What is an assistance dog?

Almost everyone will be familiar with seeing the signs on shops and other public places which say Guide Dogs welcome but you may have noticed that increasing these are being replaced by those stating Assistance Dogs welcome. So what is an Assistance Dog, what do they do and how do you recognise them.

Assistance dogs tend to fall into one of 3 categories:

  • Guide Dogs – those who work alongside clients who have varying degrees of visual impairment.
  • Hearing Dogs – those who work alongside clients with varying degrees of hearing impairment.
  • Service Dogs – those who work alongside clients with a range of disabilities and other conditions.

There may also be times when a dog is trained to provide support in more than one area and will be classed as a duel dog receiving specialist training from more than one organisation. Here in the UK there are 7 charities that train assistance dogs to provide support both in the home and crucially when out in public to individuals:

Hearing Dogs for Deaf People whose dogs can be recognised by their burgundy jackets train dogs to alert to everyday sounds such as doorbells, alarms including fire and smoke alarms and any others that are required by an individual both within the home and when out in public places. Hearing Dogs are partnered with clients who have varying degrees of hearing impairment and the dogs chosen for this job are a wide variety of different breeds.

Canine Partners provide dog to clients who require help with day to day tasks due to physical disabilities. Their dogs are trained for a multitude of tasks according to the need of the individual and these can include opening doors, fetching items, handing over wallets to cashiers and helping with clothing items. The majority of Canine Partners tend to be Labrador, Golden Retrievers or crosses of these breeds as they need to be large enough to work around wheelchairs in many cases and they can be recognised by their purple jacket.

Medical Detection Dogs this charity trains dogs to alert clients to a range of complex health conditions which includes Diabetes, Addison’s disease, severe allergies and other illness which cause an odour change in the human body. While most of the dogs are Gundog types you will also see various other breeds trained for the role as Medical Detection Dogs will at times select dogs from rescue and also train some clients own dogs. When out in public a Medical Alert Assistance Dog will wear a red jacket printed with the words Medical Alert Assistance Dog or similar.

Dogs for Good (previously known as Dogs for the Disabled) place dogs with adults and children with a range of physical disabilities and also train dogs to work alongside children with Autism. Their dogs will support their partner in a variety of different ways which are very much based on individual client needs. All of their dogs will wear a green jacket when out in public and like Canine Partners they tend to use Labrador and Retriever types.

Support Dogs work to provide clients with seizure alert dogs, dogs to support children with Autism and also to provide disability assistance such as picking up dropped objects, fetching items and helping to open or close doors . Support dogs train a variety of different types of dogs and they can all be identified by their blue jackets.

Dog Aid unlike the other assistance dog charities Dog Aid work alongside independent trainers and individuals who will benefit from having an assistance dog to train that persons pet dog a suitable standard where they can receive accreditation. Once accredited dogs trained through Dog Aid can wear a red jacket to identify them as an Assistance Dog.

Guide Dogs are probably the most well-known and recognised dogs of all the assistance dogs. Guide Dogs are placed with clients who have varying degrees of visual impairment and who will benefit from the support a Guide dog can provide. A working Guide Dog can be recognised by their white harness with florescent strips while dogs in training and puppy walking will often wear blue coats with “In training” printed on them.

When an individual is matched with an assistance dog from one of the above charities they will receive a considerable amount of training and support to ensure that the partnership meets the requirements set out by Assistance Dogs International or in the case of Guide Dogs the International Guide Dog Federation. As part of this training the partnership will have to undergo an assessment to gain full accreditation which means the dog will be allowed unrestricted access to shops, restaurants and other public places. These access rights are upheld in law by the Equality Act (2010) which says that a person with an assistance dog should be given the same access as any other individual to an establishment and refusal can result in a court case being brought against the owners or management.

In recent years there have also been private organisations set up which claim to provide assistance dogs to individuals for a fee. While these dogs may provide support to individuals in the home they will not have the access rights afforded to those dogs from the 7 charities mentioned unless they have received accreditation from Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation.
Should you see an Assistance Dog out working or a puppy in training it is good etiquette not to speak to the dog or try and gain the dog’s attention and this is especially important with Guide Dogs. However it is often the case that a client and certainly puppy walkers and socialisers are happy to talk about what their dog does or is in training for.
You can find out more about Assistance Dogs from the Assistance Dog UK website.