Guide dog owners call for national standard to regulate service animal training, ownership

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The service dog culture relies largely on an honour system, and critics say that system is as messy as a dog's breakfast.

Several owners of professionally trained guide dogs and service dogs are calling for a national standard in the growing world of so-called support animals, saying that a lack of regulation around the animals has given rise to fraud.

Shelley Adams of Halifax is blind and uses a guide dog, Pogo, to help her get around.

Adams says that, increasingly, she and Pogo encounter other dogs — both pets and service animals — in stores and coffee shops and that it’s a dangerous distraction.

“That puts me in danger because he isn’t focusing on me and getting me around. He’s focusing on this dog that’s barking or trying to play with him. It makes things very difficult,” Adams said.

READ MORE: Uber Canada slammed for letting drivers refuse service animals for religious reasons

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Advocates for the blind and visually impaired say people are bringing animals to places they never used to. They say if people call their pet a “service animal,” it’s like a free pass to bring it anywhere they want.

In 2018, for example, a woman tried to bring a peacock on board a United Airlines commercial flight, claiming it was her support animal. She was denied permission by the airline, which said it does not permit “unusual service animals” on board its planes.

READ MORE: United Airlines denies peacock support animal to board plane in New Jersey

Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania man told the Associated Press that his registered emotional support alligator, named Wally, eases his depression. Joie Henney, 65, frequently takes Wally out for meet-and-greets at places like senior centres and minor-league baseball games.

In Canada, some provinces regulate service dog training and certification.

But despite federal government promises to create a national standard, none exists.

Without that standard, owners can get service dog identification by filling out a few boxes online.

READ MORE: Manitobans confused over lack of service animal regulations

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Numerous websites sell ID products for service animals. They require no proof that the dog’s been trained or that its owner has a legitimate medical condition.

Military veteran Medric Cousineau, who relies on specially trained service dogs for his post-traumatic stress disorder, blames the rise in service animals on a gap in regulation.

“That entire industry would be shut down, stopped dead in its tracks, the moment there was a national standard, a national registry and a government that says: ‘We’re not gonna allow you to prey on our disabled individuals,’” Cousineau said.

READ MORE: Boy with autism not allowed to have service dog in class — Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

In the meantime, it can be tough to know which animals are legitimate service animals. Restaurant managers with whom Global News spoke say they take service dog owners at their word and allow them inside without confirming credentials.

Victoria Nolan of the CNIB says the organization is working with restaurant owners to help them distinguish between pets and service animals.

“Having these emotional support animals that are acting up sometimes and creating problems in the media, that just makes the situation worse because businesses start to be more skeptical about letting dogs into their business,” she said.

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Nolan hopes to bring as much clarity as possible to the current state of confusion surrounding service animals and guide dogs.

WATCH BELOW: Guide dog etiquette (April 2018)

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Guide dog etiquette