Service Dogs: A Lifeline

Hope O’Keefe and her service dog K9 Forest pose in front of the bear statue at the University of Calgary, located in Calgary on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. Forest has been with Hope since he was eight weeks old and got certified as a service dog at 22 months. (Photo by Pamela Olea/The Press)

As the rise in mental health services becomes more common, an increase in falsely certified service pets impacts the work of legitimate service dogs.

There are currently many tools to help people with physical, mental, and emotional health, and one of these tools has been service dogs. Service dogs are trained to perform certain tasks, depending on their handler’s needs—or in other words—the person they’re trained to help.

Regulations to train and have a service dog vary across territories, but in Alberta, there are several organizations and schools that raise, train and match dogs to their person. These province-wide organizations operate based on the requirements set by the Alberta Training Standard in the Service Dogs Act.

Not to be confused with ESAs (emotional support animals), service dogs perform different kinds of tasks to help people with disabilities, including physical or mental limitations resulting in issues with mobility, PTSD, autism and others.

The most notable difference between ESAs and service dogs is that ESAs don’t need any training or paperwork, since they do exactly what their name says—provide emotional support.

While an ESA can be any animal (potbelly pig or chicken, for example) the only animals that provide therapy are dogs and less popularly, horses. Unlike service dogs, ESAs and other pets don’t have access to public spaces like supermarkets, malls or cinemas—to name a few.

Service dogs typically receive one to three years of training.

The first half is focused on general manners in public, like refraining from barking, sniffing, or interacting with other humans or pets aside from their handler.

The second half of training focuses more on teaching the dog the specific tasks they’ll need to perform to keep their handler safe. These tasks include, but are not limited to, interrupting behaviours such as tics that could harm their handler, applying deep pressure therapy, guiding them through spaces, etc.

The lack of awareness business owners generally have related to service dogs prevents them from being able to tell which behaviours to expect and which to be on the lookout for.

A Calgary trainer, John Seaborn, who has worked closely with service dogs for 60 years says, “The biggest thing that needs to be addressed with respect to ‘service dogs’ is that too many people today are obtaining documentation over the internet that their dog has been service trained.”

In Calgary, on top of the dogs’ duties complying with the training standard, owners also get a government-issued service dog ID, which is meant to be used by public establishments to verify the service dog’s job.

Recently, these IDs have increasingly been falsified and forged to allow pet owners to take their pets into service dog-exclusive public spaces like supermarkets or malls.

Hope O’Keefe has had her Great Dane K9 Forest since he was eight weeks old, and got him certified as a service dog at 22 months. O’Keefe speaks on the hardships fake service dogs cause legitimate service dogs and their handlers.

“Getting on planes with a service dog now is a lot more difficult. They really want you to try to prove a whole lot more because of these fake service dogs going around.”

When pet dogs spot service dogs in public, they interact with them as they would with any other regular dog, by barking, sniffing, growling, etc. These behaviours disrupt the service dog’s work and distract them from paying attention to their priority—their handler, whose life is put at risk.

O’Keefe talks about the dangers of untrained or fake service dogs in public spaces that interact with legitimate service dogs. “That dog is someone’s lifeline, and also if it gets attacked, if it’s around a misbehaving dog, that dog could endanger their job.”

In general, service dogs should be perceived as a fly on the wall. They don’t interact with their exterior and external people or animals shouldn’t interact with them when they’re working—that’s why petting or calling for attention for a dog at work is not advised, since it’ll distract them.

O’Keefe has created a platform on Instagram and Tiktok featuring Forest, her service dog, which is meant to spread awareness about service dogs. Things like asking for a service dog’s handler’s disability or implying they’re faking a disability because it’s not visible are some of the topics she covers on these social media platforms.

Like other owners, Andrea D’Amours also has people come up to her and ask about her dog. “They’re like, ‘What’s he for?’ That’s so inappropriate. That’s kind of like saying. ‘What’s wrong with you?’,” D’Amours says.

For D’Amours—a mom looking for a service dog for her son—looking for agencies that provided fully trained dogs became difficult after realizing the wait time it required. “This was during COVID. Their backlog was insane, their waiting list was closed, and it was a two-year waitlist, and they weren’t taking any more names,” she said.

D’Amours adopted her dog Wally from AARCS (The Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society) when he was seven months, and is also owner-training him with the owner-trained service dog program at Aspen Service Dogs.

Other organizations in Alberta, including PADS, BC & Alberta Guide Dogs and others, have developed training programs where people can adopt a dog—or bring their current puppy—and train them themselves, with professional guidance and a valid service dog graduation certificate.

The reason for these initiatives came from the high cost of getting a program-trained service dog involved, and the fact that service dog schools typically only train for one disability—whether this is for mobility, eyesight, PTSD, autism, or other.

“I have multiple disabilities so that’s why ‘owner-training’ my service dog is good for me,” says O’Keefe. “Program-trained will only train for one disability or the one thing that you’ve mentioned to them.”

Regulations for service dogs vary across provinces and territories in Canada, which makes it difficult for handlers and their dogs to travel across the country.

“I just want to express the changes that really need to be made in Canada about the fact that we don’t have an all-around service dog law that’s provincial-wide or territory-wide,” says O’Keefe, who was separated from Forest for a month after moving to Calgary from Yellowknife – where there are no regulations to have a service dog.

I just want to express the changes that really need to be made in Canada about the fact that we don’t have an all-around service dog law that’s provincial-wide or territory-wide. – Hope O’Keefe

To be able to live with her dog at the University of Calgary’s residence, O’Keefe had to first leave Forest behind to work on her dog’s forms for a public access test.

“That caused me to have a lot of hardships because for the first month I was here I did not have him with me,” she shared. “This was after a year and a half of him being with me every single day and helping me with these disabilities. It really affected me in a negative way.”

At the end of the day, service dogs are medical tools and a lifeline to their handlers. Therefore, actions like bringing your pet to work under the argument it’s a service-trained dog could affect the service dog’s work and their handler’s physical and psychiatric well-being.

About Pamela Olea Ibarra 3 Articles
As a news reporting and communications major in the journalism program at SAIT, Pamela Olea Ibarra is working as a writer for The Press in 2022-23.