Assistance dogs can provide vital help with everyday tasks, as well as providing welcome companionship.

Assistance dogs aren’t pets. A ‘recognised’ assistance dog is one that has been trained to assist a disabled person by one of the organisations registered as members of Assistance Dogs UK. This immediately gives them a formal ‘qualification’ as such and the endorsement of the Department of Health – this is important, not least because assistance animals are generally required by their disabled owners to bypass certain rules, such as those relating to places where there’s a ‘no dogs allowed’ rule, such as shops, public transport and the workplace.

Accredited training guarantees that dogs have the appropriate temperament and have been assessed as having taken on the high standards of training and behaviour that make them a cut above the common mutt. The Equalities Act says that reasonable adjustments must be made in order to avoid discrimination based on disability and because assistance dogs are effectively an accredited form of assistance, in the same way that, say, a walking frame is, owners cannot be discriminated against as a result of using one.

Part of an assistance dog’s accreditation is based on the principle that it must not be a risk to peoples’ health. With this in mind, recognised assistance dogs are regularly assessed, vaccinated, wormed and protected against fleas according to the latest veterinary advice. Furthermore, owners or (partners, as human owners are sometimes called) must provide ongoing evidence that they are keeping up with treatments several times a year since less frequent check-ups could not be relied upon to guarantee that the assistance dog is free from parasites or disease.

A true partnership

One of the reasons why disabled people that use assistance dogs are known as ‘partners’ just as their assistance dogs are known as ‘canine partners’ is that the relationship is far from that of ‘master and dog’ – it’s a true partnership. To this end, disabled people are also expected to undertake training in dog behaviour, dog training and welfare under the supervision of a professional trainer for a period of 18 days and just as an assistance dog is assessed so the (human) partner will either become qualified or referred for further training. The training also provides the partner with an idea of how the dog will handle in different situations.

One final test is required and is based on a test where the dog is handled entirely by their disabled partner and includes elements testing the dog’s obedience, behaviour and any specific tasks it will be expected to carry out. For the human partners’ part, they are again tested on their understanding of dog welfare.

As time goes by it is inevitable that changes will occur in the partnership and that the expected standards might start to deteriorate despite best efforts to the contrary. In these instances the organisation responsible for the assistance dog will take swift action to restore standards. This support reflects the ongoing work and support of such organisations, although it may seem callus to effectively ‘sack’ a dog that has become more than just a worker.

Emotional support

Some dogs are considered to be assistance dogs by their owners but are not accredited officially as such. ‘Emotional support dogs’ may well have been loosely prescribed by a medical professional for comfort and companionship but they do not carry the rights of registered assistance dogs and for example, would not be given consideration where a ‘no dogs allowed’ rule exists. Whilst some dogs are trained for psychiatric service in other countries, the UK currently has no recognised provider of this kind of training.

Generally speaking assistance dogs are used for more practical purposes such as guiding the blind or utilising their hearing for Deaf people. Assistance dogs can also be trained in basic tasks that might include fetching things or warning people of danger and so on. The following is a list of organisations registered as full members of Assistance Dogs UK:

Canine Partners

Dog A.I.D

Dogs for the Disabled

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People‎

Support Dogs

Guide Dogs

Medical Detection Dogs

Assistance Dogs UK