Tuesday 20 July 2021

Assistance Dogs 101: Assistance Dogs


Let's face it, dogs are, and always have been, man's best friend. We all know the extraordinary benefits and innate abilities that dogs have, and as they are (most of the time) highly intelligent and trainable, they are the most popular animal to assist us humans in an official capacity as a service dog or working dog.

But there seems to be a lot of confusion about the difference between an assistance/service dog and a companion dog. Depending on where you live in this wonderful world of ours, the lines seem to have blurred about the difference between the two.

It's been a few months since Henry arrived at superhero headquarters and became L's furry sidekick and already we have lost count of the number of times that when we've been out and about, a well meaning member of the public has said to us, upon realising that Henry is a service dog, "oh I have a service dog too, it's a [insert dog breed here.]" And the majority of times, the dog breed is a chihuahua or a dachshund or some other extremely small stature breed. We've also had people tell us that they have an emotional support assistance dog.

Now I have nothing against either of these breeds - in fact we're big fans of dachshund's, but neither of these breeds have the stature needed for the tasks that service dogs are often required to do. They are the perfect size dog breed for a companion dog however. And this leads us to the main point of this post.

There is a HUGE difference between an Assistance or Service Dog and a companion dog. The term Assistance and Service are interchangeable so in this piece when I refer to an Assistance Dog, I am also meaning Service Dog.

Assistance Dogs are considered a medical aid and they are specifically trained to assist people with visible and/or non-visible disabilities. There is a lot of training, many more hours of training then you would put into a family pet, and as such Assistance Dogs are given additional permissions and protections under the law than a family pet would have.

Due to the additional permissions and protections given to Assistance Dogs, they are required to meet specific temperament, behaviour and hygiene standards, both before and after their public certification.

Traditionally, Assistance Dogs are predominantly recognised as Guide Dogs for the sight impaired - Henry is often mistaken for a Guide Dog because that is the most well known Assistance Dog.

Assistance Dogs can be trained to do a wide range of tasks. Smart Pups who trained Henry not only train Autism Assistance Dogs, they also train mobility Assistance Dogs, Seizure Alert Dogs, Diabetes Dogs that detect high and low blood sugars and they've branched into training PTSD Assistance Dogs for returned service and emergency service personnel. Assistance Dogs, while assisting their owner with a myriad of tasks, also assist the person to access and participate in community activities.

Due to the role and tasks that Assistance Dogs are trained to do, Assistance Dogs are protected in Queensland under the Guide, Hearing and Assistance Dogs Act 2009 in regards to the public access rights that the dog and their handler have after they have successfully completed the certification process.

Assistance Dogs Australia wide, are also protected under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (commonly referred to as the DDA,) section 9, part 2. This states that the legal definition of an assistance animal, like a dog or other animal, is that it:

(a) is accredited under a State or Territory law to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effects of disability; or
(b) is accredited by an animal training organisation prescribed in the regulations; or
(c) is trained to (i) assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability and (ii) meets standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.

To gain certification, the handler and dog must work with an approved trainer or training organisation to train the dog and once the trainer is satisfied, the handler and dog must successfully complete the public access test (PAT) and certification process.

Once the handler and dog have passed the PAT, a handler identification card is generated (in our case we have two handler identification cards, one for L and one for myself.) When the dog is in work mode, this card must be kept on the dog or handler at all times - Henry has a small pocket in his work jacket that these cards are kept in.

Assistance Dogs are working dogs. Henry is L's Assistance Dog and is in fact listed as belonging to L. Henry is not a family pet as even when out of his work jacket, he is still working.

When an Assistance Dog is in its jacket, the dog is on the clock and working to assist their handler. 

Assistance Dogs and their handlers have access to all public spaces - restaurants, shops, libraries, cinemas, zoos, work spaces, hospitals and everywhere in between. The only places that assistance dogs are not permitted are in commercial kitchens (but let's face it, do we really need dog hair in our food??) and sterile areas like operating theatres and quarantine areas (which makes a lot of sense.) By refusing access to an Assistance Dog, you are discriminating against the dog and their handler.

There are a few distinct features of an Assistance Dog, and not just the specific tasks that it can do, that really sets an Assistance Dog a part from a family pet. With an Assistance Dog, you shouldn't actually realise that it is somewhere a pet dog isn't allowed to go. We regularly surprise people with Henry when they realise that he has been very quietly sleeping under a chair or table while we've been out and about. An Assistance Dog, while in work mode, should not be barking or growling at people or at other assistance dogs. An Assistance Dog shouldn't be begging for food from its handler or other people around it. 

All of these things have occurred to us when we've been out and about - we've had two "assistance dogs" growl and bark at Henry as we walked past - Henry was on his best behaviour and ignored the dog both times which Henry was rewarded for. I've seen more than a few extremely small "assistance dogs" begging for food inside cafes and food courts of shopping centres. These are traits that you do NOT want to see in an Assistance Dog.

Dogs that are classed or referred to as companion or emotional support animals, generally do not have any task specific training and as such they are not recognised under the same legislation as Assistance Dogs and therefore they do not have the same public access rights as an Assistance Dog - they are also not recognised under the Guide, Hearing and Assistance Dogs Act 2009.

A companion or emotional support dog, while I have no doubt they are incredibly useful, they have generally not undergone any training to do specific, identifiable tasks to reduce their owner's need for support. A companion dog is a fancy way of saying a family pet.

If a companion or an emotional support dog has not undergone the public access test, it is not permitted to enter places such as restaurants, shopping centres, hospitals and so on.

If you are unsure about the classification of any dog that you see out and about in places that family pets are not allowed to be, by all means ask. The handler, if the dog has been certified, has an obligation to carry their handler card and provide this when asked for proof about the dog. Please be polite when asking to view these details though.

We've always said that if our old bull terrier was younger, she'd make a great therapy dog - she'd need a lot of training - but she is definitely an undercover therapy. She is a wonderful companion and emotional support dog.

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