Assistance dogs are working animals that are specially trained to help people who are living with physical disabilities to move around, do everyday activities and tasks, and be more independent. They are also called service dogs.
Who uses assistance dogs?
Assistance or service dogs can help individuals who have:
- physical disabilities
- disabling illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis
- post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental conditions
Types of assistance dogs
There are 3 main types of assistance dogs.
- Service dogs are trained to assist people who have various disabilities to manage personal and other tasks. The popular term for these dogs in Australia is assistance dogs.
- Guide dogs or seeing eye dogs are trained to help blind or visually impaired people get around safely and independently.
- Hearing dogs are trained to assist people who are deaf or have hearing problems by alerting them to sounds.
Labradors and golden retrievers are the main breeds used as assistance dogs.
How much training do assistance or service dogs get?
Selected puppies are trained for around 2 years to become assistance dogs. Puppies are chosen for having a good temperament.
They spend their first year to 18 months living with a volunteer puppy educator before undergoing around 6 months of advanced training with an organisation such as Assistance Dogs Australia or with a certified trainer.
What jobs can assistance dogs do?
Some assistance dogs are taught more than 50 tasks. The training for each dog is unique, and depends on the personality of the dog and the type of tasks that will suit the needs of their future owner, who is known as their handler.
The 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
The benefits for owners include a reduced need for carers, greater freedom and self-confidence. They also enjoy the constant emotional support, companionship and love of the animal.
Can owners take their assistance dogs into all public places?
Yes. Owners of assistance dogs have the right to take their animals into all public places and onto public transport, including buses and trains. The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992 makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person with a disability who is using an assistance dog.
Different states and territories have their own legislation relating to assistance dogs and may require the owner or handler to get certification. Find out more about the legal understanding of assistance animals.
How to behave if you encounter an assistance dog
Don't pat or call an assistance dog without permission from the owner. It may distract the animal from tasks it has been given.
How to get an assistance dog
Training assistance dogs is complicated and costly, so only people with certain disabilities qualify to get one. If you think an assistance dog might help you or your child cope better with a disability or a mental health condition, apply for an assistance dog via an organisation such as Assistance Dogs Australia. The animals are given free of charge to people who qualify.
More information on assistance dogs
- Assistance Dogs Australia FAQs — Call 1800 688 364
- Assistance Dogs International — List of accredited training programs in Australia and New Zealand
- Vision Australia — Seeing eye dogs — information for future clients
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Last reviewed: December 2018