How assistance dogs can help people with disability


Assistance dogs are working animals trained to help people with disability move around, improve health, perform general tasks and activities, and live more independently.

Key Points

  • A working guide dog is identified by its vest and harness.

  • The training for each dog is unique and depends on their personality and the type of tasks that will suit the needs of their future owner.

  • Assistance dogs are given special privileges and can go into a large number of public places.

What is an assistance dog?

An assistance dog is a guide, hearing, or service dog that is trained to perform a number of tasks that help people with disability navigate day to day life or offer support and independence.

There are also autism assistance dogs that are trained to comfort a child if they become distressed, helping to prevent a child’s emotional reaction from escalating into a meltdown, and dogs which are trained to tell people with diabetes when their insulin levels change so that they can check their blood sugar levels.

Some service dogs are even able to help remind people to take their medication and other routine tasks. Dogs are chosen to be assistance dogs by considering their size, health, temperament, risk of shedding and intelligence.

Types of assistance dogs and tasks

There are a number of assistance dogs and therapy dogs that provide support to people with disability. Each dog is trained to perform different types of tasks, depending on who they are being trained to help.

There are three main types of assistance dogs:

Guide dogs

Guide dogs or seeing eye dogs are trained to help visually impaired or blind people move around safely and independently.

Hearing dogs

Hearing dogs are trained to assist people who are deaf or hard of hearing by alerting them to important sounds like phones, doorbells or smoke alarms.

Service dogs

Service dogs are trained to assist people who live with various disabilities manage personal and other tasks.

Some assistance dogs are also trained to help with mobility assistance, medical responses, autism assistance and support veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Golden retrievers and labradors are the most common types of assistance dogs.

How are assistance dogs trained?

Puppies chosen to be assistance dogs are trained for around two years. Puppies are selected based on their temperament.

These dogs spend around 18 months living with a volunteer puppy educator before taking six months of advanced training with an organisation such as Assistance Dogs Australia, Guide Dogs Australia or with a certified trainer.

How do assistance dogs help after training?

Because of the tasks that an assistance dog performs and the extensive training that they undergo, they are generally given special access privileges. This means they can go into a large number of places that a non-working dog is not able to as Government legislation allows this.

However, the legislation is different in each State and Territory, and a handler may be required to get certification before their dog is able to access locations. Because of the extensive training that they receive, assistance dogs are normally legally allowed to enter public places, including:

  • Restaurants, pubs and cafés

  • Cinemas and theatres

  • Supermarkets and other retail shops

  • Hotels, motels, and accommodation

  • Public transport including taxis, trains, trams, buses and aeroplanes

  • Medical or dental practices and hospitals

However, there are some locations where they are not allowed to enter due to the risk of cross-contamination. These places may include food preparation areas, hospital operating theatres and high-risk medical settings such as Burns Units and Intensive Care Units.

In many States and Territories across Australia, legislation means that fines and penalties can apply when businesses or people refuse access and services to people who have a guide or assistance dog.

Assistance dog etiquette

It can take a lot of focus for a guide dog to perform its tasks and appropriate etiquette when engaging with a handler and their guide is needed. This means you can’t just walk up to an assistance dog to give it a pat.

Some ways to make sure you are following assistance dog etiquette include:

  • Not feeding, patting or distracting a dog when it is working.

  • Asking if a handler needs assistance and not taking hold of the dogs’ harness or the handler.

  • Ensuring that pet dogs are under control when they are near an assistance dog as they may be a distraction.

  • Giving way to an oncoming assistance dog and its handler.

What to consider before getting an assistance dog

Despite the help and support that an assistance dog offers they may not be for everyone. If you’re interested in getting an assistance dog there are some things you may want to consider, including:

  • The cost of looking after an assistance dog. There are costs associated with feeding, and looking after an assistance dog, just like any household pet. You need to consider if you can afford these costs before getting an assistance dog. There is also the ongoing training costs and the initial cost of partnering with an assistance animal

  • Whether you are willing to commit to any ongoing training needs for the animal. Although they are given the highest amount of training possible there may still be ongoing training requirements to make sure they can perform the tasks they need to

  • Once you have a service dog, you’re probably going to have a lot of people ask questions. You’ll need to be prepared to answer questions and have people approaching you while you are with your assistance dog. For some people this is not ideal and they need to take this into consideration

  • If you are bringing an assistance dog into a family you will need to consider the needs of your family and any other pets you have. There could be people in your family that have allergies or a fear of dogs, or you may already have pets that aren’t compatible with an assistance dog

  • Whether you can look after the dog. The dog will still require walks, food, grooming and all the other things a dog needs to be healthy and well cared for. You need to consider if you are physically able to look after and provide for the dog

Misconceptions about assistance dogs

There are a number of common myths and misconceptions about assistance dogs and their handlers. Some of the common misconceptions about guide dogs and their handlers include:

  • A guide dog knows where to go – A guide dog does not know where to go at all times, it actually follows directions from its handler

  • A guide dog knows when to cross at traffic lights – All dogs are red-green colourblind and cannot understand traffic signals. A handler listens for when it is safe and then asks the dog to move forward. Because the dog is trained not to walk into oncoming traffic if it is not safe, it will not proceed unless the traffic has stopped

  • Assistance dogs are only for the blind or deaf – Assistance dogs are used by a large group of people with disability and medical conditions

  • Guide dogs always wear a harness and are always working – Guide dogs are only working when they wear a harness. When they are out of the harness and at home, they are just like any other pet dog, and they are free to play and be lazy

  • Assistance dogs are not loved – Assistance dogs are treated with love by their handlers, and they continue to be trained in their role but also enjoy the love a pet owner would have for any other pet

For more information about assistance dogs, you can visit Seeing Eye Dogs Australia, Guide Dogs Australia, or Assistance Dogs Australia.

Considering getting an assistance dog? Let us know your thoughts on them and how they have helped you in the comments below!

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