Exploring Assistance Dog Welfare
In many places around the world, people value dogs and want to ensure they have a high quality of life. This concern extends to dogs in assistance roles, such as “seeing-eye” dogs. In Australia, for example, research suggests that concern for assistance dogs has increased since 2002 because of issues such as their lack of personal agency and the stressful nature of their role.
According to the authors of this paper, legal and policy protections for assistance animals do not always match broader public concern for these animals’ welfare. In this article, a team of scholars in Australia explores some of the factors that may affect the well-being of assistance dogs — and in many cases, the people who care for them.
The authors highlight several factors that can impact assistance dog welfare, including the financial cost and physical fitness needed to care for them, the constant nature of their work, and the problems that can arise when people make a distinction between “working” and “companion” dogs. What’s more, there is a lack of research on the welfare needs of assistance dogs, and organizations that oversee assistance dogs rarely mention the animals’ right to a high-quality life in their guidelines and position statements. In Australia, animal welfare legislation often fails to mention assistance animals.
In cases where an assistance dog’s welfare is addressed, the onus is usually placed on physical health instead of mental and holistic well-being. The authors argue that service dog welfare assessments should account for a dog’s relationship with her caretaker, as well as increasing positive experiences (versus simply reducing negative physical harms).
Legislation And Regulation
Protections for assistance animals are usually set out by the organizations that train and place the animals, as opposed to standards set by governments. Although existing organizations (such as Assistance Dogs International) address humane dog care and training, the authors claim there are an increasing number of assistance dogs being sourced from other, potentially fraudulent sources.
According to the authors, the types of disabilities utilizing assistance animals has also increased (e.g., people living with dementia and other cognitive disabilities). Unlike other types of assistance dogs, there is a lack of standardized training for dogs trained to support those with dementia. Similarly, the authors claim that dogs who support caretakers with psychiatric disabilities such as PTSD are often trained by the guardians themselves, or a dog trainer, rather than an external overseer.
Most regulations to protect service animals focus on preserving the animal’s ability to continue providing valuable services to their caretakers, rather than issues that affect the animal independently of the caretaker. Although the authors call for more legal regulations surrounding assistance animal welfare, they recommend approaching this issue with caution: for example, it’s important not to put additional burdens on people living with disabilities by requiring them to “jump through hoops” to prove they are meeting their dog’s welfare needs.
Although research shows that older people often benefit from living with an assistance dog, the authors highlight that only 18% of Australian aged-care facilities allow residents to live with animals. When a resident wants to bring their assistance animal into the facility, they often have to overcome many barriers proving they have a disability. Separating guardians from their assistance animals can cause distress for both the humans and animals involved.
Aged-care facilities often deny residents the ability to keep animals because of the person’s age, the facility’s staff and financial support, or health and safety concerns. However, the authors point out that basing someone’s ability to care for an animal on age is discrimination. Furthermore, assistance dogs are trained, meaning that the health and safety risks posed by these animals should be minimal. The authors call for aged-care facilities to change the rules to support residents so they can remain with their support animals.
Making A Difference For Assistance Dogs And Caretakers
The authors go on to discuss other welfare considerations, for example the reasons why assistance dogs may be neglected or relinquished to shelters. However, much of this research is based on companion dogs and not specifically assistance dogs. Nevertheless, the findings may still be relevant — for example, the majority of companion dogs are relinquished because of guardian-related issues such as housing, finance, or health problems. If the same is true for assistance dog caretakers, then this indicates caretakers would benefit from access to supportive services to help them remain with their dogs in times of crisis.
There are other ways that animal advocates can get involved in this issue. For example, they can work with aged-care facilities (and other public services such as temporary housing complexes) to ensure they provide equitable access to people who live with assistance dogs. According to the authors, there also needs to be stronger and more standardized certification and regulation schemes that account for all aspects of an assistance dog’s welfare. Finally, as the number and type of support dogs increase, researchers need to explore the unique factors affecting these dogs and ways to ensure they are experiencing a positive life.