May 15, 2019 6:10 pm
Updated: May 16, 2019 8:48 am

‘202 holes in my heart:’ Halifax family reeling after service dog removal

WATCH: Emery Spanik's parents say Jacob, a certified service dog, helped their autistic son sleep, self-soothe and stay close to home. But they were shocked when Jacob was abruptly taken away for 'retraining' last year.

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Eight-year-old Emery Spanik says there are “202 holes” in his heart now that his service dog, Jacob, has been taken away from him.

For more than a year, the pair were attached at the hip, quite literally, tethered together while out and about with Emery’s family. They slept together, went to school together, and enjoyed gazing out of the living room window.

Emery has autism and severe ADHD. Before Jacob, he struggled with sleeping, social interaction, academic performance, and running away from home.

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The certified service dog helped him learn to self-soothe. Emery had fewer meltdowns, his grades went up and his parents were able to reduce his medication.

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

But on Nov. 7, 2018, Jacob was taken away by the Maritime Specialty Service Dogs Society (MSSDS), which trained him and paired him with Emery.

“I came back in the house and the boys were crying, and I said, ‘It’s going to be okay. We’ll find out what’s happening. I know we’re going to miss him, but he’ll be back, we’ll figure it out,'” recalls Emery’s mother Georgia Vandewater. “And that was it.”

According to a brief letter from MSSDS to the family, written more than a week after Jacob’s removal, Jacob had failed an exam conducted at Emery’s school, and was no longer qualified to be his service dog. Vandewater told Global News she had no knowledge of the exam, and was shocked when MSSDS appeared on their driveway, allegedly without warning, to take Jacob away.

Emery Spanik and his service dog, Jacob, enjoy some screen time together at the family home in Halifax.

Courtesy of Georgia Vandewater

MSSDS is a service dog non-profit based in Truro, N.S., and has been operating since March 2015. In a written statement to Global News, its president, Melanie Smith, said the organization notified the family last November that a third party “had reported concerns about the dog’s behaviour.”

“Once I observed the dog, I took him into my care, but immediately advised the family that this would be discussed further when Jacob was retested,” she wrote.

The Nov. 18, 2018, letter sent to Emery’s parents contains no details on that retesting, or which behaviours Jacob demonstrated that disqualified him as a service dog.  And while the contract signed between both parties outlines conditions for the dog’s removal, Vandewater says she still doesn’t know which conditions they violated.

“It’s really quite amazing the bond that the two of them formed,” she explained. “And the pride that Em took in this being his dog…

“How do you qualify your love for an animal, particularly one who helps your child so significantly?”

WATCH: Service dog not allowed in taxi at Halifax airport

In addition to the lack of communication, she takes issue with the manner in which Jacob was removed. She says Emery and her eldest son Griffin were crying, having had no time to prepare themselves to lose a part of the family.

Asked if she stood by the manner in which the dog was removed, or whether it met industry best practices, Smith of MSSDS responded that the organization’s contract “clearly set out its corresponding obligations to assure the safety of the children and… its service dogs.”

In her statement to Global, Smith wrote that she had evidence Jacob’s services weren’t benefiting Emery, and reason to believe Jacob’s safety was at risk. She did not elaborate on either, and declined an on-camera interview.

Vandewater categorically denies that Jacob faced any harm under the family’s care, and provided Global News with a letter from Emery’s doctor that said, “the positive impact of the dog, Jacob, is evident at the time.” Dr. Sarah Shea at the IWK Health Centre wrote that Jacob was a “well-trained dog,” and there had been no difficulties with his visits to the hospital.

“It is certainly helpful having him tethered to Emery, as Emery otherwise on visits here has tended to dash down the hallways,” she wrote. “There is definitely a safety benefit with the dog.”

Emery Spanik holds his new puppy Hazel just a few months after losing Jacob. Hazel isn’t a trained service dog, but the family hopes her presence will help.

Courtesy of Georgia Vandewater

Since the dog’s removal in November last year, Vandewater and her husband Aaron Spanik say Emery’s progress has plummeted. He’s back on medication, they told Global News, his school performance has dropped and he still wakes up at night looking for Jacob.

MSSDS said Jacob will not be retrained or re-paired with Emery, but would not reveal the fate of the dog. The organization said as a result of this incident, it has revised its “already stringent” service dog placement procedures to include a formal application and interview process.

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

It will also generally require proof from the recipient’s medical provider that dog’s new handler’s condition allows them to assume responsibility for the dog, whilst they benefit.

In the meantime, Vandewater and Spanik say they’re sharing their story as a caution to other families in search of service dogs. They had no recourse for what happened, apart from launching an expensive lawsuit.

“We trusted the organization that we were interacting with and we didn’t kind of look into how they did things versus how other organizations do things and frankly, that feels an awful lot like a mistake now,” said Spanik.

They now have a new puppy named Hazel, and while she’s not a service dog, they say she’s helping heal the 202 holes in Emery’s heart.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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