Giesbrecht had an older version of the certificate, and the attendant said it wasn’t acceptable. The province has issued new service dog certificates with security features, but older certificates are still considered valid until they reach their expiry date. The teens said they were asked to leave the train at Surrey Central station, where they had to wait for their parents to pick them up. There were calls back in March for more awareness about people living with autism and their service dogs after the incident. This is why we don’t just need a day, we need a week at the least.

 

Service dogs must be accommodated in any space that is publicly accessible – from amusement parks to transportation hubs to posh sushi hot spots. The law is clear. Businesses have the responsibility to educate themselves and industry associations should help in the cases where language is a barrier.

The Fee family ruling was met with shock and dismay by some members of the autism community. Laura Kirby-McIntosh, Vice-President of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the decision represents a setback for education in the province since school boards can apply provincial accessibility guidelines according to their own discretion.

“The injustice here is that whether or not service dogs enter a school is going to be completely left to the discretion of 72 different individual school boards. To me, your rights should not change depending on your postal code.”

We could not agree more. Currently, Ontario’s education act does not treat schools as spaces that are open to the public, which is what permits boards to bar service animals from the premises if they wish. Kirby-McIntosh said there’s a pressing need for a province-wide education standard on all accessibility issues, including service animal access.

Fee’s lawyer Laura McKeen says the family is crushed by the decision and is considering their next steps, including Kenner’s future education plans. She says the Fees have the right to appeal the ruling, but have not yet decided if they will do so. “They truly believe that Kenner’s service animal Ivy is essential to his entire life, including and specifically his education,” she said. “The Fees are devastated by the impact that decision is going to have on Kenner going forward.”

The Aug. 30 tribunal decision chronicles a fight Kenner’s family began in April 2014 to get Ivy into the boy’s class, something that has not been allowed to date. The tribunal heard that Kenner had been matched with Ivy after training with the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, an internationally accredited school that provides service dogs to address a range of disabilities.

Kenner’s father, Craig Fee, told the tribunal that Ivy’s presence had made a noticeable difference in Kenner’s life and helped regulate his behavior. When he sought permission to bring Ivy into Kenner’s classroom, however, the request was denied.

 

Interestingly enough, the Board hinted at considering Ivy a “service crutch” as opposed to a “service comfort”. Board employees told the tribunal there were concerns that Ivy would set Kenner back in his independence, adding that he may rely too much on the dog rather than working directly with staff and peers. An interesting and polarizing stance to take; it’s no wonder the autism community is so riled up by this decision.

According to news sources, Kenner’s father and various professionals working with Kenner told the tribunal the boy’s anxiety got worse the longer he went without his service animal during school days. The decision said that assertion was not supported by testimony from board staff, who said Kenner was largely compliant with instructions and generally functioning fairly well academically. Behavior tracking sheets submitted to the tribunal noted instances when Kenner allegedly tried to leave the school yard and even climb out a window, but a special education teacher downplayed the incidents in his testimony.

He said in both cases Kenner threatened to go through with an escape, but stopped upon being prompted by a teacher. The teacher also denied an incident noted in a behavior tracking sheet indicating Kenner threw a chair, saying the student had never intentionally done anything to endanger himself or others. The teacher testified that Kenner was not visibly upset in class, though he did tell the tribunal that Kenner would sometimes yell out for Ivy.

Our solidarity goes out to the Fee family and those caught in the mire of misinformation or ignorance on the importance of service dogs in civil society.

Our devoted founder Dominika Gorecki recently served as a volunteer at one of Hilary Swank’s Hilaroo Charity day camps where children who may come from group homes in the Los Angeles area, as well as foster children, and adopted children, are paired with dogs (this year they come from Daphneyland Dog Rescue) and an adult buddy who will guide them through the experience, helping the dogs become “adoption ready”. Through the experience, both the children and the animals heal through Rescue, Rehabilitation and Responsibility Training.

Hilaroo is a 100% Get Leashed approved charity. To donate or volunteer please visit thehilaroofoundation.com and click the orange “donate” button in the top corner.