An assistance dog is a dog trained to aid or assist a person with a disability. Many are trained by a specific organization, while others are trained by their handler (sometimes with the help of a professional trainer).
There are three general “types” in which an assistance dog may be further classified. Most assistance dogs will be trained for only one of these, though “combination” dogs do exist.
- Guide dogs assist the blind and the visually impaired.
- Hearing dogs, or signal dogs, help the deaf and hard of hearing.
- Assistance dogs refers to dogs not specifically trained for visual or hearing impairment, but trained to do other work, such as mobility assistance dogs, seizure alert dogs or other medical alert or response dogs, and psychiatric service dogs. (note that here in Spain, psychiatric assistance dogs are not legally recognised, as only assistance dogs for physical disabilities are protected by law)
Assistance dogs can be any breed of dog, including small breeds as well as giant breeds (like Karma!).
Assistance Dog Etiquette
- Don’t touch the dog without asking permission first! This is a distraction and may prevent the dog from tending to the human partner. Be sensitive to the fact the dog is working and may be in the middle of a command or direction from its human partner. Most dogs need to be told to be “released” from work mode to interact with someone.
- Never feed the dog. It may be on a special diet. Assistance dogs are generally on a feeding schedule as well. Food is the ultimate distraction to the working dog and can jeopardize the working assistance dog team.
- Speak to the person, not the assistance dog. Most handlers do not mind talking about assistance dogs and their dog specifically if they have the time.
- Do not whistle or make sounds to the dog as this again may provide a dangerous distraction.
- Never make assumptions about the individual’s intelligence, feelings or capabilities. Offers of help are appreciated, but ask first. Usually, the human/dog team can get the task done by themselves.
- Don’t be afraid of the dog. There is no need to be afraid of an assistance dog. These dogs are carefully tested and selected for appropriate temperament. They have been professionally trained to have excellent manners. Always approach an assistance dog calmly and speak to their human partner before touching or addressing the dog.
For more information on assistance dogs, please visit Assistance Dogs International and International Association of Assistance Dog Partners.