It looks like a driver’s license and it is just as important for Kelsey McDonald’s ability to navigate the world.
The card is her provincial certification identification for her service dog, Blazen, a chocolate Labrador who assists McDonald with her anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Blazen is certified as a service dog through the Justice Institute of B.C., which legally allows McDonald to take him almost anywhere with her, including restaurants, stores, transportation, offices and school. McDonald must carry her service dog ID wherever she goes and if people are in doubt of Blazen’s credentials, they can call to confirm his status as registered with the Justice Institute of B.C.
Under B.C. law, it is an offence to represent a dog as a guide or service dog when it is not. A conviction carries a fine of up to $3,000.
But this doesn’t mean McDonald doesn’t run into barriers — especially as there are an increasing number of unregulated organizations or individuals claiming their animals are service or “emotional support” dogs.
This can be confusing for people who don’t know how to identify a true service dog, and has led to situations where McDonald has had confrontations with people who attempt to limit her access to services or buildings.
“Anyone can slap a vest on a dog and claim it is a service dog, or do one of these online courses and get a certificate, but without the (Justice Institute) certification, they are not actually a legal service dog. And more and more people seem to be doing this, for whatever reason, and if those animals cause problems because they are not properly trained, well, it just makes it that much harder for me when I am out with Blazen.”
A service dog was recommended for McDonald after hospitalizations for her mental health conditions and she began to investigate options, eventually finding Blazen who was then almost three-years-old and trained as a hunting dog in Kamloops.
“He had an excellent personality, super calm and gentle. He came straight over to me and he didn’t leave my side. He was my boy right away,” McDonald says of Blazen.
McDonald then began training Blazen herself with the assistance of a trainer from the region who claimed to be able to train service dogs. This trainer, however, is not part of an approved program with the Justice Institute.
When McDonald attempted to take classes at Okanagan College with Blazen by her side, she learned he needed to be properly registered as a service dog with the province to be allowed to attend classes. This meant an examiner from the Justice Institute needed to test and evaluate Blazen before authorizing his status as a medical assistance dog.
“The main things they test for are aggression and that the dog is under control — any signs of those things and the dog doesn’t pass,” says McDonald.
Blazen needed to be able to ignore other people, dogs and food distractions, navigate busy places and small spaces without difficulty and stay when told, even if McDonald was out of sight.
While some service dogs learn specific skills for blind or to sense seizures, Blazen also has skills to help with McDonald’s anxiety. If she has a panic attack, Blazen will make contact with McDonald and not leave her side, even if she may try to push him away. In the case of her struggling with obsessive thoughts, Blazen will lick her face.
“Obviously it’s hard to keep your mind on your negative thoughts with a big dog licking your face. He helps distract me out of it.”
Blazen also has commands like “visit,” which means that he stands between McDonald’s legs to give her a sense of security when around other people, and “give me space,” which means for him to position his body in a crowded situation to allow McDonald to avoid feeling claustrophobic.
McDonald is also wanting people to become more aware of proper etiquette around all service dogs. While many people know not to disturb a guide dog for a blind person when it is working, the same goes for any service dog.
“Just because we don’t have an obvious disability, doesn’t mean that it is OK for our dogs to be distracted away from their jobs,” she says.
People shouldn’t pet, talk to or try to feed a working service dog, who will generally be identified by a vest. This helps the dog to know when they are on the job, as well as tries to alert people to refrain from treating the animal as a pet. She also points out that there are many people with unseen disabilities who don’t always appreciate being questioned by people about why they have a service dog.
“I don’t need to share my medical history with every stranger on the street,” she says.