By Virginie Abat-Roy, a doctoral student in education at the University of Ottawa (specializing in inclusion and accessibility in connection with service dogs) and learning resource teacher with the CEPEO.
In the age of inclusive education, children with special needs are part and parcel of our classrooms. Broad diversity of learner profiles means differentiated approaches and assistive technology. For some students, this support takes the form of a service animal. Only children with a disability, be it physical, cognitive or mental, can have one. Well, 50 to 90% of children with attention deficit disorder, with or without hyperactivity, have at least one comorbidity, i.e., a combination of diagnoses related to a disability (CADDRA, 2011). Odds are therefore good that your student who needs a service animal also has one or more learning disabilities.
In September 2019, the Ontario government amended the Education Act to include school board service animal policies. Policy/Program Memorandum (PPM) No.163 entitled “School Board Policies on Service Animals” came into effect last year for every school board in the province. What is your role, as a member of the educational team, if a student brings a service animal to school? Why might such an animal be needed? This article is intended to provide the tools needed to understand the important role such an animal plays in the life of a student with a disability, using research on the subject.
I am a learning resource teacher for students suspended or expelled from the Conseil des Écoles Publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario. As part of my doctoral research, I have been fortunate to be accompanied by a service dog from the Mira Foundation named Toulouse. This article will answer the questions most frequently asked by educators on the topic of service animals for children. My goal is to enhance understanding of this new PPM to promote inclusion of the beneficiary/service dog pair. Happy reading!
1. What is a service animal?
An animal specifically selected and trained to provide support to an individual with a disability is called a service animal (MEO, 2019). Generally speaking, the animal most commonly found playing this role is a dog, as dogs are easy to train, have good social skills and have pet status in Canada (Rost and Hartmann, 1994; Paul and Serpell, 1996; Zasloff, 1996).
Each province has its own laws to regulate service dogs within its territory. MEO requirements for the integration of such an animal in the school environment implicitly limit the type of animal that a child can bring to school — we will come back to this in question 2. I will generally use the term “service animal”, which will sometimes be interchangeable with “service dog”.
2. What do Ontario’s policies say about having a dog in school?
Officially, school board policies on service animals (PPM No. 163) were developed and implemented in 2019. All Ontario school boards are expected to:
“allow a student to be accompanied by a service animal in school when doing so would be an appropriate accommodation to support the student’s learning needs and would meet the school board’s duty to accommodate students with disabilities under the Ontario Human Rights Code” (MEO, 2019, p.1).
This measure affects all publicly funded elementary and secondary schools, but not licensed child-care providers. It was developed in connection with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) Policy on Accessible Education for Students with Disabilities, which provides that every disabled student is entitled to be accompanied by a service animal where this is a measure that meets the student’s individual needs (OHRC, 2018).
Every board must, therefore, develop its own policy and include different components required by the MEO (2019). Given the administrative burden created by the PPM and the different policies of Ontario’s 72 school boards, I recommend referring to your specific board’s policy. Student requests to be accompanied by a service animal are generally decided based on an exhaustive review of many factors such as the student’s strengths and needs, the student’s disability-related needs, the animal’s training and health, supporting documents filled out by medical professionals, as well as health, safety and training plans. The rights and needs of other students who will be around the pair are also considered. Finally, proof of liability insurance in case of injury related to the animal’s presence in the school is also required.
Generally speaking, the only service animals boards will accept come from organizations accredited by Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation, or from a guide dog/service dog trainer that attests to compliance with the Meghan Search and Rescue Standard in Support of Accessibility/Persons with a Disability Teamed with Service Dogs (MSAR) standard for training. At the time this article was published, these organizations trained only service dogs. After a dog is placed, accredited organizations and trainers continue to offer the services of a trainer to ensure the pair’s successful integration into the school environment and remain available at all times. The work of the beneficiary/service dog pair is also reassessed annually. This way, they have constant support and the risks of a poorly integrated animal are minimized.
3. Where do these animals come from?
Service dogs from ADI-accredited organizations come from the organizations’ own livestock. Such is the case of large service-dog schools like Canadian Guide Dogs for the Blind, National Service Dogs, the Mira Foundation, Autism Dog Services and the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides, just to name a few. By having their own livestock, these organizations control their dogs’ genetic markers, especially markers of physical health and temperament. These canines will also have to successfully pass many physical and temperament tests conducted throughout the socialization period, which runs from birth until approximately 18 months of age (CNIB, 2019; Mira Foundation; 2020).
4. Why does my student need a service animal?
Service animals are now trained to meet the needs of a wide variety of individuals depending on their disability or disabilities (Davis, Nattrass, O’Brien, Patronek, & MacCollin, 2004). Hence the importance of working with an accredited organization that will be able to tailor the animal’s training to the person’s needs. In your student’s case, the disability is part of the student’s medical record, which is confidential (AODA, 2014). It should be noted that some people, or their family, will be comfortable sharing their life story, but it is generally inappropriate and illegal to ask someone about their disability, which is also a microaggression (Keller and Galgay, 2010). Your student’s individual education plan will tell you the accommodations and modifications needed to properly support the student. The IEP also protects the rights of the student requiring a service animal. In addition, you will have access to support from your learning resource teacher and special education consultant, if necessary.
The literature on the topic uses different names to identify such animals, depending on their roles and the tasks to be performed (Sachs-Ericsson, Hansen and Fitzgerald, 2002; Duncan, 2000). The terms are regulated by Assistance Dogs International, an international coalition of organizations responsible for accrediting service-dog schools. Most provinces predominantly recognize animals trained by organizations that are members of the ADI or of the International Guide Dog Federation.
The following is a list of the different types of service dogs, taken from their documentation (ADI, 2020). The most widely recognized are guide dogs trained to assist individuals who are blind or visually impaired having either partial or total vision loss. These dogs generally wear a sturdy harness made of strips of leather or canvass that has a large rigid handle along the back. Mobility dogs work with individuals with mobility-related needs. For example, a mobility dog can pull a wheelchair, open doors, pick up items that are on the floor or even work as a brace. Medical alert dogs are trained to warn of a change in a person’s health, such as high or low blood sugar in a diabetic person or a convulsive seizure in an epileptic person. ASD service dogs are intended for autistic children to help reduce their level of stress and anxiety and enhance their long-term independence. Finally, there are mental health service dogs, whose training varies depending on the client’s diagnosis and needs. Note that these animals may play different roles, such as providing sensory, medical, motor, therapeutic and emotional support services.
5. Are emotional support animals recognized at school?
Emotional support animals (ESAs) are companion animals that accompany their owners to give them emotional support. They do not come from service-dog schools and are not trained specifically for this purpose. In other words, any animal can be an ESA. In the U.S., they are sometimes recognized by law and have access to certain public places. However, ESAs are not recognized in Canada. Be careful not to confuse the documents and laws of the two countries.
Note that providing emotional support may be among the tasks performed by a service animal without the animal necessarily being confined to an emotional support role. How can you tell the difference at school? Ask if the animal was trained by an accredited organization and if that training helps the child overcome his or her disability. Because ESAs have not been selected or trained specifically to mitigate a disability, they may be uncomfortable in public. They may even exhibit dangerous behaviour, such as aggression, in stressful situations. Their presence in a public place may, therefore, become dangerous for real service animals.
|Service animal||Emotional support animal|
|Recognized by the provinces||Yes||No|
|Access to public places under Ontario law (AODA)||Yes||No|
|Trained by an organization/has access to Ontario schools||Yes||No|
|Provides emotional support to the individual||Sometimes, depending on the disability||Yes|
6. What benefits are associated with the service animal’s presence at school?
A great deal of research has focused on the positive effects of service animals in the school environment, especially in the dog’s class. The aim of any partnership with a service dog is basically to enhance the independence of a person with a disability. For example, a mobility service animal will enable the student to pick up items that have fallen on the floor or to open a door. A guide dog will lead the student to his or her classes or to the nearest exit as safely and efficiently as possible.
In addition to the physical work done by the animal, a service dog can have physiological benefits for its beneficiary and the people around them. Studies have actually shown that salivary cortisol levels go down in the presence of a dog (Beetz et al., 2011; Beetz, Uvnäs-Moberg, Julius, & Kotrschal, 2012; Viau et al., 2010; Viau & Champagne, 2017). Cortisol is the hormone responsible for the body’s stress response — what will make you run out of a burning house or avoid a soccer ball that is flying towards your head. In some people, such as individuals with anxiety or autism spectrum disorder, the level of cortisol goes up quickly and comes down very slowly. This explains, in particular, the long meltdowns of autistic children (Tremblay, 2016). So, your student gets the benefit of this effect, but so do you and your other students (provided that you and they like dogs, of course).
Another physiological effect that has been identified is an increase in blood oxytocin levels on contact with the animal, oxytocin being the attachment hormone. You probably will have heard of it in connection with the bond between a mother and her newborn baby, and the importance of skin-to-skin contact. A service dog increases the beneficiary’s oxytocin level, which helps to build a healthy and lasting relationship between them (Beetz et al., 2012). A student with attachment issues or difficult relationships may benefit from this effect more than usual and the dog will help with the student’s social network. Finally, note that such animals may be socializing agents for children who may be stigmatized because of their disability or needs (Serpell, 2019).
7. Who will see to the animal’s basic needs?
This question once again falls under the policy set by each board. Generally speaking, however, the child must be able to see to the animal’s basic needs. During the decision-making process, a questionnaire is given to the parents to assess the animal’s water and food needs and the number of times the animal needs to go outside. The animal will generally eat at home before leaving for school and upon returning and have a portable water bowl or a bowl of water in a classroom where there is little relocation — as is the case in elementary school. Unless they are sick or have an isolated incident, these animals are also able to hold it in for quite a long time and don’t need to go out too often. A place will nevertheless have to be designated where the animal will get used to relieving itself. Ideally, other school members won’t have access to it for sanitary reasons.
Where a service animal is working with a child who is dependent due to his or her disability, the school may agree to provide training for an accompanying adult to look after the animal, or else the animal has to stay home while the child is at school.
8. How can I tailor my environment to make it easier for the pair to get around?
The pair’s successful integration depends on collaboration between the student’s family, the organization that provided the dog and the members of the educational team (Tremblay, 2016). The service animal integration plan, written in consultation with all the members, will provide guidance on the important details. In the case of a disability affecting motor function, the school environment will be tailored to the student’s needs ahead of time. This will include, for example, adding a desk suitable for the student or an automated door. The animal set to begin accompanying your student will have been trained to adjust to the different environments within the school. A trainer working to integrate the animal will also tour the school to give you advice and perfect certain commands as needed.
In your classroom, consistency is key. For example, the Mira Foundation teaches its dogs the “go to your spot” command. In this case, the dog gets used to going to the same place upon hearing that instruction. A cushion or blanket can be placed there to make it more comfortable, in addition to limiting the amount of fur on the floor. Providing the pair with an easily accessible area free of obstructions will help to avoid incidents such as a paw caught under a chair. You can also put a poster on your door to remind visitors that there is a service animal in the classroom and not to disturb it.
You will also have to add a section about the animal to your evacuation plan. Who will be responsible for getting the animal out in an emergency if the student is unable to do so? Is your emergency exit accessible to the pair? For alternate learning environments, such as a gym or dance class, it will also be important to designate a space safe from balls and other items that may injure the animal. It may take a little while for the animal to get used to staying there — the trainer should check these aspects during his or her first visit.
9. Are there any risks associated with the animal’s presence?
The integration of a service animal into a school environment comes with certain risks. It is especially important to work with a well-trained animal and to develop a health and safety plan. The main risks are biting or scratching, allergic or asthmatic reactions, and visual distraction among other students.
Because a service animal is a living being, a deterioration of its initial training or an incident is always a possibility (Davis et al., 2004; McNicholas et al., 2005). An incident may occur when certain conditions are present. An injured, sick or surprised animal may react in fear. The best way to avoid such a situation is to follow the instructions surrounding the pair, such as respecting their workspace and not creating a distraction.
Another recurring concern about having an animal in an educational institution relates to the risk of certain children having an allergic or asthmatic reaction. Despite proper hygiene, there will be fur and drool in the school. Consulting the medical records of children and adults who will be in close contact with the dog will help prevent reactions (Tremblay, 2006). Working with the custodian is also important so that particular attention is paid to areas where the service animal will frequently be found, such as the animal’s spot in class or the student’s locker. Finally, the health and safety plan may include a section requiring frequent brushing and seasonal bathing of the animal.
The final risk identified in the literature relates to distraction among other students.
A service animal attracts attention (Finkel, 2007) and can even create something of a visual distraction for students in class with the pair (Walter Esteves & Stokes, 2008). Some parents therefore worry that their child’s academic performance will decline given the lure of the animal. According to two studies, once the novelty wears off after about two weeks, the animal’s presence will instead help the children focus on their tasks (Brelsford, Meints, Gee, & Pfeffer, 2017; Kotrschal & Ortbauer, 2003). In addition, the animal’s ability to focus in such a stimulating environment as a school may be strained. Some organizations and trainers may advise certain families against taking their dog to school because of the dog’s hypersocial behaviour, which may adversely affect the work done between the beneficiary and his or her dog (Davis et al., 2004). Finally, some children are themselves reluctant to have their service dog accompany them to school for fear of being labelled or of being constrained in their schoolyard play (Kotrschal and Ortbauer, 2004).
10. What should I tell my students and their parents?
In the process of integrating a service animal into one of its schools, your board should have put in place a plan for communicating with the school community. That plan should include templates of letters, and your principal will generally deal with this.
This communication will probably take place in two stages. The first will take the form of a consultation. Notice will be given of the service animal’s impending arrival, along with generic reasons for its presence, citing Ontario Human Rights Commission, Ministry and school board policies in particular. The whole process should respect the privacy of the student involved and the student’s family. Therefore, the child’s name and disability will not be disclosed. This consultation will give parents the opportunity to identify any health conditions their children might have that may put them at risk in the dog’s presence. In that event, proof from a health specialist may be requested in order to assess the risks and the protective measures to be taken. Accommodations will also be required in order to respect cultural and religious beliefs. However, based on the legal framework around the pair, the animal cannot be turned away from a place for those reasons.
The second stage of communication will announce the animal’s arrival. It is generally quite brief and provides an opportunity to mention that the animal in question comes from an accredited organization. Instructions are generally shared, such as the requirement that children not touch or disturb the animal. You can reinforce these instructions by preparing your students for the dog’s arrival. Finally, there is also the requirement to respect the child’s privacy.
If you receive specific questions from the parents of students in your class, or if they share concerns with you, I recommend referring them to the learning resource teacher and principal, who will be able to answer them.
A service animal coming to school may seem worrying, especially if it is going to be placed in your class. However, you should know that these animals generally integrate well and the success rate is high. Service animals from accredited organizations are well trained and your student will be supported by a trainer accustomed to making such placements. In the long run, you will most likely notice major benefits to the presence of such an animal and to having such an animal present in the daily life of your student and the people around the student. Students are incredibly adaptable… You just need to give yourself time to get used to it. I hope this article helps you with this new adventure.
 To find an ADI-member organization, visit their website, click the “members” tab and select Canada: https://assistancedogsinternational.org/resources/member-search/
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