The case of William Jewitt, 42, an out-of-work tow-truck operator, is a tangle of competing rights, complicated by the dog itself — a 15-month-old pit bull mix named Teeka that flirts with Ontario’s breed ban.
Jewitt’s experience also points to an obvious regulatory gap in Ontario: with a letter from a doctor or nurse, a person with a disability can declare just about any pet a “service animal” and, in the name of accommodation, gain entry in virtually any public place, transit system or private business.
“I really think, what it comes down to,” said Jewitt, “is when people have a service dog for a mental health or an emotional issue, we should all be treated the same.”
“She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body,” Jewitt insists.
He said the animal helps calm him against the effects of depression and anxiety he’s suffered much of his life — a condition exacerbated by arriving at many horrible traffic accidents, with injuries or fatalities, during nine years of towing cars.
In a short span, he moved from Alberta to B.C. then to Thunder Bay, his hometown. In order to have Teeka as a close companion — while shopping or taking transit — he began to inquire about status as a service animal.
He found a U.S.-based website that, for $177, sent him a Service Dog vest and a laminated card with the words: “Official Service Dog, Canadian I.D. card.”
Jewitt says he’s used the designation without any problems in two or three provinces, including putting Teeka onboard a Greyhound bus that crossed Canada. Neither has there been an issue with entering coffee shops or fast-food restaurants, he said.
But when he arrived in Ottawa about a week ago, he said a cab driver at the Catherine Street bus station initially refused to accept him as a fare, claiming an allergy to dogs.
“It turned into a big argument,” said Jewitt. When other drivers intervened, the first driver was eventually persuaded to take Jewitt to his destination. Later in the week, he said, cab drivers would stop when he waved them down, only to take off when they saw the animal.
On Sunday, Jewitt, a self-described born-again Christian, said he was walking by the Pentecostal Community of Ottawa and Gatineau, a small second-floor church on Montreal Road above a storefront. He heard music and, accompanied by Teeka, decided to stop in.
Jewitt and the dog evidently caused a stir. Several ushers approached to tell him animals were not permitted in the church. When he protested — explaining the dog’s special role — he said he was guided by the arm out of the church, leading to an argument that caused Teeka to begin loudly barking. An appeal to a pastor failed.
“Why should a church go and judge somebody because he has a service pet?”
(The senior pastor at the church said Jewitt and the dog were disrupting the service, including his sermon. Absent any visible sign of disability, they weren’t persuaded the dog should be exempted from the “no animals” policy in the church, he explained.)
There are a patchwork of regulations covering service animals across Canada, but Ontario is sometimes called “the Wild West” for its lack of statutory rigour.
The Accessibility for Ontarians With Disabilities Act contains a loosely worded definition, saying an animal is a service animal “if it is readily apparent that the animal is used by the person for reasons relating to his or her disability” or if the person provides a supporting letter from a doctor or nurse.
Danielle Forbes is executive director of National Service Dogs, a charitable organization that breeds, trains and places service dogs for those with autism or post-traumatic stress disorder. There is no requirement, she said, for doctors to even examine the patient’s animal, let alone ensure it has any training.
Her organization often gets calls about what a “service dog” vest around an animal really means, in terms of training, certification or testing.
“There are lots of places, especially south of the border, online that are selling vests and very official-looking certification cards,” she said. “But the cards aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”
Jewitt, doubtless, could get a doctor’s letter for Teeka. This is a man so attached to dogs he has their names tattooed on his body. What a complicated kindness is at play here.
“I can honestly say,” concludes Jewitt, admitting to rare suicidal thoughts, “I don’t know what I would do without her.”
(Ottawa Sun - March 11, 2017)