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 so NEVER pay to register a dog as an ESA dog if you're a Canadian!
- 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 trainer and also check the following:
- We suggest that you go to their Facebook page and look for references from people who have their dogs.
- Ask to see their dogs and talk to the people that have their dogs about their experience with the trainer.
- Ask what your role is in the process - good trainers understand that both ends of the leash need extensive training to be a good service dog team.
- 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. Ask to see their insurance certificate and make sure they carry at least $2 million in liability insurance. This is especially important if you are looking for a medical alert service dog where you health could depend on your dog's abilities to keep you safe.
- Reputable trainers also generally do not demand significantly 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 fully trained service dog" is also likely not performing according to our ethics. Good dog trainers know that even the best trained dogs only perform as expected about 80 - 90% of the time and some of a service dog's performance will depend on the skill of - and bond with - their dog. Even service dog experts note that only 3 of 4 dogs trained will be suitable to become service dogs. If you purchase a dog and it fails, you can try again but you are back to the 3 in 4 odds.... with those odds it would be possible to be unlucky twice (or more) in a row.
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. You SHOULD NOT PAY FOR THESE useless "certifications" and remember there is no such thing as a Canadian Emotional Support Animal, so those "certifications" are completely FAKE! A list of organizations who fall offer "fake certifications" is available on request using our contact form. There are currently only three exceptions to the rule of certifications - the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia test dogs and offer legitimate certifications recognized by law in their provinces, while the other provincial and territorial laws require only the DISABILITY OF THE PERSON to be certified. Organizations can easily offer their own certifications - anyone can set up a website and offer to send you a letter, or a jacket, or an ID card and tell you they have "certified you". These certifications are not worth the paper they are written on. What makes a certification worth anything is the size and credibility of the organization backing the certification AND whether it is accepted by law or at least recognized by many places where Canadians wish to take their service dogs (like schools). Two well-reputed organizations whose members have offered guide and service dogs in Canada for many years are noted above - however even ADI and IGDF members who provide clients with ID cards MAY OR MAY NOT have those certifications OR THEIR CLIENTS withSERVICE DOGS accepted by any organization within Canada (including school boards).
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.