What is the difference between a guide dog and an emotional support dog?
I’ve just been diagnosed with anxiety disorder. My therapist suggested a companion animal might improve my mental health. But my lease says I can’t have a pet. My landlord said I can’t have a dog for emotional support. They live upstairs and said their kid has bad allergies to dogs.
The law in BC defines a guide dog as one that’s trained to assist a blind person. A service dog is trained to perform specific tasks to assist a person with a disability. Both kinds of dogs must be certified by an accredited training school.
Emotional support animals provide comfort to and relief for their owners. They can do this simply by being a steady and loving companion. Unlike guide dogs and service dogs, there’s no legal definition, certification process, or special training requirement for emotional support animals.
Guide and service dogs are treated differently
A landlord can’t refuse to rent a property to someone who has a certified guide or service dog. And they can’t impose a pet damage deposit for a guide or service dog. Unfortunately, there are no similar legal protections for owners of emotional support animals.
In a tenancy agreement, landlords can legally restrict the size, kind and number of pets. So check whether your tenancy agreement allows you to have your specific pet.
If you live in a strata, you should also review your strata bylaws. Pet clauses in leases must comply with any strata property bylaws. There may be exceptions set out in your strata bylaws that, for example, allow a resident to have a pet, such as an emotional support animal, for medical reasons.
If there isn’t a “no pets” clause in your tenancy agreement or strata property bylaws, then you should be able to have a pet in your rental unit.
A “no pets” clause could amount to discrimination
If you have a disability, including a mental disability, BC human rights law may come into play. Landlords and stratas have a duty to accommodate a tenant’s disability. The duty to accommodate may include allowing you to live with an emotional support animal. It’s irrelevant whether the animal is certified as a guide or service dog; the duty still applies.
A landlord’s duty to accommodate isn’t limitless. They must accommodate tenants with a disability, to the point of undue hardship. Mere inconvenience or disruption isn’t a good enough reason to avoid accommodating.
The BC Human Rights Clinic explains what a landlord must do when considering their duty to accommodate. The health and safety of other tenants and the cost of making the accommodation are relevant factors. For example, say there’s another tenant with an allergy to pet dander. The duty to accommodate might include looking into the severity of the other tenant’s allergy. And there may be other steps the landlord could take to accommodate both tenants (such as buying an air filter for the second tenant) that do not cause undue hardship.
If you are a person with a disability, you could make a request to your landlord for accommodation in writing. You should:
Tell them you have a disability. Explain that it’s a protected characteristic under BC human rights law. Provide information about the severity of the condition and how it affects your functioning.
Show how you’re been negatively impacted by the pet policy. (What are the health benefits of having a support dog? How would having a support dog beneficially impact your condition? Are you being deprived of these benefits?)
Provide sufficient medical information in support of the above two points. In some cases, this may require a full medical report from a doctor. (This human rights claim involved an emotional support animal. It was dismissed because of insufficient medical information.)
Tell them what you want to happen. For example, you’d like an exemption from their pet policy or “no pets” clause.
If your landlord or strata doesn’t accommodate you, you could start a claim with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. The BC Human Rights Clinic can provide you with free legal information and help to get you started.