Assistance dogs are not pets – they are trained professionals

Rachael Andrews

To celebrate Assistance Dog Awareness Day, we’re sharing stories from owners about what life is like with an assistance dog. Rachael talks about how her assistance dog changed her life.

Rachael and her guide dog
Photo credit: Stuart Beard

In a small survey I responded to by Leonard Cheshire and Disability Horizons, it was found that around one in six service animal users dealt with poor attitudes from the public. From staff at restaurants, that rose to just over a quarter.

It’s a small snapshot. But it tallies with my experience.

You have to know your rights

Now, I am fairly lucky. My experiences over the years that I have had my two dual-trained assistance dogs (my current dog is named Ajay) have generally been positive, barring a few awkward moments. Most people at least want to do the right thing.

But you do have to know your rights and when they are being compromised and be ready to defend yourself. And you also often have to take on the task of educating the people around you.

The barriers you encounter with your assistance dog usually come from misunderstanding or good-but-misguided intentions, often a mixture of both!

It's a lack of knowledge

Take the “no dogs” rule services often enforce. Staff without the correct training will often overlook the second part of that rule, “…except assistance dogs.” A particularly bad example of this is when someone who worked at a café tried to physically bar my way because of Ajay.

“This is an assistance dog,” I said. “So actually, under the Equality Act, I am allowed to come in with him.”

I could back this up because my assistance dog carried an Assistance Dogs UK certification, as do I. The certificate indicates that we have both been trained by an approved organisation – in this case, Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has 90 years of experience training assistance dogs and their owners.

But what if I hadn’t known my rights? I might have just walked away without challenging it. My day would be disrupted, and the café would lose customers. It’s silly and easily avoidable.

I am used to having to state the law and show my credentials. But this time, the person kept barring my way. To be honest, my friends and I simply stepped around him and went in anyway, with him following us and repeating the “no dogs” line before finally giving up.

When I got in touch with the owners of the café, which happened to be the local cathedral, they apologised profusely and introduced staff training on assistance animals. So it isn’t institutional or individual prejudice but a lack of knowledge and communication.

But what if I hadn’t known my rights? I might have just walked away without challenging it. My day would be disrupted, and the café would lose customers. It’s silly and easily avoidable.

I genuinely think most people mean well. It’s just a case of education. The classic problem, similar to the incident at the café, is treating assistance dogs like regular dogs – they aren’t.

My advice for the public

Members of the public are often tempted to fuss over my assistance dog or feed him. My message to people is simple: don’t. Unless you have express permission from the owner, and only for that specific moment. Not before. Not after.

Assistance dogs are highly specialist workers, with weeks of mandatory training with their owners. Mine helps me navigate but also take off things like jackets, which is difficult because I have fibromyalgia. He also keeps me safe – he has my life in his paws. We’re a team.

My next message to the public is: never, ever feed an assistance dog under any circumstances. Not even a sneaky treat when they think the owner isn’t looking. It’s a real safety issue as I have known guide dogs to have been fed by members of the public and then seen that person again in the future and walked their owner into lampposts or across roads due to distraction. Or they’ve been sneaked food by the public and then turned into dreadful scavengers, which means the guiding work breaks down. Just don’t do it, folks.

As a fan of dogs (I have two, my current assistance dog and my retired one), I completely understand the need to say hello, but there are impacts if an assistance dog can’t do its job properly. Mine enables me to get around and do things; if it can’t do its job, it puts me at risk.

We're a trained team

Lastly, I want to come back to that team point. Even people working in the disability space don’t know what a highly trained and skilled team a person and their assistance dog are. For instance, someone once became alarmed as my dog, and I began to descend some stairs like we were making a mistake. But an assistance dog is well-trained enough to know what its owner can and cannot do – more to the point, we are both capable of taking the stairs!

I’ll leave you with this for Assistance Dog Day. When you see someone with an assistance dog, you are not looking at your everyday dog with its owner. You’re looking at a trained team. Trust them, let them get on with things, and don’t question their independence or rights.