What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘assistance dog’? Do you immediately picture a friendly golden retriever with a fluorescent harness, heroically guiding their visually impaired owner through a busy street? You certainly wouldn’t be the only one.

But assistance dogs aren’t all sandy coloured, they definitely aren’t all companions to blind people and, if you want to spot an assistance dog and treat it and its owner in the correct manner and all times, there’s a fair few myths that need busting first!

Before we get into the details, it’s important to remember that assistance dogs don’t just provide a service to those that require their help; they can also drastically improve the quality of life of their owners by keeping them company and ensuring they are safe and have the opportunity to perform daily activities and fully participate in society

Myth 1: Public Property

This point is so simple, but many forget it.  Assistance dogs are working dogs and not public property.  Please don’t grab the attention of, fuss or pet an assistance dog when it is working.  This could distract it and cause great problems, including serious safety issues, for the dog and its owner.  Many assistance dogs are also rewarded with food, so feeding them could disrupt its usual working routine for the rest of the day.

Myth 2: Retrievers Only

Many people think that only Labradors, Retrievers and German Shepherds can be assistance dogs, which is understandable as these breeds are regularly used.  The truth is, any breed of dog can be an assistance dog – all that manners is its temperament, trainability and physical ability to do the job at hand.  Finding a dog that ticks all of these boxes isn’t easy, and their training is intense!  This intensive training means that, when you see an assistance dog, you can expect him or her to focus on their owner at all times, sit or lie quietly next to them, and be very unlikely to bark, get distracted or foul in public places.  And it’s not all up to the dog, either.  Their disabled owners also receive expert training and can be expected to be confident, comfortable and in control of their dog.

Myth 3: All Assistance Dogs are Guide Dogs

Most of us will have seen a guide dog at some point; there’s over 5000 of them in the UK.  But guide dogs are far from the only assistance dogs out there.  Here are just a few examples of the different types of assistance dogs out there, and how you can identify them:

  • Dogs wearing purple are trained by ‘Canine Partners’ and help with physical tasks that their disabled owners struggle with or can’t do.  They could be unloading washing or picking up mail, for example.
  • Hearing dogs wear burgundy, can hear sounds and signals and act upon to let their them owners know.  Whether it’s a danger signal or just to say that someone is at the door, hearing dogs are a huge help to deaf people.
  • Medical detection dogs wear red harnesses and can detect low blood sugar in their diabetic owners.
  • Dogs that can detect epileptic seizures are dressed in a blue coat. Dogs aiding autistic people wear blue or yellow.

Myth 4: Bad for Business

Every year, Guide Dogs UK receives several hundred complaints about access problems for assistance dogs and their owners.  Do you know where assistance dogs are allowed to go? The answer is pretty much everywhere, aside from sterile environments like operating theatres and zoos for health and safety and animal distress reasons, respectively.  Many business owners do not understand that they are breaking the law by not allowing access to an assistance dog.  If an assistance dog is helping someone to enter an establishment that they are likely to spend money in, that can only be good for business, right?! 

Final Worries

  • If you’re every unsure about whether or not a dog you see is an assistance dog, look for the assistance dogs logo on their coat.  Whatever specific job they do, all assistance dogs will have this same logo – making them easier to identify and treat correctly. 
  • If you work in a restaurant, café or bar, don’t worry! Assistance dogs are regularly checked to ensure that they don’t present a health hazard, and they should therefore be allowed in all premises serving or selling food.
  • Whilst they should be dealt with sensitively, cultural or religious beliefs are not a reason to refuse an assistance dog admittance into your business.  The Muslim Shariat Council have clarified that Muslims should accept assistance dogs in their businesses.
  • An assistance dog and its owner should also not be refused access if there is someone with possible allergies in the vicinity.  It is reasonable, however, to ensure as much as possible that the allergic person does not come into contact with the assistance dog.

Assistance Dogs UK is currently welcoming a public access test to decipher whether Owner Trained Assistance Dogs should receive the same amount of support and recognition as assistance dogs that have be trained through mainstream, expert channels.  More information can be found at: http://www.assistancedogs.org.uk and http://www.sherlockhounds.org.uk/

Visually impaired man walking down cobbled street with guide dog in harness