What are assistance dogs?

08 Jul 2019

Dogs can play many roles in our lives. They can be companions, farm dogs, police and biosecurity dogs and assistance dogs. The job of an assistance dog is varied and often complex, however, the value they bring to people living with a disability is innumerable.

Learn more about what assistance dogs do, how they are trained and what rights owners of assistance dogs have in public spaces.

What do assistance dogs do?

Assistant dogs are different from companion dogs. Although we like to think our pets could do anything, assistance dogs have been specifically chosen for their temperament and have usually undergone rigorous training programs prior to their accreditation. Assistance dogs are a kind of working dog. There are several different kinds of assistance dogs, also known as service dogs.

Medical alert dogs

These are dogs that have been specifically trained to detect changes in medical conditions such as diabetes or epilepsy. Medical alert dogs can tell when someone has low blood sugar or is about to experience a seizure, allowing the person and their loved ones to take precautions prior to an episode.

Seeing and hearing dogs

Dogs that assist people with vision impairment are often called ‘guide dogs’. They are the most commonly recognised assistance dogs in Australia, with Guide Dogs organisations found in most states and territories of Australia. Hearing dogs assist people with hearing impairment and alert them when required.

Personal assistance dogs

A more general category of assistance dogs, these dogs are trained to perform a wide variety of tasks such as retrieving items, closing doors, switching lights on or helping people with balance.

Psychiatric assistance dogs

Trained to reduce anxiety and alert individuals to changes in mental states, psychiatric assistance dogs provide important assistance to people experiencing autism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), generalised anxiety and other brain or mental health conditions.

How are assistance dogs trained?

Most assistance dogs are trained by organisations that specialise in this area. Organisations such as Guide Dogs only train specially-bred animals such as Labrador Retrievers. In some states, it is possible to have a companion dog accredited as an assistance dog for certain roles, such as a psychiatric assistance dog.

Where can assistance dogs go?

Legally, assistance dogs can accompany their owners into all public places including public transport. Under the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone who is living with a disability and uses an assistance dog.

However, some states and territories have laws which require assistance dogs to be accredited and registered. More information on the legal standing of assistance dogs can be found here.

Further reading

Assistance dog training and accreditation is a complex area with differing state and territory laws. More information can be found at Health Direct and Assistance Dogs.

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