Meg Forbes is a mum, freelance writer, and photographer living in the Redlands, South of Brisbane.
Published June 3rd 2020
Assistance dogs, which include guide dogs and hearing dogs (and are known in many parts of the world as "service dogs"), are increasingly being teamed up with by many Australians to alleviate a variety of disabilities and increase their independence. These beautiful dogs often attract the attention of well-meaning passersby. However, it is important to remember that they are working, and their handler's life may depend upon their unwavering focus.
Assistance dogs are increasingly alleviating disabilities and promoting quality of life in Australia
I have an assistance dog, Smudge, and discussions frequently come up in support groups on the barriers faced by handlers when out in public. This article aims to increase understanding of the vital role that assistance dogs play in their handler's lives.
High levels of focus are integral to the work of an assistance dog
In Australia, assistance dogs are protected by federal law, through Section 9(2) of the Disability Discrimination Act (1992), and some states and territories have introduced additional protection for their residents. For example, the Queensland Guide, Hearing, and Assistance Dogs (GHAD) Act (2009) allows handlers in Queensland to take a Public Access Test (PAT). Once a handler and assistance dog team has passed their PAT, they are provided with an identity card and a cloth patch for the assistance dog's working coat. Although this can be very helpful, with the patch recognised easily by businesses and national parks across Queensland and much of Australia, some handlers are unable to do the PAT. This is particularly the case for those who live in remote areas where no assessors are available. Additionally, interstate visitors are unlikely to have each state's individual identification. Although not having the patch doesn't affect a team's access rights across the country, it can lead to some confusion for business owners and other members of the public. For this reason, some assistance dog handlers in Australia are calling for a standardised system across the nation that would be easier for everyone to access and recognise.
Queensland's Guide Hearing and Assistance Dogs patch
Assistance dogs provide medical support to their handler, and the laws listed above protect their right of access to many places nationwide including restaurants, shopping centres, and national parks. While security guards and national park rangers are usually well educated on assistance dog rights, other visitors to these places may not be. This can be particularly challenging for handlers who don't seem to fit the stereotype that was expected. For example, a handler with a miniature schnauzer who gives alerts for low insulin levels, or a handler with a labrador who has good vision.
Waiting with rangers during a national park tour group for penguins to emerge
Although assistance dogs are not always easy to identify visually - in particular since dogs of many breeds are suitable for handlers with a variety of disabilities - there are certain aspects of training that should always be demonstrated in public. This includes that assistance dogs should remain on the floor rather than coming up onto public seating (although wheelchair users with small assistance dogs may choose to keep them in their lap), they should be trained to toilet on command before entering a public place, and they not be distracted by things like food if it falls on the floor. Assistance dogs are also trained to use many forms of public transport including buses, trains, ferries, and planes so that they are able to safely accompany their handler in their daily lives.
Each airline has their own regulations and supports for teams flying with them
Despite the high training of assistance dogs, they do differ from other medical aids in the sense that they have needs such as for love, warmth, regular food and water, and the like. Assistance dogs are usually extremely well-loved by their handler and their handler's family, and love being with them throughout the day. Despite this, they may have difficulty assisting their hander at times, especially if a stranger is making a concerted effort to distract them. Frequent distractions experienced by teams include people trying to pat or feed them and parents trying to distract their children in shops by telling them to engage with the "doggy". Whistling, calling to, or feeding an assistance dog may endanger its handler's life, in particular, if it misses early cues that it should be giving an alert ahead of a seizure or other medical episode.
Warm, sleepy, and cuddling with beloved bedtime teddies
Other assistance dog etiquette includes greeting handlers rather than their assistance dogs, asking before attempting to pat a working dog (and understanding if the answer is "no" at that particular moment), and not asking a hander for confidential medical information such as about their disability or the dog's purpose.
Always greet the handler not the assistance dog
Assistance dogs are increasingly playing an integral and life-saving role in the lives of many Australians, and as a result, people are more likely to come across them while going about their own daily lives. Although beautiful, and incredibly smart, the responsibility carried by these remarkable dogs makes it imperative that they are not distracted while working. I hope this article helps to answer the question "What should we do when meeting a Guide, Hearing, or Assistance Dog Team?".
Following these guidelines will support assistance dogs in their work, and their handlers in living independent lives
If the dog has its official coat, harness etc. on you must NOT pat it at all as it is in "working mode" and you must not distract it. You must NOT offer them food at all. I don't know if it is standard with all types of service dogs, but the ones for vision impaired people are taught to "wee" on command. That I know to be fact as I know a family that do some of their training.