Fifteen-year-old Cameron Cadarette was a C student, struggling to stay in school in Windsor, Ont. until Vincent came along. The specifically trained golden Labrador helps the teen manage his post-traumatic stress disorder, and gain better focus in classes.
Cameron scratches his arms and legs until they bleed; Vincent is able to interrupt his self-harming behaviour by nudging the teen’s hand. The service animal also keeps the teen safe at night, waking him from night terrors and bringing him water bottles to help him catch his breath during an anxiety attack.
Two years later, Cameron holds an average of 95 per cent in Grade 9 and is able to have relationships with his peers. “He can meld into the school system and not be an outcast,” said his mother, Nicole McMillan.
But a recent change in Ontario’s Safe and Supportive Classroom Act is making McMillan — and other families with students who use service animals — nervous.
Vague nature of new section concerns dog handlers
A new section on service dogs, which was approved in April, notes that the education minister may create policies and guidelines, and require school boards to comply with them or create their own based on the minister’s parameters.
A draft policy is underway, the Ministry of Education told HuffPost Canada, that will ”set out the framework and required components of board policies across the province resulting in greater consistency, transparency and clarity of process when requesting that a student be accompanied by a service animal in school.”
“We are committed to ensuring every student in Ontario has access to safe and supportive learning environments,” said a ministry statement, which noted that it’s aware of 39 of 72 school boards with active policies on service animals.
Still, the vague nature of the new section has left service dog handlers with more questions than answers.
“Nothing is actually changing because they’re just passing a bill that says the minister could do something,” said Deanna Allain, an Ontario-based service dog trainer and lobbyist. But the concern comes in the unknown: “The minister could ban all service dogs, that’s that’s how specific this legislation is.”
Emily Wright has been working with her diabetic alert service dog Kailey for six years. Kailey is scent-trained to alert her handler to dangerous changes in blood sugar levels.
Wright is nearing completion of her masters degree from the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute For Studies In Education, and has been doing a required teaching placement at a Catholic school.
“I realize that we can’t just have anyone bring a dog in a school and that the dog does need to have appropriate training levels,” Wright told HuffPost Canada. But the new addition in the law is not the way to go about it, she said.
With a lack of clear expectations, it provides no information on the process to bring a service dog to school. “Are all these school boards going to start saying that the dogs need to be certified, and who is going to monitor that? Because we don’t have a certification process,” said Wright.
Uneven requirements across Canada
Currently, Ontario only requires a note from a medical professional outlining the need for a service dog. This is contrary to provinces like British Columbia, which mandates a certification test, or Alberta, where certification is voluntary. There’s no national standard or consistency across provincial laws, which becomes problematic when more public places are requesting proof of certifications. An increase in fraudulent registries and copycat harnesses and ID cards doesn’t help either.
Then there’s the issue of reporting complaints. The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) that governs service animals does not have a formal complaint process. Wright wonders why new service dog legislation would be implemented if it has no clear path to enforcement.
Watch: Student who uses service dog talks about graduating. Story continues after video.
McMillan has fought complex policies before. Cameron’s service dog was initially denied by both the Greater Essex Public School Board and the Windsor-Essex County Catholic School Boards because they couldn’t recognize Vincent’s international training credentials from Florida.
The public school board has its own service dog policies and was considered complaint with the AODA. McMillan took their case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which said the issue was settled through mediation in 2017.
Cameron now attends a private school with Vincent by his side.
“All I want for him is an education that he has the right to,” said McMillan.
She feels the new section in provincial legislation can open doors, “but it’s also left room for interpretation, which in the long run, I think you’ll see some battles from families trying to ... get their service dogs in schools that are adequately trained for their children.”
“It encourages empathy.”
McMillan fears that families will go “school-district shopping” as they try to place students in schools with better service dog policies, as it appears the act’s new section would allow districts to have varying policies.
As a teacher in training, Wright points out that service dogs benefit the whole classroom. “It encourages empathy,” she said. She noted how students she worked with, ranging from kindergarten to Grade 12, recognized when the classroom was getting too loud through Kailey’s changing body language and would respond accordingly.
“As an educator, that’s not something I ever knew: that by bringing a service dog into a classroom that it would not just benefit me but also benefit my students,” said Wright.
CORRECTION - June 14, 2019: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Emily Wright’s last name as Write.