Hello! Today I’m going to talk about having an assistance dog.
So what is an assistance dog?
An assistance dog is taught a different range of tasks to a guide dog. These tend to be tasks such as pressing door buttons or retrieving tasks as opposed guiding task such as alerting someone to dangers and obstacles around them.
There are dogs for those with visual impairments, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Medical alert dogs alert their companions to low blood sugar levels or seizures. There are dogs who assist people with mobility issues. Some dogs are trained to help those with autistic spectrum disorders. Psychological support dogs, although not technically assistance dogs, are also trained to help those in psychological distress. They are unfortunately not currently recognised under U.K. Law, although they are in the US. This does mean that they don’t have the legal protection and rights that other assistance and guide dogs have.
In the UK all assistance dogs have to have undergone rigorous training with an organisation accredited by Assistance Dogs UK. Dogs trained privately won’t be legally recognised and won’t have the same kind of access rights.
I used to have an assistance dog
I won’t use his name as he’s still working with someone else. Unfortunately it didn’t work for me at the time. This was all down to me, not the dog. He was lovely and I miss him dearly but needed to be with someone else who would be a better match. I had a fairly chaotic lifestyle back then – including a long distance relationship and frequent hospital admissions. I also didn’t have strategies in place for others looking after the dog when I couldn’t (and back ups for the back ups!). Organisation is key when having an assistance dog and back then organisation was not my forte!
But he did help me, not just with various tasks but also with my confidence. As well as my physical health issues I also have post traumatic stress disorder and I felt much more at ease going around in my wheelchair. I used a power chair back then, until it ended up in a ditch along with me perched precariously on top and my dog worriedly watching me), so I switched to a small scooter – another story for another time! He also made life easier by pressing the accessible door buttons for me, helping to get my socks off, opening doors for me, picking dropped items up, collecting the post.
My experience of having an assistance dog
What I didn’t realise during the selection process was the energy required to be a good partnership. Prior to this, I had never had a dog. I knew dogs needed walks, food, water, the right conditions and positive attention. What I didn’t realise was how difficult all of that could be to manage on top of a fluctuating condition. I think the outcome could have been more positive if my condition had been more stable or there had been someone who could have taken more of the walks for me. The training process starts as soon as you meet the dog and it doesn’t finish until the dog retires. This is normally around the age of 10 years old. Regularly practicing all the tasks the dog has been taught and distracting from any undesirable behaviour can be tiring.
Planning is key
It’s also worth remembering that suddenly your life revolves around the dog. Most places have to accept the dog by law – supermarkets, public places, cinemas etc. Some restaurants and some small shops are less welcoming of assistance dogs, even though by law they should accept you. Many hospitals tend to have a strict policy which excludes assistance and guide dogs from all wards, clinics and even some non-clinical areas due to infection control measures. Its worth also remembering there are places you don’t want to take a dog. Gigs and festivals aren’t good places due to the noise levels. Holidays abroad are also difficult, although not impossible.
Find a reliable dog sitter who understands that your assistance dog is not a pet. Extra treats and additional petting being given behind your back can affect behaviour and training. It really key that even if you do have someone else doing the walks and occasionally dog sitting that you do play with them your dog when they’re not working and keep rewards up when they are working. The bond between you and your dog is so important for your ongoing training. You must be seen as leader of the pack, and not your walker.
Assistance dogs can and do change lives for the better. If you have all the information to make an informed decision beforehand you can avoid the pitfalls. Have you considered how a assistance dog might help you? Whats your experience of having an assistance dog?