Quebec woman fighting condo board for right to keep dog that helps with her mental health
A Quebec woman suffering with chronic depression and social anxiety may be forced to give up her dog or move out unless she can prove to her condo board that the dog is an emotional support animal — something experts say is challenging as most provinces, including Quebec, have no standards for this certification.
Sarah Michaud-Allard, 28, adopted Princess — a two-year-old Husky mix — from Montreal's SPCA in February, after her family doctor recommended she get a dog to help with her declining mental health.
At that point, she'd reached the limit of medication she could take for depression, anxiety and other psychological issues.
"[I was] at my lowest. I've been off work for almost a year now because of my mental health," said Michaud-Allard, sitting on her couch with Princess by her side in her Saint-Jérôme, Que., condo.
As soon as the dog entered her life, things started looking up.
"The moment I got her, people around me told me, like, 'there is a difference,'" she said.''Basically, [she] gives me a purpose every day to get up."
As an emotional support dog, Princess has no formal training, but Michaud-Allard says she helps her calm down when she suffers panic attacks by placing her paws on her and getting her "out of that mind space."
"I'm really dependent on her," she said, adding the dog is currently in obedience school and will soon receive training to become an official service dog.
But Michaud-Allard's condo board says the boisterous dog is too big and too noisy for the condominium. Princess weighs about 16 kilograms and the condos have an 11-kilogram weight limit for dogs. Residents have also complained about the dog's barking.
CBC News reviewed a recent letter sent by the board telling Michaud-Allard that she has until May 1 to provide sufficient evidence that she requires Princess for her mental health — or get rid of her.
It also wants proof that the dog is in training to become a service dog and an estimate of how long it will be until she's certified as one.
Michaud-Allard says she panicked when she saw the letter and became very upset about what it meant.
"Right now, what they're telling me is that if I had a a dog that was already certified from a real agency, they wouldn't make a fuss about it," Michaud-Allard said.
Before adopting Princess, she says she looked into getting a specialized dog from an accredited service dog organization, but it was too expensive, even with the government subsidy.
"So what they're telling me right now is that only people who have enough money deserve to have the tools to get better," she said.
CBC News requested an interview with someone from the condo board but was told no one was available.
Emotional support animals 'do not exist' in Canada
By definition, service animals are task-trained for a particular person's disability. Emotional support animals are not.
Sandra-Marie Hrycko, a professional dog trainer based in Gatineau, Que., says emotional support dogs provide essential services merely through their presence, providing comfort and appeasement, but there's an absence of regulation and certification for them.
"Emotional support animals are not recognized in Canada. They do not exist," she said.
Hrycko says even handlers with certified, working service animals can be given a tough time across the province due to lack of regulations, and it's up to them to be able to make their case to Quebec's human rights commission, which oversees these situations.
"They are the ones that will determine whether or not you have the right to be in a certain area," she said.
Makram Tahari, education and co-operation advisor with Quebec's human rights commission, says despite having no form of certification, emotional support animals are protected under the province's Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms — but on a case-by-case basis.
"The fact that these dogs have not received specialized training, the person who wants to get assisted … is going to have to make a reasonable accommodation request to the 'decision maker,' depending on the context," he said.
The person or body in charge is required by law to then conduct a study of the request and take into consideration all of the information provided, Tahari says.
He says people who believe they are victims of discrimination on the grounds of disability, especially on the grounds of the means to offset the disability, can file a complaint with Quebec's human rights commission.
'If she wasn't there, I don't know what would happen'
Michaud-Allard says she's filed a complaint with the commission and isn't opposed to going to court to keep Princess.
"We're ready to fight if need be … because I don't wanna go down again," she said, referring to her mental health. "Right now, if she wasn't there, I don't know what would happen."
Michaud-Allard sent letters from her doctor and dog trainer to her condo board in hopes of proving that she needs Princess and that the dog will soon be certified as a service dog.
She says she understands the condo has rules for a reason, but because the situation pertains to mental health, she feels as though her case should warrant an exception.
"If you have the proof to say, 'look, this person has severe mental problems, she's getting a dog for those problems and she's getting the dog trained' … where's the harm?" Michaud-Allard said.
She's now waiting anxiously to hear back from the condo board.
"She's my baby. I don't want her getting taken away."