B.C. woman fights strata to keep children’s therapy dogs

B.C. woman fights strata to keep children’s therapy dogs

Glenda Luymes / Vancouver Sun

According to a summary recently posted on the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal website, the woman’s two daughters have “mental health concerns” that require the assistance of therapy dogs. One of the daughters struggles with bipolar disorder, while the other has a mental disability. (The girls are not named because they are minors; neither does the application indicate which community they live in.)

The strata unit where the family lives does not allow pets, including dogs.

The mother and her daughters moved into the unit in 2014, according to tribunal documents, three years after strata bylaws were amended to prohibit pets. They claim they were not aware of the rule as the unit’s previous owner had a dog that had been “grandfathered” into the complex after the pet policy changed.

But the two small therapy dogs soon led to noise complaints from the neighbours.

Between 2015 and 2016, the family racked up several bylaw infractions, including fines totalling $9,800.

In response, the woman showed the management company a certificate confirming her daughter’s bipolar disorder. The strata reviewed the documents, but decided the dogs had to go “due to the negative impact … on other residents.” It offered to waive the fines if the woman removed the pets by March 6, 2016.

According to tribunal documents, the woman responded by providing two doctors’ notes. One of the daughters “required the dogs in connection with a mental disability,” said one note. “If she is unable to keep her dog … it would be detrimental to her mental health and will affect her school attendance.”

But the strata was unmoved.

Earlier this year, the woman filed the human rights complaint alleging “discrimination regarding service, accommodation or facility on the basis of mental disability.” In October, the tribunal ruled the complaint could proceed to a hearing.

It’s not the first time emotional support dogs have come up at the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. In 2016, the quasi-judicial human rights body ruled against a woman who claimed her son’s pit bull “Coco” was a service dog and that its removal by her strata would send the recovering heroin addict into a downward spiral.

While the woman lost her case due to a lack of evidence, the tribunal was willing to consider the argument that a person with a disability may be entitled to keep a pet, even when it is not a certified service dog.

The blurring of the line between legitimate service dogs and emotional support dogs — or therapy dogs as they’re sometimes called — causes problems for people with certified service dogs, said Tara Doherty, spokesperson for Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADs), one of the two accredited service dog schools in the province, along with B.C. & Alberta Guide Dog Services.

Recent B.C. legislation has cracked down on “service dog fraud” — when people misrepresent their pet as a service dog in order to bypass no-pet rules — but it still happens, she said.

“We’ve had reports of businesses not being open to certified service dogs because of their experiences with an ill-behaved dog,” said Doherty. “It’s a significant concern because it creates a bad reputation for legitimate service dogs.”

Service dog ID cards and vests are available to anyone on an American website for less than $100, but the ID is not valid in B.C. To be certified under B.C. law, service dogs must come from an accredited school, or an owner must make an application to the province and the dog must undergo a testing process at the Justice Institute.

The certification looks similar to a drivers’ license, and PADs supports work to educate businesses and strata councils to recognize a legitimate government ID from one purchased over the internet.