Life with an Assistance Dog

Written by Anna Mitchell, owner of @_life.of.loki_

“In the few months that Loki has been training as an Assistance Dog, he has given me so much independence.”

What is an Assistance Dog?

For anyone unsure, an Assistance Dog is a dog that is trained to help someone with a disability, whether that be mental or physical. They are trained to an extremely high standard and because of that they have, by law, public access rights. This means that they are legally allowed everywhere that a pet dog isn’t, such as supermarkets, theatres, airports and cafes.

There are several different types of Assistance Dog. Guide dogs are probably the most commonly known. Some others are medical alert, mobility assistance, hearing dogs, psychiatric assistance and autism assistance.

Loki (pictured right) is training to be an autism and psychiatric Assistance Dog.

An Assistance Dog should be task trained, which means they can perform certain tasks that mitigate a person’s disability. They are trained to alert and respond to their handler’s disability. For example, my dog Loki performs tactile stimulation as a grounding technique for when I am anxious. He can also alert me when I am getting anxious.

The importance of assistance dogs for disabled people

For me, Loki is my lifeline and for many other handlers this is a shared viewpoint. Whilst not all disabled people will need or want an Assistance Dog, the people that do rely on them heavily in order to feel safe within society.

After lockdown, my mental health worsened significantly and leaving the house on my own became impossible due to being autistic. The only time I felt safe to leave the house was when I had Loki with me. That is when I made the decision to train Loki as an assistance dog. I cannot speak for other assistance dog handlers, but for me it was the best decision I ever made.

In the few months that Loki has been training as an Assistance Dog, he has given me so much independence. I was able to go and get my Covid jab on my own because I had him and that is something that a few months ago would have seemed impossible.

Assistance Dogs are truly amazing and can be vital to so many people’s survival. Whether it be through helping them with a health condition by alerting them to life threatening episodes before they happen, or whether it be through helping someone with a mental health condition which means they struggle to leave the house. They are life savers.

Loki wearing his Assistance Dog uniform

Training Assistance Dogs

My experience is with owner trained Assistance Dogs.

Owner trained Assistance Dogs can be just as well trained as a professionally trained Assistance Dog. For me, I chose to train Loki myself because he was already such a huge part of my life. Sending him away to be trained was not an option. I trained him from day one and so I didn’t feel comfortable with anyone else handling him. It also meant I could tailor his training specifically for me.

I do have support from an organisation who I talk to weekly. They help me with anything I’m worried about and will give me plenty of guidance when I need it, so just because you are owner training, it doesn’t mean you can’t have help!

Like I previously mentioned, ADs need to be highly trained. They should be under control at all times, they shouldn’t go to the toilet when working, and they shouldn’t disrupt other people. There is more to it than that, but those are just some of the things they should be able to do!

I personally don’t think it is a decision that should be made lightly, and for anyone considering training their own Assistance Dog, it is important to know that whilst it is very possible, it is hard work and it can be dangerous if it is not done correctly. The first time I took Loki into a shop, whilst both my trainer and I agreed he was more than ready, I was still very anxious. Assistance Dogs have to suppress a lot of their natural behaviours, such as sniffing and marking, in order to have public access. This is difficult for them and that is why a lot of training needs to be done prior to taking them into non dog friendly shops. I was nervous that I hadn’t done enough with Loki, even though I had. I also felt the added pressure of having an “off-breed” AD, especially as he is a Rottweiler and has a huge stereotype hanging over him all the time.

Any dog breed can be an Assistance Dog. There are no restrictions regarding that. It doesn’t matter what breed they are, as long as they have the appropriate training. The most common breeds trained to be ADs are Golden Retrievers, Poodles and Labradors, but like I said, there are plenty of other breeds out there that can be suitable to assistance work! Loki is a Rottweiler and a lot of people are shocked that he is allowed to be one. For me though, he is the perfect breed. It is down to each handler’s personal preference and what they need!

This is the bit that confused me the most when I was researching prior to training Loki. I didn’t know what was and wasn’t legal. I will highlight what I think are the most important legal points, based on my knowledge of UK Law as set out by the Equality Act 2010.

Firstly, it is 100% illegal to claim that you have an Assistance Dog when you do not. For an Assistance Dog to be an Assistance Dog, the handler must be disabled and the dog must be able to mitigate (lessen the ‘symptoms’ of) that disability whilst being trained to a high standard. Any dog that doesn’t fit into that category does not have the same rights as official assistance dogs do.

The next thing that confused me initially was registering an Assistance Dog. There is no such thing in the UK. You cannot register an Assistance Dog officially, because that registry doesn’t exist. Some organisations who train assistance dogs for handers may provide ID/evidence, but they aren’t registered. Assistance Dogs also don’t have to pass a test in order to be considered an Assistance Dog: it is up to the handler to decide when their assistance dog is fully trained. For most dogs, it will take up to (and sometimes more than) two years to fully train them. You can take a public access test, which is reviewed by a trainer, but this isn’t mandatory. It’s important to remember though that just because there is no formal ‘test’ for assistance dogs, you are still liable for anything they do, so if they damage a shop or hurt someone in public, it is completely on the handler and there are legal consequences for this.

Assistance Dogs are legally allowed anywhere. This means that business owners cannot refuse access to an assistance dog without breaking the law. Unfortunately, it does happen from time to time, but most business owners will give ADs access once you explain the laws to them. The Equality Act 2010 protects assistance dogs and their handlers by “prohibiting service providers, including taxis and restaurants, from discriminating against those who need an assistance dog with them”. This essentially means they cannot refuse access to someone with an Assistance Dog, as to do so would be a form of discrimination.

It is also important to remember that business owners also have the right to refuse access whilst a dog is still in training to be an Assistance Dog. Whilst Loki was in the early stages of his training, I would have someone go into the shop and ask if it was okay for us to bring him in for training. We never had anyone say no to that question and it just helped ease my anxiety before we went in. Being denied access can be a very difficult situation for a disabled person and can cause a great amount of stress and anxiety. Like I said, Assistance Dogs are a lifeline for their handler, so being told you cannot take them somewhere can prevent you from being able to do day to day tasks.

The law protects Assistance Dogs in a few different ways. The reason why they have this protection is because they are essential to their handler. Much in the same way as someone relies on particular medication to ensure their survival, an assistance dog is similar and therefore need the protection by law.

Overall, assistance dogs are quite amazing and are further proof of just how intelligent and wonderful our dogs can be. I don’t know what I’d do without Loki anymore and I honestly can’t remember not having him!

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