Deanna Allain has found an unconventional way to train her Labrador retriever Carlin to become a service dog: take chances.
â€śWe just really take a gamble and hope no one kicks us out,â€ť Allain said.
The 18-year-old Hamilton resident has been involved with Autism Dog Services since she was 10. Carlin, her current trainee, is 19-months-old and a few months away from completing a two-year training program to become a certified autism service dog.
But unlike guide dogs for people with visual disabilities, which must receive formal training and certification under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA), Allain says thereâ€™s no such requirement for service dogs in Ontario.
â€śThe really interesting thing under the AODA is that the qualifications for a service animal is actually a note from some kind of a physician,â€ť she said.
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As thereâ€™s no official requirement for a service dog to undergo formal training, Allain said itâ€™s at the discretion of property owners and managers of public places whether she can have access to those premises when sheâ€™s training dogs â€” something she hopes the Ontario government will change.
â€śYou canâ€™t train a dog unless you bring it out in public,â€ť she said.
When he graduates, Carlin will be matched with a family with an autistic member. Carlin will be equipped with skills to respond to situational needs of someone with autism.
Techniques such as anchoring (preventing an autistic child from suddenly sprinting into life-threatening situations) and depression therapy (holding down an autistic child and keeping them safe if they collapse) â€” are part of the training program.
According to National Service Dogs, an Ontario charity training dogs for various capacities, service dogs can offer support to autistic or epileptic individuals. They can also alert people who are deaf to certain sounds and lead their handlers to the source of that sound. They can be trained to protect a person having a seizure or detect it before it occurs, recognize anxious behaviour and physically steer individuals to more positive activities.
As part of the training, Allain spends at least 20 hours a day with Carlin. That includes time spent at home or sleeping in the room â€” â€śHe has a lot of down time because heâ€™s a puppy as well,â€ť she says â€” but a significant amount is spent going out to different places, such as school, work and shopping centres.
Carlin wears a vest identifying him as a service dog in training, but Allain says it hasnâ€™t always prevented them from being denied access to public places. Sheâ€™s always had to do a lot of explaining at restaurants, shopping malls and on public transit. Most of the time sheâ€™s eventually allowed to proceed, she says.
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Allain and Carlin have always been allowed on Go trains and buses, allowing the dog to become familiar with the transit environment during the training period, she said.
Allain said the absence of a formal certification requirement for service dogs creates a loophole that people exploit, sometimes putting a vest on any kind of dog and pretending theyâ€™re service dogs.
In British Colombia, the Guide Dog and Service Dog Act gives service dogs in training the right to access public places. A similar guideline exists in Halifax.
â€śOur ultimate goal is to see a new piece of legislation go forward,â€ť said Allain, whoâ€™s headed to McMaster University this fall to pursue a degree in political science. She believes a training and certification requirement would guarantee broader access to public spaces in Ontario.
â€śWeâ€™ve been lobbying the provincial government for approved service dog accessibility, just independently.â€ť
Craig Burley, a local lawyer who is supporting Allain through the lobbying process, said he has seen firsthand how access to a trained service dog can make a difference.
His 15-year-old son Jay has autism, and received Chester as his service dog about five years ago.
â€śItâ€™s been life-changing, both for us and for Jay,â€ť said Burley, noting his sonâ€™s school performance has improved significantly since having Chester.
â€śChester helps Jay retain emotion, calm and control in stressful environments like school. Chester is always there as a companion and confidant and helps Jay stay focused on task.â€ť
He said there are many families in Ontario who need service dogs to help their children, and a law that guarantees proper certification would go a long way in helping those families.
â€śConcerns of access into schools have kind of illuminated this issue, but there are concerns over public access as well, whether thatâ€™s public transportation or otherwise, that people have experienced.â€ť
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo