I’ve been really looking forward to writing this blog but it’s taken me forever to get to it and finish. So much has been happening but for now I’ll focus on our topic: service and assistance animals. I’m very passionate about this particularly since the subject impacts me all the time.
For those of you who may not know, I have an assistance animal / psychiatric service dog. Her name is Mia (often referred to as Muffin), and she’s my miracle bundle of love and joy. We rescued each other at a very dark time and ever since, we’ve only gotten closer. Mia has helped me tremendously by accompanying me at work, school, stores, hospitals. etc. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Muffin.
She helps me go out with less fear/anxiety and makes it easier to connect with others. She also helps my mental stability by being a constant in spite of my unpredictable mind). Mia can calm me down from anxiety attacks and help get me moving again when depression hits. If my thoughts get too dark, her presence means that I’m less likely to act on these thoughts. More specific tasks are in progress but her help is already immeasurably valuable.
How Mia became my PSA
I had wanted Mia to be my Assistance Dog for a while, so I researched what was necessary. I saw that the first most important step was approval/recommendation from a psychiatrist. Mine gladly did this for me since he knew how much Mia was already helping.
6 months later I was in a crisis centre and because of the note from my psychiatrist, Mia came with me. (Thank goodness!) I was overwhelmed and really wanted to find out how I could get her real training and full certification. There was a very kind crisis worker who found some options for us and once we got out, I signed up. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out come exam time. (I foolishly applied for personal AND visiting therapy dog designation because I wanted to do zoo-therapy with Mia too. She passed the ‘personal’ test but not ‘visiting’. It would’ve taken a new exam (and another payment) to certify Mia for ‘personal’ only.
I was discouraged, but soon after I met a client at work in training with her PSD. She’s a lovely woman and recommended Chiens ASE. Mia and I have been in this program for at least a year now and it’s much more serious in my opinion. It hasn’t been without issue, but I’m extremely grateful nonetheless.
Service/Assistance Animals require serious training and shouldn’t be confused with Emotional Support Animals. This isn’t to diminish the helping ability of support animals but rather to explain and justify the difference in rights. Support animals don’t require training and are allowed in housing where pets aren’t allowed. Otherwise, they don’t have special rights for public access.
Assistance and Service Animals do have public access. This includes restaurants, stores, shopping malls, schools, hospitals (with the exception of certain departments), the cabin of airplanes (regardless of size), etc. This is due to the strict training and regulations involved.
Hence, it frustrates me to my core when people act like Mia doesn’t belong. If they think she’s an ordinary pet, I understand; I would probably raise an eyebrow too. But if they still act personally offended after seeing her harness, or worse – have been presented with her card… Please. Get a life, or get informed. Harsh? Maybe. But dealing with this day-in-day-out has left me a teensy bit resentful.
Let’s Talk Problems:
Some of you may not have been aware that there are assistance/service animals for mental health problems. You wouldn’t be alone! Animals for mobility and other physical illnesses are more easily accepted. Mira is the best example of this.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for psychiatric issues. As you can imagine, it poses a significant problem for those in similar situations as the Muff and I.
The Root of the Issue:
After going through this for a while, I’ve become pretty experienced and familiar with the whole situation…and not just from the patient angle. Part of our training is about the laws and my friend with a service animal also happens to be a lawyer. (She even fights cases of unjust refusal of assistance/service animals.)
Now let’s dive into the root of misunderstanding. As usual, I suspect that ignorance is the biggest barrier we face.
Here are the specifics:
1. The high percentage of people who are unaware of there being certified assistance/service animals for mental health problems.
2. People usually being accustomed to seeing large dogs and specific breeds in the role of assistance/service animals. (Labradors and Bernese Mountain Dogs for example.)
3. People expecting to see an apparent ‘reason’ for needing such an animal.
4. Frustratingly, there are too many people taking advantage of fraudulent websites to gain illegitimate status for their animal(s). When these animals misbehave in commerces, they give a bad name to those of us who’ve spent a lot of time, energy and money by proceeding legally.
As you can probably imagine, Mia and I are affected by three main factors: She provides psychological aid, she’s a tiny Yorkie, and I don’t appear handicapped.
Before I go on, I’d like to qualify something. I understand that not everyone knows about PSDs. I don’t blame people for that, aside for upper management who should be informed of the law and provide at least the minimum working knowledge to their employees. After all, they can be sued. If for no other reason, it’s in their interest.
It’s also quite reasonable for someone in a store, restaurant, etc. to ask if the animal is for service/assistance and to require documentation. (This doesn’t include personal info like a diagnosis.) I get all of this.
That said, here’s what I don’t have the patience for anymore:
There is absolutely no justifiable reason for rudeness, assumptions, accusatory language and drawing attention by being indiscrete. I hate this with a passion and sadly, it happens multiple times a week.
There’s especially no excuse for disdain after Mia’s status has been proven. My ‘favourite’ is when staff think they’re making a decent compromise after seeing her card. They’ll say that Mia can stay but I need to hold her. “That’s what we ask customers to do if they come in with a small dog.” These people have seriously missed the point! Thank you for asking to see my card only to accord me the same protocol as a customer with a pet – nicely done!
I also find it pretty funny that I’ll continue to be carded in a store multiple times after the employee at the entrance. It’s like they think I’ve teleported to the back of the store, skillfully bypassing all employees.
People also frequently assume that I’m training Mia on behalf of someone else. (Hence a comment from a client who looked at Mia and said “Oh, so you’ll be working for crazy people!” I don’t have to explain how that makes me feel. Plus, what does a disability need to look like to be understood?
Aside from the previous negativity, I have a wonderful announcement. I’m proud to share that Mia and I went to the ‘Centre Canin Pattes Roulantes’ for an evaluation. It was to see if we were ready for the final exam but we ended up taking it that same day…and WE PASSED! Mia is my fully certified Psychiatric Service Dog / Chien d’assistance! I’m so very happy and grateful. While our mutual improvement is a continuous process, we’re at a wonderful new beginning!
The Birth of an Adjoining Project:
As part of an awareness project I’m working on with the lawyer friend I mentioned earlier, I’ve also begun conducting a study. I want to gather proper evidence to support our project and determine the main areas lacking in knowledge. Through this survey my goal is to see if the knowledge is lacking in management or if the knowledge is not being communicated down the chain. With nearly 100 respondents to date from various backgrounds, I’m quite happy to be using the skills I learned in Quantitative Methods.
I’ll end this blog here because there would be more to share and a fairly big personal update that I’ll hopefully send out soon. In the time being, please take care!
If you’re interested in being part of the study, I’d greatly appreciate it! There are 2 questions and you’ll only be referred to in the stats as a number. All I require is 2 yes or no answers along with the category that is closest to your reality.
Question 1: Did you already know that there are service and assistance animals for non-physical purposes?
Question 2: If so, did you also know that psychological assistance/service animals have the same public access rights as a Mira seeing eye dog, for example?
For interpretive purposes, which category best applies to you?
• Management position (owner, director, assistant manager, etc.)
• Employee regularly in contact with customers, clients, etc.
• Health workers
• Education workers
• Other (students, employees without in-presence customer interaction), retirees, etc.)