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What is an assistance animal?

Assistance animals, usually dogs, are not pets. They are highly trained to support you with your day-to-day activities out and about or at home.

They are mainly used by people that are visually impaired, hearing impaired, have physical disabilities, or are significantly affected by conditions such as autism, epilepsy, or diabetes.

The assistant dogs have to do basic training like a pet dog would before completing their service training.

Assistance dogs take between six months and two years to service train before they can be used for certain tasks to support you.

A task trained assistance dog is an ‘auxiliary aid,’ so classed as medical equipment and not a dog. They are often identified by wearing a jacket, a harness, or a brightly coloured collar and lead. By law, an assistance dog cannot be denied entry to a public place even if it is not a pet friendly place. This includes restaurants, accommodation, schools, taxis and many more!

What are assistance dogs often used for?

Depending on the type of assistance required they may support physical needs such as:

  • Turning on lights,
  • Opening and closing doors,
  • Loading or emptying washing machines,
  • Picking up things. Such as: phone or clothes,
  • Pushing buttons,
  • Alerting to dangers like smoke alarms
  • Navigating busy places

They may also help with medical support needs such as:

  • detect changes in blood sugar levels and other hormone-related odour changes, seizures, or anxiety.
  • warn you, get help and fetch any vital medical supplies.

You can find out more about service animals for different types of needs by going to Assistance Dogs UK.

See different assistance animals in action in the CBeebies television show Dog Squad.

Emotional support animals

Emotional support animals can provide comfort to someone struggling to cope with the negative symptoms of their disability.

Emotional support animals do not need any specific task-training like an assistance animal because they are just a loyal companion. The bond with their owner and their presence helps alleviates the emotional symptoms associated the disability. They may for example boost confidence and reduce loneliness.

Cats, or other animals such as birds, ferrets, gerbils, rabbits, snakes, lizards and so on, can also be used as emotional support animals. But you cannot take them out and about with you in the same way as dogs.

Emotional support animals do not have the same legal rights as assistance animals.  Health and safety laws take priority over using an emotional support animal when accessing services.

As with all pets, owning an animal is a big responsibility and you need to consider the costs and care required for the lifetime of the animal.

Funding of assistance animals

Assistance animals are not managed or provided by the Local Authority or health service. There are no published NICE clinical guidance supporting the use of assistance dogs. You need to apply directly to a specialist organisation (for example Guide Dogs for the Blind or Medical Detection Dogs). Each has their own eligibility criteria and application process.

Usually, the person the dog is supporting will be responsible for the upkeep of the dog (for example, food, vets’ bills). Dogs may need ‘Working Dog Insurance’ rather than a normal Pet Insurance. This is wider and covers Public Liability Insurance for accessing public places. But you will need to be prepared for the cost of a dog over its lifetime.

Otherwise, there are sometimes grants offered by charities to support with training costs.

Last reviewed: October 18, 2023 by Sophie

Next review due: April 18, 2024

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