A short public service message


It’s the damnedest thing: when I visit the website of discount store Winners, I find nothing in its “In the News” section or in its “In the Community” section about an Edmonton outlet’s clumsy mistreatment of an autistic child. The store’s behaviour certainly counts as interaction with the community, and has certainly made news. International headlines, even!

Young Emily Ainsworth travels with an “autism service dog” named Levi. Emily’s mother points out that service animals are “permitted in public under human rights legislation”, which is a very slight simplification. Alberta law actually specifies [PDF] that retailers cannot discriminate against customers on the basis of “physical reliance on a guide dog [or] service dog”; there is no Alberta Human Rights Commission caselaw on autism service animals.

But the likely reason for this is that Emily would certainly win any such case in a resounding slam-dunk. Most people working in retail jobs are probably vaguely familiar with the functions performed by guide dogs for the blind, and would know better than to challenge one. It may be somewhat natural, however, for a cute, physically well child accompanied by a dog to arouse skepticism—even though certified service dogs like Levi have special identifying vests and papers that can be produced on request.

So it would probably help prevent embarrassments if people realized that autism dogs are not just present for emotional support. Autistic children are impulsive, and can’t always interpret signs and orders; an autism dog is trained to physically protect them. A service dog training facility in Lynden, Ont., explains it this way:

One of the key roles of ADS service dogs is to provide safety outside of the home, in public settings and at school. The service dog acts as a physical anchor for the child with autism. A tether made of nylon webbing joins the service dog and child. The webbing is connected around the child’s waist, like a belt, and links up to a ring on the dog’s service dog jacket. ADS trains the service dogs to respond to commands given by the caregiver or educator. The service dog is specially trained to stop on command. As a result this prevents the child from entering into potentially dangerous situations (i.e. roadways, parking lots, bodies of water, ravines, etc.) and gives the caregiver or educator the much needed time to intervene and direct the child back onto the safer path. The service dog also prevents the child from wandering away from the family while out in public settings.

In short, autism service dogs are not much different in principle from guide dogs for the blind, and provide for personal independence in a closely analogous way. If you’re a retail clerk, host, receptionist, or proprietor, you should be aware of this. If only for your own good.


A short public service message

  1. My missus works with autistic kids and she says dogs wicked awesome for some. Not all children respond well but those that do are really helped.

  2. Except that there is an entire sham indistry on the web where a handful of unscrupulous wankers sell “certification” of dogs for anywhere from $250 to $3000, send you a badge and a nylon vest for your dog, and a laser printed diploma. No training required. How does the minimum wage dude at Burger king tell the difference?

    There is no “official” classification for what constitutes a “service” animal in Canada. Having such a standard would remove a lot of confusion and suspician, and would lead to better treatment for those with legitimate need for such an animal.

    Hey Colby, feel like taking on a cause?

    • The rule as it operates, from the standpoint of the “minimum wage dude at Burger King”, is pretty simple; if the dog has a vest, has papers, and isn’t disruptive or filthy–i.e., it conforms to the actual international behaviour standards for service animals–then the correct course of behaviour is “Shut up and don’t make a scene.” We can live with an extra-legal rule like that because even fake service animals are, as you point out, expensive; the rule is not easily abused by opportunists.

      Whether autism families are being swindled is another issue (obviously an important one). I don’t really know anything about it, but I know that those families have a powerful, close-knit information network that, I would hope, sees off unscrupulous providers in pretty short order.

    • The “minimum wage dude at Burger King” has no right to decide the difference nor responsibility to do so. 

      • I couldn’t disagree with you more, Victoria! Its no different than asking someone for identification when they look young and are trying to buy liquor or tobacco. You don’t want to take part in the exercise, then fine: I’m sure there’s a desk job somewhere with your name on it.

    • Agree with you that ordering a vest and fake docs over the internet is quite a problem. Can’t speak for other provinces, but Alberta certainly has a definition of a Service Dog and its right in the Act. Furthermore, the Alberta government issues you identification confirming your dog’s status as a Service Dog. If the clerk at Burger King is unsure, all he/she needs to do is ask to see the identification. Any Guide or Service Dog user who is playing by the rules would be more than happy to show their legit.

  3. I was at a Winner’s in NB recently, and heard the unmistakable yapping of a small dog. In this case, unfortunately, no one on staff seemed to notice, and no one asked the person to take the dog out.

    Service dogs are great, but I have no patience with people who insist on bringing their purse dogs or dogs in baby carriers into stores.

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