Therapy dog barred from B.C. grocery store

Abbotsford counsellor had brought her nine-year-old blind emotional support dog to Save-On for two years

An Abbotsford counsellor says it’s unfair that the grocery store she has shopped at for a decade has suddenly declared that her therapy dog – a nine-year-old blind pooch named Chloe – is unwelcome.

But Fraser Health says provincial legislation is clear: Animals other than certified service dogs and aquarium fish are barred from places that serve food.

Until mid-December, Rosemary Fromson had patronized the pharmacy at the Sumas Way Save-On-Foods for 14 years, the last two during which she had been accompanied by Chloe.

Fromson, who counsels patients but also deals with her own anxiety issues, says she received permission to bring Chloe into the store two years ago by the then assistant manager.

That changed last month, when Fromson said she was confronted by a lower-level Save-On manager, who had previously expressed displeasure with the dog’s presence. The man told her he had called head office about the dog, but Fromson said other Save-On managers reassured her that nothing would come from the complaint.

Two days later, though, Fromson said she was told only certified guide dogs – and not emotional support animals like Chloe – were permitted in the grocery store.

In an email to Fromson, the chain’s regional director, Cal Siemens, wrote that current provincial rules ban such animals from Save-On facilities.

“We recognize this is a complicated and emerging issue and we take it very seriously,” Siemens wrote in an email Fromson showed to The News. “Unfortunately, as it stands today there are no guidelines that allow for emotional support animals to be permitted in our operations.”

In the email, Siemens said the chain is “deeply committed to accessibility,” but that its hands are tied until the government creates new rules.

The province’s Public Health Act does state that operators of food premises cannot allow live animals on their premises, except for trained and certified guide dogs or service dogs. And while the law does allow for any other animal “that a health officer determines will not pose a risk of a health hazard occurring on the premises,” Fraser Health told The News that there “is no process for issuing exemptions for people with therapy animals.”

Fromson said emotional support animals can provide important help and comfort to those dealing with mental health challenges. She said Chloe is frequently embraced and celebrated by other customers and staff at the Save-On-Foods.

Chloe wears a small vest identifying her as a support dog, and Fromson said she has a certificate from a U.S. agency, but not from the B.C. government. She said support animals shouldn’t need training or certificates, and businesses and clients should be able to work out a suitable arrangement when it comes to such animals. If proof is required that the animal is legitimately needed, then Fromson suggested a doctor’s note or a signed statement should be sufficient.

Fromson questioned the health danger of such dogs, given that service animals are permitted to enter restaurants and grocery stores so long as they are kept away from those areas where food is being prepared and processes.

“It’s about compassion and understanding,” she said, adding that she was particularly bothered that emotional support dogs would now be banned from all of Save On’s stores.

“This is destroying lots of people who shop there.”

The News contacted Save On Foods by email last week. In response, the company said a spokesperson would be in touch, but subsequent emails have since gone unanswered.

RELATED: Lower Mainland graduation marks expansion of PTSD service dog program

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tolsen@abbynews.com

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