How service animals reduce disability barriers in Kamloops (Tk’emlúps)

A service dog owner in Kamloops says more awareness of working animals and their handlers’ human rights is needed to ensure disabled residents can get around town freely.
A german shepherd service dog sits on the sidewalk in front of a fence. The dog is wearing a brown harness and a collar.
Kamloops resident Keisha’s “sweet boy,” her four-year-old German shepherd, helps her to navigate barriers as someone with a visual impairment. Photo courtesy of Keisha.

With so many pet owners in Kamloops (Tk’emlúps), it’s more common than ever to see pets in carriers or on local patios. But for residents who rely on assistance from service dogs, access to local businesses and public places is more than just a perk. 

Service animals can carry out a wide range of tasks for their handlers, such as navigating environments, anticipating seizures, detecting blood sugar levels or calming anxiety. For many, a service animal’s support can save lives.

After The Wren published an article about accessibility in the city, a reader told us they noticed community members were misinformed about the rights of service dog owners and other specially-trained animal handlers. The Wren interviewed two locals to learn more.

Reducing disability barriers

Keisha is a Kamloops resident who works with her four-year-old German shepherd service dog to navigate the world. She asked The Wren to only use her first name because she says she and her dog — who she calls “my sweet boy” — already get enough unsolicited public attention.

Keisha has retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that damages the eyes’ retinas and causes vision loss. In an email, she explained that she has limited visibility and can only see shadows, lights, various colours and some shapes. Working with a service dog gives Keisha more independence and lets her accomplish tasks that are difficult for people with impaired vision.

The dog also helps Keisha at both of her jobs. In addition to working part-time at a local deli, she’s the program and membership coordinator for Blind Beginnings, a nonprofit based in New Westminster that provides “skills, confidence and independence” resources for blind and visually impaired youth.

Keisha’s “sweet boy” was trained and certified through The Seeing Eye, the oldest existing guide dog school in the world located in Morristown, New Jersey. Dogs are trained to respond to their handlers’ directional commands (forward, left, right) and avoid obstacles so the handler can move through space safely.  

Keisha explained that there are many different training facilities and groups that raise, handle and provide hands-on socialisation to future service dogs until they are around two years old. Keisha’s dog was born at a Seeing Eyes puppy facility and received special socialisation, gentle handling and introductions to distractions like sounds and smells so her dog could learn to ignore them and focus on commands. 

The process of being matched with a guide dog was intensive and required a “rigorous application and screening process” to see if she was deemed a good candidate to receive a guide dog, Keisha says.

The Seeing Eye built her a profile and she was put on a waiting list for a dog. After receiving a German shepherd in 2021, Keisha attended three weeks of training along with her chosen dog in New Jersey before the duo were ready to tackle tasks together full-time.

Other dogs trained for emotional, psychological support

Seven people stand on a patch of grass. They are each wearing branded St. John Ambulance clothing. Each person also has a therapy dog on a leash with them. Each dog wears a St. John Ambulance bandana around their neck. Behind everyone is a sign that says "The St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program. Creating a memory of Joy in Your Community."
Members of the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program gather at a Thompson Rivers University event. The Kamloops team often visits hospitals, libraries and schools like TRU to brighten peoples’ days. Photo courtesy of Kamloops Therapy Dogs/Facebook.

Kirsten Flinn, a teacher living in Kamloops, uses a trained animal to help others. In addition to a beloved pet and farm helper, Flinn’s dog Roxy also accompanies her on visits to schools and long-term care facilities as a therapy animal.

Therapy animals comfort people and give them affection, which has psychological and physiological benefits. Though these animals can belong to any species or breed, they do have to have some specific qualities to effectively support people. 

They should be sociable, friendly and happy to be touched while cooperating with people in a gentle manner. Therapy animals should also be able to adapt to changing environments, calm down quickly and follow instructions from their handler. 

Unlike service dogs, emotional assistance and therapy dogs don’t have unrestricted access to private businesses and other indoor spaces. Flinn couldn’t bring Roxy with her into locations like an airplane cabin, a restaurant dining room or a movie theatre auditorium.

This distinction is made because service dogs are specially trained to assist people with disabilities in day-to-day tasks, while therapy and emotional support animals receive little to no formal training and usually only provide psychological support and comfort.

Roxy, a small white dog wearing a black and purple vest, sits in the steps of a school portable.
Roxy isn’t just Kirsten Flinn’s pet — She’s also a therapy animal who helps students and older adults. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Flinn.

In 2020, Flinn certified Roxy as an assisted therapy dog through the Kelowna-based Companion Paws Lifeline Canada Foundation. The foundation trains existing pets for emotional support and therapy in addition to adopting out rescue animals that have been trained.

“I wanted to take her into schools, so I wanted to get her certified,” Flinn says. The process, which cost around $200, began with an initial temperament assessment followed by training modules. Lastly, there was an examination. 

“She came out with a card, documentation and a vest she uses when on duty.”

Flinn says Roxie’s personality inspired her to pursue certification for the dog. While living in Merritt, B.C., Flinn regularly brought Roxy to schools for student visits.

“She was incredibly helpful by way of regulating kids who had a hard time self regulating,” says Flinn. “Dogs are non-judgmental and nonverbal so for kids who are overstimulated by language, she was a total fit.” 

Since moving to Kamloops, Flinn has been sharing Roxy’s sweet personality with older adults at long-term care facilities. 

“People are happy to touch her, and it’s a door opener for them to be able to share stories about their own lives and histories.”

Flinn uses these therapy visits at schools and long-term care facilities as an opportunity to reinforce people’s manners around working animals. 

“It’s just good manners to ask the owner if you can pet the dog,” she explains. “Let her sniff you before you pat and don’t crowd or be bossy with her.”

Flinn does not misrepresent her dog as a service animal in public, but says she does use an identifying vest and certification documentation card when introducing Roxy in a therapeutic capacity.

Ignorance makes working with service dogs difficult

Despite the best efforts of advocates and animal handlers, cities like Kamloops still have a long way to go before service animal users like Keisha can go about their days without encountering barriers.

All certified or uncertified service dogs, no matter where they are from or how they were trained, are protected by the B.C. Human Rights Code and allowed to enter any establishment where their handler would go. 

This means service providers and business owners have a duty to accommodate the rights of people with disabilities in accessing public spaces. The government of B.C. specifies that “a person with a disability who uses a guide dog or service dog should not be stopped or questioned unless there is a concern.” 

Requesting identification for a service or guide dog when they are wearing a clearly marked vest, for instance, may be found discriminatory.

If a business or person is found to have denied access to someone because they have a service dog with them, they could face a fine of up to $3,000.

Despite clear policies and strict repercussions, many service animal users still report being denied entry or removed from businesses, being asked to present their animal’s documentation and even being physically harmed for refusing to comply with illegal requests.

A common refrain from disability rights advocates is that guide dogs are not pets. Even when Keisha has no problem entering a business or public space, navigating unfamiliar environments with her service dog can be a challenge when other people approach, distract or touch her dog, Keisha says.

Keisha wants the public to remember that distracting a service animal can cause the animal to lose focus and could cause serious injury to the dog and handler. Abruptly approaching a dog and its handler team, even to help them, usually does more harm than good. 

“Please ask before you try to help us,” Keisha says. She adds that people who are blind or partially sighted “need to have strong orientation and mobility skills” and often stop to orient themselves or take a break. Stopping doesn’t necessarily mean someone needs assistance.

Kamloopsians can be proactive when coming across a dog and handler team, especially when the service dog is wearing its harness in “work mode.”

Keisha says it’s best to pretend the dog is not present. While it’s fine to speak to the dog’s handler, people shouldn’t make eye contact, try to pet or feed, or speak with the handler’s service animal. 

Despite these uncomfortable public interactions with uninformed people, Keisha says she has “lots of positive things to say about Kamloops businesses being welcoming” towards her and her service dog.

KSPIN Indoor Cycling Studio, Alchemy Brewing, Bright Eye Brewing and The Art We Are are among the businesses that have gone above and beyond to welcome Keisha, she says.

Additionally, the City of Kamloops is currently reviewing its accessibility and inclusion plan and encourages residents who experience accessibility barriers and their support workers to fill out a survey about their needs.

Both Keisha and Flinn agree mutual respect between all people is the best way to maintain an equitable, safe, inclusive and welcoming Kamloops. 

“My favourite interactions are not the ones where blindness is the first topic but where people I meet endeavour to connect as people first,” Keisha says.

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