Opinion

Service dogs need to be recognized

We all know about vest- wearing trained dogs assisting the blind or deaf, or being tethered to autistic children to hold the kids from wandering off.

Now war veterans diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) are adopting dogs trained to calm or distract them as a way to cope with any anxieties.

Invisible brain injuries can lead to muscle imbalances that to a stranger (for instance, a police officer) may be misinterpreted as drunkenness. Similarly, people with PTSD and other psychiatric conditions may not appear to have anything external wrong with them. And due to the social stigma of mental illness, they may be reluctant to explain their condition or the dog’s trained tasks even in the vaguest of terms.

Such was the set-up that recently led to a Saskatchewan war vet being refused service at a Smitty’s in Prince Albert. Health laws forbid dogs in restaurants. Smitty’s owner said he was not made aware the man was an armed forces vet, nor that he had been diagnosed with PTSD and needed his dog Rylie to help him handle stressful situations.

A second soldier, Albertan Sgt. Shirley Jew, was turned away by Air Canada when she sought  to board with her service dog. The 48-year-old woman got her pug-schnauzer-terrier Snoopy last spring following her PTSD diagnosis in 2012.

The airline told Jew PTSD isn’t recognized as a disability that requires a service dog;  her dog would have to travel as a pet — for a $50 fee. (However, Westjet did accept Snoopy as a service dog and let him ride along beside her at no extra charge.)

Transport Canada’s rules specify on any plane with 30 seats or more a service animal must be accommodated without extra charge provided it has the necessary ID. But what is the necessary ID? And where do you obtain it? Gaining proper identification for a legitimate service dog can prove tricky. Scammers are charging from $20 to $200 for an official looking form without ever seeing the animal or testing its abilities to assist.

Air Canada later refunded Jew’s ticket and apologized, saying, “Air Canada does have a policy in place to accept service animals of passengers with disabilities. These disabilities are not limited to physical disabilities, if they are confirmed by a doctor’s note.” The note must be renewed annually.

Confrontations such as these two vets faced could be avoided if the government issued to people diagnosed with a permanent brain injury an identification card such as local resident, Yvonne Nielsen, has been advocating for years.

Her card would discreetly identify the medical diagnosis explaining why the card holder needed a psychiatric service dog or a companion animal. Onlookers would be denied intimate details of a person’s medical condition explaining the dog’s presence. Nor would bystanders witness a high decibel confrontation as restaurants and airlines refused to admit a dog. Authorities wouldn’t be left in the awkward position of apologizing or refunding fees.

When Premier Christy Clark held a town hall meeting in Terrace July 7, 2011 Nielsen presented the idea  to demonstrate she suffers an invisible but profound permanent brain injury affecting her balance.

Clark said she would look into it. So far the premier has not replied.

A white paper discussion in Terrace last month sought suggestions and ideas for improving accessibility for the disabled. It was noted various B.C. communities are asking for this ID card.

Until government issues the card, scammers can make a mint embroidering unauthorized vests for fake service dogs.

 

 

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