Service Dogs in Canada
What is a Service Dog or Assistance Dog?
A service or assistance dog is a dog whose presence and training mitigates the effects of a person's disability. These dogs can help a person with a vision or hearing impairment navigate the world, help a person on the autism spectrum self-regulate and maintain social ties, alert a person to a medical issue and more. Dogs who work with the vision-impaired or hearing impaired are generally called either guide dogs or hearing dogs rather than service dogs but the service dog laws apply to them (sometimes they even have extra laws made just for them). Guide dogs were the original types of service dogs in Canada - developed to support survivors of the 1917 Halifax Explosion (the biggest human-made explosion in the pre-atomic era that was the single largest mass-blinding event in Canadian history) and returning World War 1 soldiers.
In Canada, a dog does not qualify as a service dog or assistance dog if:
- they are present for protection
- they are present for personal defence
- they are present for emotional comfort or are an emotional support animal (unless they are acting to mitigate a psychiatric disability as certified by a medical professional) **NOTE: ESA is a term that has legal standing in the U.S. ONLY!
- they are therapy animals and well-behaved canine citizens who visit with people in situations such as hospitals or during personal counselling sessions
- they are facility or working dogs who provide emotional comfort in situations such as courtrooms or help first responders (for example, facility dogs that are present to support victims of crime, search dogs or cadaver dogs)
Services dogs have been shown to make a significant difference to many people with disabilities, enabling them in multiple ways. The benefits of service dogs can include increased independence, social relationships, self-esteem, and life satisfaction, and decreased anxiety, stress, and loneliness.
While mitigating a disability can be a significant support to many, some may find the benefits of having a service dog are outweighed by the ongoing maintenance, training and daily life challenges involved in owning a dog who is working in public. For example, many service dog users still find themselves in challenging and frustrating situations when trying to access public facilities and places such as cabs, restaurants and retailers. Private citizens visiting these places may take issue with a dog who does not look like the breed historically most chosen as a service dog (the Labrador Retriever) or may interrupt the dog and person's daily life - interrupting the dog's work by patting or calling them, or approaching the person to chat about the dog or dogs in general. Maintaining training can take an hour or two a week. Maintaining an environment that allows the service dog to remain healthy (a clean home, access to water, 30 minutes a day of off-leash exercise and so) can be challenging for some. A psychiatric disability may make it difficult to provide the stability and structure every dog requires to lead a healthy life.
If you are considering a service dog, we encourage you to review the information below and thoroughly investigate your options before choosing a trainer or organization.
Service Dog Training
Training for dogs who are expected to behave well in public is lengthy and ongoing. For the first two years of a dog's life, the dog should not be expected to work for a specific person. Rather, they are "in training", under supervision and expected to learn all they need to perform flawlessly on adulthood. As they learn, the dog should be continually assessed for any issues that would rule them out as a service dog later in life (for example, reacting at other dogs and people on leash, significant fear and anxiety, fear of novel items and situations and so on). Once the dog has matured, an additional several months intensive work is generally required to learn the specific skills that they need to work for a specific person. For example, a guide dog learns to navigate a person in complex situations, an autism service dog learns to provide strong body pressure to get their person through a "meltdown", a diabetic alert dog is taught an alert behaviour when they scent a change in their person's body chemistry and more. Once these specific skills are learned, they must be maintained... in the same way that cars need ongoing maintenance to run well. Regularly weekly and daily training sessions will be required.
There are two types of training that CAPDT members may offer that can support a dog "in training" to become a service dog or performing as one when they are matured:
1. General family dog manners training - Dogs that are candidates to become service dogs may benefit from attending general family dogs manners training to learn skills like sit, down, stay, etc. Most CAPDT members welcome service dogs in training to their regular manners and obedience classes.
2. Training in Public Access and/or Specific Skills - Some CAPDT member-trainers offer specific training in public access (special skills for going to malls, etc.) and in specific skills (such as diabetic alerting). If a CAPDT member offers these skills, they will be noted on their member profile. Before engaging a CAPDT member in these areas, you may find it useful to read our article on choosing a service dog trainer, or view this webinar on Service Dogs in Canada from one of our members. (note: please use the contact form to email us and request this information at this time). Typical dog trainer insurance does not cover training service dogs, so it is important to check that the trainer is specifically insured for this portion of their business. Reputable trainers also generally do not demand large up front payments before service is provided - this can be considered a red flag and a potential indicator of "if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is". According to the stringent CAPDT Code of Ethics, guarantees can also not be provided so any trainer who is "guaranteeing you a service dog" is also likely not performing according to our ethics.
Large programs which provide already trained dogs to people with disabilities:
There are also number of well-respected programs in Canada that train and make available service dogs to the community of people with disabilities. They are primarily Canadian Association of Guide & Assistance Dog Schools members and operate on a not-for-profit basis:
COPE Service Dogs (Barrie)
Dogs with Wings Assistance Dog Society
Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides
MIRA Foundation Inc.
National Service Dogs Training Centre, Inc.
Pacific Assistance Dogs Society
Dogs that are provided by these schools are considered "certified by the [school name]" and may have an I.D. card. However - these cards are not required for legal certification in Canada and are "nice" but not mandatory for owners. However, some school boards will only allow dogs trained by these organizations or certified according to the laws of B.C. or Nova Scotia into their schools. That's because these schools are members of international organizations that require a high standard from their members and audit them regularly (for example, Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation). Schools believe these dogs may receive more comprehensive training than those trained by private for-profit companies or individual owner-trainers who may never have trained a service dog before. There are both pros and cons to obtaining a dog from these schools. Generally, the schools maintain ownership of the dog. This can prevent the owner from things like competing in dog sports. However, a benefit to this approach is that if the dog is not a good "fit" or ages out/needs retirement, the school may provide a replacement dog. Each school is different and you may wish to request to see the placement contract the school will require the dog recipient to sign.
"FAKE" Providers of Credentials
The CAPDT is aware that there are a number of organizations who claim to certify, accredit or otherwise recognize a dog in Canada as a service dog. NO CERTIFICATE, CERTIFICATION provided by ANY organization is required in public access in Canada and you SHOULD NOT PAY FOR THESE useless "certifications"! A list of organizations who fall into this category is available on request using our contact form. There are currently only three exceptions to this rule - British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia test and offer legitimate certifications, while most provincial and territorial laws require only the DISABILITY OF THE PERSON to be certified.
Most provincial and territorial laws require that a medical professional provide a letter to the person seeking a service dog stating that they believe a service dog would be helpful to mitigate the individual's disabilities. Check with your local laws to ensure the wording of this letter meets their requirements - the local laws are listed below.
There are a number of federal and provincial/territorial laws that govern how service dogs are permitted in public life:
Transport Canada Advisory Circular - Passenger Seating Requirements & Accessible Air Transportation (Space required for service animals)
Canada Transport Act - Air Transportation Regulations - Terms & Conditions of Carriage of Persons with Disabilities (Section 149 - Service Animals)
National Defence and Canadian Forces Ombudsman - Travelling with a Psychiatric Service Dog or Emotional Support Animal: A Guide for Canadian Armed Forces Members and Veterans
Phone Toll free - 1 855 587-0185 (press option 5)
Phone Direct - 250-387-6414
Blind Person's Rights Amendment Act (which adds specific protection for service dogs for the Deaf.)
Food and Food Handling Establishments Regulation (see section 9)
Health Protection and Promotion Act - Food Premises Regulation
Prince Edward Island
Newfoundland & Labrador
Benefits for Service Dog Owners
There are some public benefits available for people with disabilities who own service dogs. For example, Revenue Canada provides tax relief and individual provinces and territories may provide those on public assistance with extra support for keeping a service dog (i.e. providing an extra allowance for food). Here is the Canada Revenue Agency's information, check with an individual's provincial tax regulations or social assistance caseworker for more information. There are also private benefits - for example the Canadian National Institute for the Blind offers a funding program for guide dogs that require very expensive veterinary care.