A few months after adopting a border collie mix, Stephanie Kallstrom was able to stop using the anti-anxiety medications she had taken since her teens.
Now, the Vancouver woman is fighting to keep the dog — named Ember — despite her strata’s strict pet policy.
“She (Ember) changed my life,” Kallstrom said Saturday. “I assumed she’d be accommodated here because she’s been accommodated on airplanes, in hotels and at the hospital.”
Kallstrom’s downtown condo allows residents to keep up to two dogs, but she argues Ember shouldn’t be counted in that total because she acts as an emotional support animal (ESA). Kallstrom also has two small poodles.
In B.C., ESAs are not considered service dogs or guide dogs, which are legally allowed in strata properties. In January 2016, the Guide Dog and Service Dog Act came into effect, giving certified handlers “access rights equal to those enjoyed by all members of the public,” according to a provincial government press release.
It also provided a way for dog handlers whose dogs were not trained by an accredited school to apply for certification and have the animals tested by the Justice Institute.
But Kallstrom feels there should be some middle ground. While she plans to go through the process of getting Ember certified as a service dog, she’s concerned that other ESAs wouldn’t be able to pass the rigorous testing required.
“Many people need their ESAs as a vital part of their health, but they couldn’t pass,” she said. “There should be a specific certification for ESAs.”
A quick internet search brings up a host of sites claiming to certify ESAs. For less than $100 and the time it takes to answer a few questions, owners can obtain certificates, vests and collars to identify their animals.
“I realize there’s a lot of fake emotional support dogs out there,” said Kallstrom. “But there’s also a lot of legitimate ones, and there should be some way to tell the difference.”
The Vancouver woman is open about her struggles with mental health, including post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression, which have dogged her since she was 10 years of age. After adopting Ember in Abbotsford in 2014, she was able to stop taking medication, a milestone witnessed by her doctor, who provided her with a letter recognizing the dog’s assistance.
As a result, Ember has been allowed on flights, in hotels and department stores. When Kallstrom had surgery at a Vancouver hospital, the dog was permitted in her room during recovery.
“She uses tactile stimulation to avoid a crisis and keep me safe,” she said. “She can sense what I’m feeling, and she’s there with a lick or a nudge or a paw.”
On Saturday, Ember sat quietly on Kallstrom’s couch, her nose resting on her paws, her large brown eyes tracking movements. Later, on a noisy city street, she walked calmly beside her owner.
The use of ESAs has increased dramatically in the last decade. A 2015 study by researchers at the University of California found a tenfold increase in the number of animals used for psychiatric services registered by animal control facilities in California between 2000 and 2002 compared to 2010 and 2012.
ESAs have also been the subject of dozens of news stories and viral videos. Last week, a Pennsylvania man made headlines when he said his emotional support alligator helped him deal with his depression. In January 2018, airline staff stopped an emotional support peacock from flying with its owner.
In January, both United Airlines and Delta Air Lines tightened their rules around ESAs, saying they will no longer allow ESA puppies and kittens under four months old and barring them completely on longer flights. The airlines cited complaints about allergies, soiled cabins and aggressive animals for the change.
The blurring of the line between legitimate service dogs and emotional support dogs can cause problems for people with certified service dogs, Tara Doherty, spokeswoman for Pacific Assistance Dogs Society (PADs), told Postmedia News in a previous interview.
“We’ve had reports of businesses not being open to certified service dogs because of their experiences with an ill-behaved dog,” she said. “It’s a significant concern because it creates a bad reputation for legitimate service dogs.”
Kallstrom has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to argue her case.
With Postmedia files
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