Dog Owner Launches Human Rights Complaints Against Merchants
By Kelly Egan, The Ottawa CitizenSeptember 11, 2009
OTTAWA-The movie, inescapably, would be called Carleton Place Chihuahua.
Except no one, even in Hollywood or Beverly Hills, would believe a story so bizarre — only government could make it so.
A teacup chihuahua named Dee-O-Gee, weighing maybe seven pounds, and its assertive owner, Alex Allarie, have dragged the Ontario Human Rights Commission into a dispute over what is and isn’t a “service dog” — the kind permissible in food stores and restaurants.
It is just one of about half a dozen complaints that Allarie, 52, has made against merchants along historic Bridge Street in Carleton Place.
All but one complaint has been dropped or mediated. But not the one against The Granary Bulk and Natural Food store, a fixture on the street since 1978.
That complaint is to heard by a tribunal on Dec. 1.
“I don’t want this happening to anyone else,” says Keith Rouble, the Granary owner at the time the complaint was lodged.
“We want to end this for every food business in town.”
The story has several episodes.
It began in early 2006.
According to Keith and his wife, Leslie, Allarie would visit the store, which has bulk items, to buy only small amounts of salt and pepper.
On at least one occasion, the dog was on a retractable leash and moving about the store, sniffing food items, the Roubles said.
Knowing Ontario’s health regulations, they told Allarie he could not bring the dog in the store. He responded by pulling out a prescription sheet that described the animal as a “service dog,” and also showed them a copy of the town bylaw that permits such animals in food establishments.
They were suspicious. The animal had no special harness, muzzle or markings and certainly didn’t behave like a typical service dog, used by the blind. Usually, he held it in his arms.
Their understanding of a “service dog” was an animal with highly specialized training from an accredited organization.
That summer, the couple were served with a complaint Allarie made to the Human Rights Commission on the basis he was being discriminated against because of his disability.
Allarie suffers from anxiety and depression and says the animal, now four years old, helps him cope with panic attacks and episodes of claustrophobia.
“He has helped a lot,” said Allarie. “I’ve alleviated quite a few of my symptoms by having him around.” The dog, he added, is with him 24/7.
That first complaint was eventually dropped. Things escalated in August 2008.
Allarie returned to the store — the animal now wearing a “service dog” cape —stepped inside and reportedly shouted: “Are you people going to serve me now?”
Leslie Rouble said she was actually frightened by his level of aggression. She quickly bagged up some salt and pepper and handed it to him, not the least bit concerned about payment.
It was then that Allarie threw some coins at her, she said. “I was terrified,” she said this week. “I couldn’t stop shaking for two hours after he left.”
The police were called, though no charges were laid.
The Roubles decided this customer would not be permitted in their shop anymore.
In January, they received notice of a second complaint. Allarie is asking for a public apology and unspecified financial compensation.
Mediation was a possibility, but the couple have decided enough is enough. They’re now preparing for the tribunal hearing.
In their defence, they’ve gathered various witness statements from other shopkeepers who have had confrontations with Allarie.
Already working 60-plus hours a week, they describe the ordeal as one more stress-inducer that small-business people hardly need. It isn’t about the dog anymore, says Leslie — it’s about their right as merchants to deny service to a customer who is belligerent and threatening.
They’ve also enlisted the help of their MPP, Randy Hillier, no fan of human rights commissions, period, or this complaint in particular, which he considers ludicrous.
“The system has become a tool for those who want to receive undue gain at the expense of others,” said Hillier.
“I would like to bring whatever pressure I can to see that this case is dropped.”
The use of service animals in stores and restaurants is a confusing scenario. They are covered both by municipal bylaw and provincial regulation, sometimes in contradiction of each other.
The province defines a service animal as either a trained guide dog or any other animal that is “readily apparent” to be in service of a disabled person. It also permits service animals if the owner has a letter from a physician or a nurse saying the animal is “needed.”
Allarie has such a 2006 letter from a Smiths Falls doctor, although, to further cloud the issue, it does not say he “needs” the dog, but that the chihuahua “will be of great benefit with various medical conditions.”
The Roubles have recently sold The Granary and say the stress of the human rights complaint was one of the factors.
“I’ve got nothing to apologize for,” says Keith, also chair of the town’s business improvement association.
Allarie, meanwhile, says he’s proceeding because of the principle involved and to defend the next person with an unorthodox service animal.
“He can’t pick and choose what kind of animal qualifies to be a service animal.”
Contact Kelly Egan
at 613-726-5896 or by e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen