Guide to Assistance Animals

An assistance animal can make huge difference in the life of someone with disability. Not only can assistance animals provide necessary support with daily tasks and getting around, but they can offer greater independence, self-confidence, and companionship.


Assistance dog with their handler who is a person with disability using a wheelchair.
Assistance dog with their handler who is a person with disability using a wheelchair.

What is an assistance animal & who uses them?


Assistance animals, sometimes referred to as service dogs, are working animals (technically not pets) and they are trained to assist people with disability in their daily life. Although these animals are not considered pets, the relationship between an assistance animal and their handler (their human) is a special bond.


Dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, and they are trained to perform specific tasks related to their human’s disability. The training and task allocation that a dog may undergo will depend on their personality and they type of tasks that their future handler may need.


Some tasks that assistance dogs can be taught include:

  • Pulling a wheelchair

  • Helping people to balance if they have walking difficulties

  • Turning on light switches

  • Moving the arms or legs of people who are paralysed

  • Opening and closing doors, drawers, and fridges

  • Assisting with making beds

  • Retrieving or picking up items like mobile phones or keys

  • Pushing pedestrian crossing buttons

  • Picking up clothing and helping take washing from a machine

  • Paying cashiers

  • Barking to alert their owners to danger

  • Alerting people to seizures (sometimes before they occur) or other medical issues, such as low blood sugar in a diabetic child

  • Finding and leading another person to the owner or affected child

Main types of assistance dogs:

  1. Assistance/service dogs: trained to assist people who have various disabilities to manage personal and other tasks.

  2. Guide dogs or seeing eye dogs: trained to assist people who are blind or visually impaired to get around safely and independently.

  3. Hearing dogs: trained to assist people who are deaf or have hearing problems to alert them to sounds.

  4. Medical alert dogs: trained to detect potential medical episodes such as impending seizures for people who have epilepsy or blood sugar changes for people who have diabetes.

  5. Psychiatric assistance dogs: trained to interrupt anxiety, alert to triggering situations and wake people having nightmares for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental or medical health related disabilities

Assistance animals can help people who have:

  • Physical disabilities

  • Specific medical conditions

  • Autism

  • PTSD or other mental health conditions

  • Dementia

It is very important to note that there is a distinct difference between assistance animals and emotional support animals.


Assistance Animals vs. Emotional Support Animals… what’s the difference?


In short, assistance animals are specifically trained and legally considered medical aids, whereas emotional support animals are technically considered pets. Although both these animal supports can provide necessary love, support and improved quality of life, there are some key differences between them that are important to consider.


While emotional support animals can assist their handler through mental and other medical illness, they are not taught any specific skills to assist with any conditions their handler may have. They also don’t have the same public access rights that an assistance animal has, like being allowed in public spaces like restaurants or supermarkets and they are not protected by disability anti-discrimination laws if they and their owner are refused entry to a venue. Essentially, they are not recognised by law and there are no set standards or accreditation processed to qualify as an emotional support dog.


Assistance animals go through a rigorous training process in preparation for helping their handler. Their training caters to specific needs and can allow their human to engage in activities that are difficult or challenging to complete without support. They have full public access rights, which means that wherever their handler goes (except for sterile areas like operating theatres), they can go too. It’s important to note, that public access rights must be completed yearly.


Why are Public Access Rights only for Assistance Animals?


Having public access rights comes down to one thing – training. Assistance animals receive very specific training with incredibly high standards. They are trained not only to support their humans’ specific needs, but also must meet a high standard of behaviour and hygiene.


For example, on public transport assistance dogs are trained to remain quiet and position themselves in such a way that they go almost unnoticed.


Each state and territory have their own legislation relating to assistance animals and different types of certifications the assistance animal may need to have public access rights.


The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person with disability who has an assistance animal.


Find out more about the legal understanding of assistance animals here.


Training and accreditation


There are two main options for acquiring an assistance animal:


1. Finding an organisation that trains assistance animals (typically as a puppy)

2. Obtaining accreditation for an animal you already own


Assistance animals who are trained by an organisation before becoming an assistance animal to a specific person, are typically trained for about two years. Puppies (usually Labradors or golden retrievers) are chosen based on their temperament. They usually spend the first 18 month of their life with a volunteer puppy educator before undergoing about six months of advanced training with an organisation or a certified trainer.


If you are wanting to take the accreditation path, there are a few things you can do to assist in making this process easier. However, you should also know that not all potential assistance animals will pass the accreditation process.


If you have a puppy:


When your puppy is around the one-year mark, enrol in a puppy school program that helps them to develop key skills and continue their socialisation. It’s important to familiarise your puppy with different environments and people frequently. Although public access rights are not extended until your puppy becomes accredited, there are some locations that you can take animals to assist in their experience of different environments. One of those places is Bunnings, which can be a great place to expose them to new smells and people. Having a strong bond with your potential assistance animal can be helpful in making their assistance dog training more effective.


If you have an older dog:


Like working with a puppy, you will need to socialise your dog and familiarise them with different environments and people. It is important that the person who needs the assistance dog does all the work with them to deepen their bond and communication.


Assessment and accreditation:


All dogs who aspire to become an assistance dog must pass the Public Access Test (PAT). An assistance dog is trained to assist their handler, either physically or psychologically, and must be there for them 24 hours a day. Once qualified, you must carry the dog’s ID with you whenever you are out so that they can be granted access to public areas.


When selecting a training organisation, it’s important to determine the training method used by the organisation. Opting for positive-reinforcement training rather than negative-reinforcement training can be better for both your dog and you.


More information and a detailed list of approved training/assessing organisations, click here.


Read more about the benefits of working with an independent, professional Plan Manager. Alternatively, contact our friendly team on 1300 322 273 or support@first2care.com.au.


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