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!

Case Study: Bailey the Havanese

Bailey is a lovely 8 month old Havanese puppy, who has already formed a very strong bond with his owners. As a lockdown puppy, Bailey and his owners have had to overcome several challenges in terms of managing Bailey’s needs and working from home.

Bailey’s profile:

  • Suffers from separation anxiety when apart from owners at home, such as during a work call.
  • Demand barks both for attention and for treats.
  • Distracted on walks and lacks focus.

We’ve started Bailey’s training journey by firstly encouraging good focus and obedience skills. Teaching your dog focus is such a fantastic foundation skill, and can be used as a building block for all kinds of behaviour training. Bailey has been working on his ‘settle’ command as a way to settle him at home, and we are using rewards to teach Bailey that being calm pays off!

We’ve also discussed the importance of active training, as well as passive training, as a way of managing and positively reinforcing desired behaviours. Whilst frozen Kongs and Lickimats are an excellent way to distract your dog for a short period of time, and a fabulous tool for enrichment, it’s also important that owners are actively involved in teaching their dog how to behave by directly instructing and rewarding, and doing this continuously until the dog can independently meet expectations.

Bailey has already made progress in terms of his ‘settle’ command in a very short period of time, and we are really looking forward to seeing him improve even more in the coming weeks. He’ll be taking on the ‘quiet’ command next!

Does any of this sound familiar? Let us know here if you need some support like Bailey and his owners, and we’ll be more than happy to help.

Case Study: Enzo the Doberman

We’ve been working with two year old Enzo and his owners to help with reactive barking and suspected separation anxiety.

Enzo’s profile:

  • Barks at external noises which often escalates into a barking frenzy.
  • Struggles to settle when triggered by external factors, meaning that his owners lack confidence leaving him for extended periods of time.

Often, when dogs are triggered by something outside, we recommend moving the dog to a space further towards the back of the house. This is not an option in Enzo’s case, so instead, Enzo’s owners have been doing DMT training with him, to desensitise him to outside noises.

Enzo’s reactions are unpredictable, and this has unfortunately made his owners fear leaving him at all, unless they can watch him on the camera. When absolutely necessary, he is left for up to an hour and a half, but understandably, Enzo’s owners would like more confidence in being able to leave him alone for more extended periods of time.

Since we first started supporting Enzo, he has made fantastic progress. We have gone back to basics in terms of building up his stamina in being left alone, and in just a week, Enzo has been left for up to 55 minutes with no adverse reactions. What a clever boy!

We are excited to see how much more progress Enzo makes in the coming weeks.

Does Enzo’s case sound familiar? Get in touch here if you’d like us to help.

Case Study: Charlie the Toller

We have been working with 5 month old Toller puppy Charlie to help improve his recall and focus.

Charlie’s profile:

  • Very friendly and often distracted by other dogs, who he will run up to.
  • Distracted by smells and has selective hearing at times.

Charlie is still very young, so it’s fantastic that his owners are keen to get some support and improve his recall. Puppies and younger dogs are still very much so learning about the world around them at Charlie’s age, so it’s not surprising that he’s keen to meet other dogs and investigate interesting scents.

That said, the key to good recall is teaching your dog that it pays to be around you, and that you are fun! To be successful in this, you need to know your dog and understand what makes them tick. Knowing what motivates your dog is a very powerful pocket of knowledge in any aspect of training, but especially so when encouraging your dog to stay close by.

When teaching your dog recall, it’s imperative that you have full control of you dog at all times, as this is required by law. If you even have the smallest reservation about letting your dog off lead, then don’t! Allowing your dog to run up to other dogs (particularly those on lead) can be very inconvenient for other people, not to mention dangerous in certain scenarios. We would therefore recommend getting a long line, which is exactly what Charlie’s owners have done. This allows the dog the space to exercise and practice recall, but it also ensures your dog’s safety.

We are pleased to report that since Charlie started his recall training, he has already made amazing progress, thanks to his owners’ hard work and commitment. We will be continuing to work on Charlie’s focus and engagement training over the next few weeks.

Does Charlie’s case sound familiar? Get in touch here if you are in need of some friendly help and support.

Case Study: Milly the Bichon Frise

Milly is a lovely little 4 year old Bichon Frise who has had very little experience off lead. She can be nervous around some dogs, and she needs a bit of help with this.

Milly’s profile:

  • Reactive to some dogs when approached (shows teeth and growls when other dogs come too close).
  • Little to no experience off lead, so needs support with recall training.

When you’re trying to teach recall to a reactive dog (or any kind of focus training for that matter!), distance is really important. Distance can be used as a way of managing your dog’s anxiety or discomfort, and in most cases, you’ll need to try and work out at what distance to the trigger your dog feels comfortable. Once you know, you can train at this distance, and when your dog has mastered the skill, you can gradually decrease the distance over time.

Milly will be working on her recall on a long line at a distance to other dogs, as well as in the garden to start with. We can’t wait to hear how she gets on!

Does Milly’s case sound familiar? Get in touch here and we’ll be in touch.