Durham, Ont., resident Vita Stiebert wants people to know service dogs come in different shapes and sizes.
The mother of 17-year-old triplets was recently denied access to a hotel in Woodstock in southwestern Ontario when she arrived with her service dog, Amora, a 15-month-old miniature poodle, which was wearing a red vest with the words "Service Dog."
Stiebert and Amora walked into the Holiday Inn Express and Suites on the afternoon of Jan. 7 to pick up bags belonging to her daughter, who had arrived the night before with her hockey team to play in a tournament. Stiebert was in town to see her daughter's game, but stopped by the hotel first.
But Stiebert didn't get far. Staff questioned her about Amora, which has a traditional poodle cut.
"They basically told me that they did not believe that she was a service dog," said Stiebert who then showed staff a medical note from her doctor that said Amora is "medically necessary," plus she produced the dog's vaccination and public access certificates.
Nonetheless, staff asked Stiebert to leave.
Vita Stiebert's doctor's note says her dog is 'medically necessary'
"Later, as I was waiting between the two doors, [staff] told me that I could be charged with trespassing," she said.
Stiebert is on long-term disability from her job as a veterinary technician at the University of Guelph because she struggles with chronic, daily migraines and the resulting anxiety.
She has provided a lot of comfort for me. She provides a lot of support. - Vita Stiebert, 53, on her service dog, Amora
"I lose my sight during an incident," said Stiebert. "[Amora is] taught to find me somewhere to sit and will remain with me. She also helps with the anxiety."
CBC News reached out to IHG Hotels and Resorts on Thursday, and was told in an email that someone would be responding, but there was no response by Friday afternoon. CBC also called the Woodstock hotel this week, and a person who identified herself as the sales manager maintained Stiebert's dog was not a service animal.
What does the law say?
Under the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, a service dog is easily identified as one, or a health practitioner has determined the dog is required for the person.
In an email to CBC, a spokesperson for the province said, "You cannot be denied entry into a business if you have a service animal and can provide documentation from a regulated health professional confirming the animal is required due to a disability.
"If someone has been discriminated against based on a disability, they may wish to contact the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which handles claims of discrimination filed under the Ontario Human Rights Code."
Dog trainer Robyn Minifie has been working with Stiebert and her service dog Amora.
"Service dogs come in all shapes and sizes nowadays," said Minifie.
"It's all about what matches best with an owner."
What a dog looks like or how it's groomed is irrelevant, she said.
There's a lack of standard for and regulation for service dogs in Canada and it's varied by province. - Colleen Dell, University of Saskatchewan
"As long as their behaviour's there and as long as they have service dog qualifications, their note from their doctor, I don't think that should matter."
Colleen Dell is an animal therapy researcher and professor at the University of Saskatchewan who specializes in treatment for mental health, addictions and well-being.
She said identifying a service animal can be confusing, because "there's a lack of standard for and regulation for service dogs in Canada, and it's varied by province.
"That does lead to the confusion for individuals."
Why Stiebert picked a poodle
However, in Stiebert's case, Dell said the response should have been obvious.
"It's pretty clear that that hotel owner has a legal obligation to not refuse entry to this woman and her service dog."
Many people assume a service dog should be a golden retriever or Labrador, said Dell.
"There's just this complete lack of understanding."
Stiebert chose a poodle for a reason.
"They don't shed, so they're hypoallergenic. I have people that suffer from allergies at home,"
Also, Stiebert enjoys showing Amora at dog shows, which she acknowledges comes with challenges.
"I have felt that people don't take her seriously as a service dog because of the way she's groomed," said Steibert. "Unfortunately, my anxiety is making me think about just shaving her off."