Service dogs: working for disabilities you can’t always see

Mackenzie and her psychiatric service dog Pepperpod

Mackenzie Lough and Pepperpod make a strong team.

You may have heard about Mackenzie Lough, 14, the teenager with a trained psychiatric service dog who was harassed by the manager at a local restaurant.

The female manager followed Lough and her service dog, Pepperpod, into the washroom where she demanded proof of the dog’s credentials. Even after this was provided she asked Lough and her family, who were with a party of 13, to leave the restaurant as soon as possible. There had been a complaint by another customer.

The incident caused Lough to have a panic attack as she suffers from anxiety and panic disorders. These issues had previously been significantly reduced by the presence of her service dog.

Pepperpod’s trainer, Tamara Follett, who runs Assistance Dogs for All, was dismayed to hear about the incident but says, it’s all too common. “If people can’t see the disability, they question if it’s real.”

Service dog trainer, Tamara Follett.

According to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, when the purpose of a service animal is not obvious, you can ask the following questions:

1.     Is the dog or other animal a service animal required because of a disability?
2.     What work or task has the dog or other animal been trained to perform?

It is not considered appropriate to ask about an individual’s disability or for medical proof, training documentation, or a demonstration of the service dog’s ability to perform the tasks. If the service animal is being disruptive and the handler is not taking effective action to control it, a business can ask that the animal be removed.

Follett says that a growing number of people who suffer from diabetes, seizures or a whole range of mental illnesses, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorder and depression, are relying on service dogs.

“Dogs are the only species besides humans that have left-eye bias,” she said. This means they have the capacity to instinctively check the left eye of a person to see what kind of state they are in and can identify when a person they’ve been trained to support is experiencing difficulty. This makes them ideally suited to provide service for a variety of disabilities.

Still, Follett says, there is a large segment of the population who just don’t buy it when the need for a service animal isn’t clearly visible. People presenting untrained dogs as service animals doesn’t help the situation.

“The lack of centralized certification has allowed some scammers to come into the market,” she says. “These are people who are bringing uncertified dogs into places where they are disruptive. This gives all service dogs a bad name.”

Need for education and understanding

“Education needs to continue,” says Follett, who applauds Lough for speaking up about her situation at the restaurant.

She agrees however that there are always two sides to every story. “If someone hates animals or has a severe allergy, of course they don’t want to be seated next to someone with a service dog.” In those cases she says, it’s up to the business to find the best way to solve the problem.

Follett says the focus needs to be on the evidence that psychiatric service dogs can make an enormous difference in the lives of individuals struggling with mental illness.

Before she got Pepperpod, Mackenzie was anti-social and suicidal. Now she isn’t. We should be embracing whatever it took for her to get there.”

Suggestions for service dog handlers

  • Call ahead and inform the business you’ll be bringing a service dog and if necessary, indicate it’s a psychiatric service dog for a mental illness.
  • If you meet resistance, it’s best to take your business elsewhere but use the opportunity to point out that the business is violating the Human Rights Code. Offer to provide links to educational resources to help create awareness.
  • Print up flyers or information cards that include a description of the dog and handler and how they work together. Provide these to places you frequent such as schools, stores and recreation centres.
  • If you are able, consider addressing groups in your community to make them aware of the work your service dog does.
  • Be aware of the rights and needs of others – fear of dogs, severe allergies, etc. Work together to come up with solutions.

Suggestions for business owners and managers

  • Review the Manitoba Human Rights Commission’s policy related to service dogs.
  • Do your best to accommodate the needs of all customers. Resolve issues related to service dogs while not infringing on the rights of anyone.
  • Understand that actions, such as unwarranted aggression or accusatory behaviour, may cause harm to an individual experiencing a mental illness.
  • Provide mental health awareness/education for your staff so that all are aware of issues and concerns related to mental illness. Some resources are provided below.

See Mackenzie’s story in Part 1 of this series, Service Dogs: Working for mental illness.


-> Helping Someone with a Mood Disorder
-> Understanding Mental Illness
-> Depression, Anxiety and Other Conditions
-> Framework to Help Eliminate Stigma (in a workplace)
-> Manitoba Human Rights Commission – Service Dogs

 Featured photos by Ingrid Misner, Artistic Impressions Photography.

Leanne Fournier


I own my own company, MightyWrite, and love to write about Manitoba businesses, mental health, people, and my life off the grid along a great river. Read all about it on my blog at or let's connect on Twitter @mightywriteca.