There’s no replacing eight-year-old Emery Spanik’s service dog Jacob, but for the time being little Hazel is providing a sense of healing.
He and his older brother Griffin got the puppy a little over a week ago, and since then, Emery says his spirits are lifted.
“It feels great having Hazel. I still wish Jacob could be here though,” he told Global News, in an interview at his Halifax home on Friday.
Jacob was taken away from Emery quite suddenly in November last year, reportedly for having failed an exam that put his qualifications as a service dog in question. For more than a year, Jacob had helped Emery overcome challenges associated with autism and severe ADHD – including trouble sleeping, behavioural meltdowns and running away from home.
The organization that removed him, the Maritime Service Specialty Service Dogs Society (MSSDS), wrote in a recent statement to Global News that it had concerns about the safety of both Jacob and Emery – concerns his parents don’t understand to this day.
They went public with their experience earlier this week, hoping to save another family from the heartbreak of losing a service dog. Georgia Vandewater, Emery’s mother, said she’s glad they did.
“I really appreciate the support and positive words that people are sending our way, but I also really appreciate the people who are like, well, what’s happening with Jacob? What was best for him? How does it look for him?”
Vandewater said the point of sharing their story was to start a conversation about service dog legislation in Canada, and on social media that conversation is taking off. As it stands, the Nova Scotia Service Dog Act lays out animal certification standards, and the right to have service dogs in public, but it doesn’t regulate service dog providers.
That means there’s no law outlining any duty of care to clients for groups that pair folks with service dogs. According to a written statement from the provincial Justice Department, “service dog providers are responsible for their own business practices and those that pair service dogs with a handler will usually have a contract/terms of agreement for conditions of placement.”
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That concerns Kim Gingell, the intake co-ordinator for Paws Fur Thought, which pairs service dogs with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“These dogs are going to people with mental health issues,” she told Global News. “So these people are trusting these schools, the hope is there that they’re going to help them. And then to have something like this happen? That’s totally destructive.”
But there’s a silver lining in this story – Gingell believes she has located Jacob. She says she bumped into him at a quilting retreat in New Glasgow last month, where he accompanied a military veteran as a service dog for PTSD.
At the time, the handler told Gingell that Jacob had formerly been paired with a boy with autism, and that she had received the dog from MSSDS.
“Which is really crazy,” Gingell explained, “because how do you take a dog trained for autism and turn it within six months, seven months to a service dog for PTSD? You’re talking apples and oranges, two different conditions. It just seemed unusual.”
She described Jacob as “healthy, friendly and well-behaved,” and assured that his new handler is well-equipped and taking excellent care of him.
The Maritime Specialty Service Dogs Society did not respond to requests for comment on this story, but in a previous statement defended its decision to remove Jacob from Emery.
Via email, MSSDS president Melanie Smith wrote that the Truro-based non-profit was responding to outside complaint about their pairing, and was contractually obligated to ensure everyone’s safety. As a result of this incident, Smith added, MSSDS has revised its “already stringent” service dog placement procedures to include a formal application and interview process.
The case still puzzles Gingell – she said if a service dog isn’t working well with a client, her organization will offer to pair the client with another dog, or have them retire the existing dog and keep it as a pet.
“There’s such a bond with your service dog. It’s more than just a pet, it’s a medical apparatus. She’s my insulin,” she said, waving to her own service dog on the couch beside her.
In the meantime, Emery says he’s happy that Jacob is safe and sound.
“I’m also happy that he’s with another trainer, but I wish he could stay with me forever and ever… But what happens, what happens!”