Friday 24 December 2021

Assistance Dogs 101: What to look for in an Assistance Dog

It has been seven glorious months since Henry has been placed with our family and what a huge difference Henry has made, but that is another post!

Over the last seven months while we have been out and about with Henry, we've come into contact with a few assistance dogs. A few have been legitimate assistance dogs and a few definitely haven't been assistance dogs.

How can we tell, I hear you ask?

Well, there are certain behaviours that fully certified assistance dogs definitely shouldn't show when they are working and out in public. If any assistance dog in training shows any of these behaviours, then they do not pass the public access test and must be retrained before attempting the PAT again.

So here's a list of what an assistance dog should be seen to be doing when working, ie whenever the dog is in their vest.

1. Assistance Dogs should be seen but not heard! 

The only time that you should hear an assistance dog barking is when they have been task specific trained to bark. If the dog is a seizure alert or diabetes alert dog, they may be trained to bark to alert their handler of a change in the individuals body functioning.

We have unfortunately been barked at several times by dogs that are apparently assistance dogs. In particular the other dogs have barked aggressively at Henry. This is a huge no no for an assistance dog. On all occasions, Henry was initially startled by the other dogs but then he did an amazing job at ignoring the  other dogs, even though in two instances, the other dogs continued to bark and growl at Henry.

When an assistance dog is not performing a specific task, they should be either be the handlers side walking or under the table/chair where the handler is. Henry's under's (laying under a chair or table) are the best as he lays down and goes to sleep. Other patrons around us are often extremely surprised when we get up to leave as they usually (unless they have seen us walk in) don't even realise that a dog is with us.

2. An Assistance Dog should ignore all other dogs.

Assistance Dogs need to be focused on their handler, or in Henry's case, focused on myself and L at all times. During an Assistance Dogs training hours prior to being placed with their person, they are put through dog distraction training. When a well trained assistance dog spots another dog in public, regardless of whether the other dog is an assistance dog or not, they should not approach it, acknowledge it, bark at it and so on.

And again, several of the "assistance dogs" that we have come into contact with completely by chance have attempted to get to Henry, and not to play. This is very unsettling for any dog, so Henry again did amazingly well to ignore the other dogs.

Even when we are out and about and spot a regular pet dog, Henry will ignore the other dog.

3. Assistance Dogs should not approach people for pats.

As an assistance dog is trained to focus on their handler, they should not approach other people around their handler for pats. Several of the assistance dogs that we've seen while we've been out and about, have been focused on gaining pats from those around their handler, rather than focused on their handler.

We're often approached by people asking if they can pat Henry. We've always said that if Henry is directly assisting L, ie: de-escalating a meltdown and so on, then we won't allow people to pat Henry. If Henry is working but not directly assisting L, then we are usually more than happy to stop and have a chat.

4. An Assistance dog should heel by their handler when walking.

When working, an assistance dog is usually on a specific harness or lead. They are trained to heel next to their handler, or in the case of a guide dog, slightly in front of their handler. If you see an assistance dog pulling on it's lead or walking ahead of their handler, chances are that the dog (and handler) need retraining.

We've had an "assistance dog" on a retractable lead rush around the corner in front of it's owner to get to Henry while we were in a waiting room. This is a huge no no for an assistance dog. The only time that an assistance dog needs to be on a retractable lead is when the dog is tracking it's handler as Henry is trained to do for L when needed, or if the assistance dog is out of it's jacket and having free down time.

5. An Assistance dog should not beg for food.

Well trained assistance dogs are trained to ignore any food or treats that they see on the floor. Part of the public access test is walking directly over food while ignoring the food. Even on the occasion that we accidentally drop food or one of Henry's treats on the floor, he makes no attempt to eat the food. This is also the case for when he is out of his jacket!

6. An Assistance dog should be wearing a jacket.

An Assistance dog, regardless of what their role is, should be wearing a jacket that identifies that they are a service dog. Depending on which organisation that the dog is trained through, really depends on what colour jacket the dog should be wearing, but the jacket is usually very distinctive. The dog's jacket must have a badge or identification on the jacket stating which organisation certified or qualified the dog. 

In Henry's case there are two Smart Pups badges (the organisation that trained him) as well as a Guide Hearing Assistance Dog badge (the organisation that certified him as a service dog. 

If a dog is wearing a jacket but doesn't have any identification on the jacket, chances are the owner/handler has purchased a jacket and is attempting to pass the dog off as an assistance dog.

7. The handler must have an identification card when the dog is working.

All handlers of service dogs are issued with an identification card once the the team has passed the public access test. In Queensland, this card is issued by Guide, Hearing and Assistance Dogs. The card is distinctive and has the handlers details and the dogs details on it, complete with passport photo of the handler and of the dog.

Ideally the card should be displayed on the dog's jacket but if this is not possible, then the card must be carried by the handler whenever the dog is working in jacket. Henry's jacket as a clear faced pocket that can be sealed shut for our cards. Any place that the handler and dog go can request to see the dogs certification, and that is exactly what these cards are for.

8. An Assistance Dog must obey their handler at all times.

An Assistance Dog must be focused on their handler at all times, which includes obeying all commands given by the handler. If needed I can tell Henry, "watch me" or "leave it" and Henry will refocus on me. We use this commands if another dog approaches us or if we are walking past a dog that is barking.

The assistance dogs that have barked and rushed towards Henry, have failed to obey their handlers. Each time that this has occurred the handlers have made an attempt to gain their dogs attention however the dogs have not refocused on their handler.

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