Guide-dog owners say new U.S. rules complicate border crossings

Advocates for guide dogs and their owners worry the language in new requirements for dogs entering the U.S. is vague, and are scrambling to get clarity from officials. (BC Guide Dogs/Facebook - image credit)
Advocates for guide dogs and their owners worry the language in new requirements for dogs entering the U.S. is vague, and are scrambling to get clarity from officials. (BC Guide Dogs/Facebook - image credit)

New entry requirements for dogs travelling from Canada to the United States could make life more difficult for people who use service or guide dogs, advocates fear.

Under updated guidelines to reduce the spread of rabies announced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's a slew of new requirements for dogs crossing the border that vary based on a dog's age, country of origin and travel history.

The rules apply to service dogs as well as pets.

Dogs that live in Canada and haven't been to a "high-risk" country in the past six months must be microchipped and have comprehensive proof of rabies vaccination. The dog's owner or guardian must also fill out an entry application form that includes two photos of the dog, and the dog must "appear healthy on arrival."

The new rules, announced in early May, come into effect on Aug. 1.

Darryl Stickel, a consultant who is legally blind, says travelling internationally for his work is already challenging for him and his guide dog Drake, and these requirements create new opportunities for things to go wrong.

"As someone with a disability, the more hurdles and steps you put in place, the more opportunities there are for me to make a mistake," he said.

Stickle also said the language in the requirements about whether a dog appears to be healthy is vague, creating room for border guards to deny a person and their dog entry.

Guide dogs are not pets: advocate 

B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs CEO William Thornton said his organization has been scrambling to gain a full understanding of the new requirements.

While Thornton said he understands preventing the spread of rabies is a important, he doesn't think service dogs should be lumped in with pet dogs.

As a rule, service dogs are vaccinated, microchipped and receive yearly health checks, he said.

But of particular concern to Thornton is the requirement, under certain circumstances, for dogs to have a blood test that checks for disease immunity in the 30 days prior to travel.

"The impact on service dogs would appear, at this stage ... it's going to be a little bit dramatic and a bit of a setback," he said.

"A guide dog or a service dog is really an extension of an individual, and it needs to be able to go wherever and whenever an individual wishes to travel."

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Thornton is also the chair of the International Guide Dog Federation, which has 100 organizations in 37 different countries and represents 25,000 working dogs globally. As far as Thornton is aware, the CDC did not reach out to the federation when drafting the new measures or after publication.

"I think that you're going to see a lot of pushback by the [guide dog] industry. ... We have to represent our guide dog users because the whole idea of getting a guide or a service dog is freedom of access, freedom of travel," he said.

CBC News asked the CDC whether it consulted service-dog groups over the rule changes, but has yet to receive a reply.

According to the CDC, the rabies virus carried by dogs was eliminated in the U.S. in 2007 and the new measures aim to prevent its reintroduction.

The regulation, it says, builds on what it learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, when the centre temporarily banned the importation of dogs from countries with a high risk of rabies.

The CDC told CBC News that service dogs are subject to the same requirements as all other dogs entering the country, but accommodations and exceptions can be made.

For dogs arriving by air, the CDC-registered animal care facility where the passenger's dog has a reservation should transport passengers and their dogs to the facility for the dog's examination and revaccination — which would, in theory, expedite the process. The CDC says these requests need to be made during the reservation process.

There is also an exception for foreign-vaccinated service dogs that arrive at a sea port if the dog meets all other requirements, including having a valid rabies test from a CDC-approved lab before arrival.