Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Service-dog requirement divides district, woman

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Jennifer (Aunt Muffy) McDougall insists she has the right to take her service dog anywhere at any time without restrictions or conditions, including her new job as a cleaner at Arthur Meighen School in Portage la Prairie.

No problem about the dog, says Hazen Barrett, superintendent of Portage la Prairie School Division, as long as there's a short protocol in place to educate everyone how and when McDougall and her dog will work when there might be kids or adults around who are afraid of dogs or who are allergic.

No way, responds McDougall, that's discrimination.

And so the impasse stands.

McDougall, well-known in the area as the owner of Aunt Muffy's Hobby Farm and Petting Zoo in Rossendale, 37 kilometres southwest of Portage, got a job with the division as a cleaner last month. She was to clean eight hours a day, when classes were not in session.

She didn't take the dog to her job interview or mention her need for the dog, which helps McDougall overcome her hearing deficiencies when operating noisy equipment.

"The body language alerts me when there are people around," she explained, and the dog barks to let her know there's a phone or doorbell ringing, and most crucially, if there's a fire alarm sounding.

McDougall said when she showed up on the job with her dog, a senior staff member "approached me and said dogs aren't allowed in school. He said there are children in school, that they could be allergic."

The dog is hypoallergenic, said McDougall.

"He said a protocol needs to be in place for me in order to have the dog at work, in order for me to be employed," said McDougall. "I packed up my stuff and left with the dog."

Barrett said that the service dog and McDougall are welcome if she chooses to return to work.

"We have no issue with any employee who has a service dog," Barrett said. "It would be a valuable experience to have a service dog there."

However, Barrett said the division wanted to work out an understanding of how McDougall and the dog would do their job if children and adults who were afraid of dogs or allergic to dogs were in the building after school, or if events were held in the school in the evening. People need to be taught about service dogs and how to treat them, he said.

"We're well aware of the human rights expectations. She won't meet with us," said Barrett. "We need to do some groundwork preparing people, so they know how to react to (the dog).

"When a student comes in who needs accommodation, schools are given some time to prepare," Barrett pointed out.

Both parties in a dispute are obliged to explore all options and work out accommodations, said Yvonne Peters, vice-chairwoman of the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.

"In some cases, they may need evidence. You really need to substantiate what the concern is," said Peters, who is blind and has a service dog.

Peters said it would be inappropriate for her to hear details about the Portage case, which might end up in front of the commission, but said that in general, employers must prove undue hardship before placing restrictions on a service dog.

If someone is allergic, they must present a medical certificate. A job-seeker does not need to disclose a disability, Peters said -- accommodation gets discussed after the person is judged to be suitable for the job.

"If there is a restriction, it has to be based on concrete evidence," not on speculation or possibilities, said Peters. "We talk about reasonable accommodation."

There is also responsibility on the part of a person using a service dog to educate people that it is a highly trained working dog, Peters said.

Portage studying how other school districts deal with issue

PORTAGE la Prairie School Division is researching how other school divisions deal with service dogs in schools.

Interlake School Division has a standing five-page policy, though it is directed primarily at students who require a service dog.

That policy requires certified medical proof of the need for the service dog, and documentation of the dog's required training. The owner accepts responsibility for any damages caused by the dog, including cleanup and stains.

Appropriate training is provided for anyone in the school who will come into contact with the dog, and requires that students are taught to understand the dog's role.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 23, 2012 A11

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