Assistance dogs – What are they?

by Amy Cooper
Assistance dog

Welcome to part one of another mini-series! This series will be all about assistance dogs (known as service dogs in the USA)! My aim of this series is to help educate the general public to make at least one handlers’ day a little easier! In this first post I will be covering what assistance dogs actually are. All the information in this series will be based on the UK so may vary in different countries. 

So, what is an assistance dog?

“Assistance dogs are dogs that have been trained in order to provide assistance to disabled people or those with certain medical conditions” (UK Parliament). This means that any breed, age or size of dog can be an assistance dog! As long as they are trained to complete a minimum of three tasks that directly mitigate the handler’s disability. Therefore, the handler has to be legally classified as disabled to own an assistance dog. In the UK “You’re disabled under the Equality Act 2010 if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities” (Equality act 2010). 

What do assistance dogs do?

I’m sure everyone has heard of guide dogs for the blind and hearing dogs for the deaf. But they are just two of the many types of assistance dog! Assistance dogs can help handlers with a massive array of day to day tasks from getting their medication to walking to the shops. It’s a very common misconception in the UK that the only ‘real’ assistance dogs are guide dogs, diabetic alert dogs, PTSD dogs and hearing dogs. But this is far from the truth!

I could write a whole book on all the different types of assistance dog. But broadly there are four types: medical alert, medical response, mobility and multi-purpose which I will go into in more detail below. 

Medical alert assistance dogs

This type of assistance dog alerts their handler before a medical episode so the handler can get to a safe space. The obvious examples for this type of assistance dogs are diabetic alert dogs and hearing dogs. But there are many different conditions an assistance dog can alert to. For example, if the handler has a condition that makes them faint/pass out lots. The assistance dog will alert them before the episode so that the handler can sit or lie down. This prevents the handler falling and injuring themselves. 

Medical response assistance dogs

This type of assistance dog responds to a medical episode. The obvious example for this type of assistance dog is a PTSD dog as they generally respond to the handler’s PTSD to help mitigate it. But again, there are many different conditions that assistance dogs can respond to. Following on from the same example I used above. If the handler faints an assistance dog can perform deep pressure therapy or raise the handler’s legs. Both of these tasks help return blood to the brain. Another example is if the handler has anxiety an assistance dog can stop self-harming behaviours or lead the handler out of a stressful situation.

Mobility assistance dogs

This type of assistance dog helps the handler to get around (e.g. walk or use a wheelchair). The obvious example of this type of assistance dog is guide dogs as they help their handlers to walk safely. But again, there are many other conditions that an assistance dog can mitigate by providing mobility assistance. For example, if the handler struggles with severe fatigue an assistance dog may help mitigate their disability by performing a task called forward momentum. This means the handler will use less energy when walking.

Multi-purpose assistance dogs

This one is very simple! A multi-purpose assistance dog is an assistance dog that helps their handler with two or more of the above categories. So, continuing with the fainting example an assistance dog to help this condition might be medical alert and response so would be classed as a multi-purpose assistance dog. 

Hopefully this post has started to enlighten you to what an assistance dog actually is in the UK. In my next post of this series I will discuss the Laws surrounding assistance dogs in the UK.

Assistance dog
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