2.1. Current Status
In Europe, assistance dogs such as guide dogs have been used for several centuries and the first officially recorded assistance dog training schools were founded in Germany after the first World War [9
]. Compared to guide dogs, the other types of assistance dogs have evolved rather recently [3
]. Nowadays, guide dogs in particular are well established in most European countries, with numbers expected to grow, and an even higher increase in numbers is predicted for the other types of assistance dogs, according to a report that was supported by the European Union Programme PROGRESS ([10
]). Despite the long history assistance dogs have in Europe as well as their continuously increasing numbers, we are still lacking comprehensive EU-wide laws dealing with main issues on this special kind of working dogs. However, even on a smaller scale, national laws addressing the different types of assistance dogs comprehensively are mainly insufficient and fragmented, and they differ from each other across the EU countries.
Laws are important, constituting a set of officially recognized rules that provide—in this case people with disabilities—rights which are binding on the whole community and that can be enforced if disobeyed [11
]. This lack of comprehensive laws both in the EU, as well as on the national level, has various negative consequences, from more general difficulties concerning the definition and recognition of the different types of assistance dogs (e.g., by government institutions) up to individual challenges in the dogs’ and owners’ everyday life, addressing and securing, for instance, their freedom of movement.
Assistance dogs allow people with disabilities to achieve an improved level of independence [1
] and safety. For instance, diabetes alert dogs indicate a potentially fatal blood glucose level, allowing the owner to take the necessary steps to protect him/herself [12
]. However, this requires the assistance dogs to have the permission to accompany the human owners in their daily life. Regarding access rights of people with disabilities, a UN convention [13
], signed by almost all States Parties, specifically addressed the mobility of persons with disabilities in article 20: “States Parties shall take effective measures to ensure personal mobility […] for persons with disabilities, including by […] forms of live assistance” [13
], referring to assistance dogs. However, the implementation of this right still seems to be insufficient, as indicated by a European Parliament document [14
] which focused solely on guide dogs in the European Union. This document [14
] provides an overview on the access rights of guide dogs in all EU member states, reporting that the legal regulations for even this well-established type of assistance dog differ significantly between the countries. Assistance dog owners still seem to be confronted with difficulties regarding public access and access to means of transportation, as described in a recent UK briefing paper from the House of Commons [15
Access to means of transportation, in particular, is oftentimes not only important on a national level but even beyond, in order to enable persons with disabilities to travel with their assistance dogs and to cross country borders. Regulations have been implemented by the European Parliament concerning the rights of humans with disabilities when travelling by plane (e.g., [16
]). This regulation specifies that recognized assistance dogs should be transported in the cabin; however, it further subjects this to national regulations which can be problematic for assistance dog owners, given the possible discrepancies of national regulations between countries. Furthermore, airlines often have specific regulations for the transportation of assistance dogs. These regulations can differ between airlines, which requires the owner to carefully check each airline’s rules for access permissions of assistance dogs before travelling. Airlines sometimes require the assistance dog to be certified by certain assistance dog provider organisations in order to be allowed to access the cabin. British Airways, for instance, allows assistance dogs to accompany their owner in the airplane if the dog is certified by an organisation that is a full member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) or of the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) [17
]. ADI and IGDF are well-known, worldwide organisations for assistance dogs and guide dogs, respectively. However, making the access subject to certification by these organisations could potentially lead to difficulties for handlers accessing the cabin with assistance dogs trained and certified by different organisations. On the contrary, Lufthansa, a German airline, requires the dog to be a “recognized” assistance dog in order to travel with the owner in the cabin free of charge, without limiting this permission to assistance dogs certified from specific organisations [18
While laws and regulations around assistance dogs are lacking on an EU-wide and—for the majority of countries—on a national level, one EU country is outstanding for its progress in this respect. To the authors’ knowledge, so far only Austria has tackled this lack of legal regulations comprehensively, by implementing a nationwide law that deals with the requirements and procedures for the official qualification and recognition of the different types of assistance dogs. This pioneering framework has the potential to be useful for other countries in Europe and beyond. Based on the results of a search for relevant laws conducted using the online database for Austrian laws, https://www.ris.bka.gv.at/
, using the search term “Assistenzhunde”, engl. assistance dogs, essential details of this legislation are outlined here.
The Austrian law addressing assistance dogs was amended on 1 January 2015, and integrated into the Austrian Federal Law for Disabled People [Bundesbehindertengesetz]. Article 39a of this law [19
] defines the characteristics and requirements to officially qualify and acknowledge a dog as an assistance dog. An additional directive on assistance dogs [Richtlinie Assistenzhunde] [20
] further details the practical implementation of this law.
In Austria, different types of dogs assisting humans with disabilities are covered by the umbrella term “assistance dog” [19
Guide dogs: Dogs that assist and support blind or severely visually-impaired people;
Signalling dogs: This is itself an umbrella term under which several types of assistance dogs are classified such as those assisting deaf or severely hearing-impaired humans. Dogs assisting humans with chronic diseases such as epilepsy, diabetes or neurological impairments are also classified as signalling dogs;
Service dogs: Dogs that assist humans with physical disabilities and mobility constraints, such as wheelchair users.
Besides specifically defining the different types of assistance dogs, the Austrian legislation dictates the need for an independent coordinating authority responsible for the official examination of candidate assistance dogs. This coordinating authority must be located at an academic institution with expertise in several relevant scientific areas such as veterinary medicine, ethology and animal cognition, as well as ethics and human-animal studies. In Austria, the Messerli Research Institute, which is part of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, was appointed in 2014 to establish the official coordinating authority for assistance dogs in the Republic of Austria.
The directive on assistance dogs [20
], referring to the related Austrian law [19
], furthermore specifies the requirements and prerequisites that have to be met in order to prove the suitability of a dog to be officially qualified and recognized as an assistance dog:
Health suitability. After a comprehensive veterinary examination, following a standardized protocol that was developed by the independent coordinating authority for assistance dogs, only those dogs that meet the required health standards have the prerequisite to be qualified as an assistance dog.
Behavioural suitability. Only those dogs that show relaxed behaviour (i.e., do not show an intense arousal response) when confronted with diverse environmental stimuli without being significantly distracted in their working performance have the prerequisite to be qualified as an assistance dog. Furthermore, a high obedience level is required. Both aspects are assessed together with the dog’s working performance.
Working performance suitability. The Austrian legislation furthermore states that for qualification as an assistance dog the working performance of the dog has to be officially examined by the independent coordinating authority for assistance dogs. The official assessment of the working performance of the candidate assistance dog is executed in a two-step procedure. In the first assessment, called the “quality assessment”, the dog is evaluated together with the dog trainer by a committee evaluating the dog’s behaviour and obedience (see ‘behavioural suitability’), as well as the working performance required for this specific type of assistance dog. The examination committee always consists of an expert in dog behaviour and training, a person with disability/ies that is experienced with the type of assistance dog to be assessed, and an examination chair. Only after having successfully passed this first assessment, is the dog trainer allowed to permanently hand the dog over to the subsequent new owner (i.e., a person with the type of disability for which the dog was trained to assist).
After the assistance dog has lived and worked together with the new owner for a reasonable amount of time, the second official assessment, called the “team assessment”, is executed by the coordinating authority. Only after this second assessment is passed successfully as well, is the dog officially qualified and recognized as an assistance dog by the Republic of Austria.
This qualification enables the owner to apply for financial support for his or her assistance dog from public funds as well as to officially register the dog as an assistance dog on their ID card, which confirms their status as having a disability. Although access permissions for assistance dogs are not specifically defined by the Austrian Federal Law on Disability, the respective directive [20
] specifies the requirement of assistance dogs to enter public places and buildings, as well as the exclusion from the duty to be leashed and muzzled in places and situations where this is required for pet dogs (e.g., on public transport, pet dogs need to be muzzled and leashed in Austria, which is not required for assistance dogs [21
The procedure implemented in the Austrian legislation can be considered to protect the security of all involved parties: The dog trainer in terms of seller protection, and the human with disabilities in terms of consumer protection; both the health and the quality of the dog’s working performance are officially assessed before the dog is handed over to the new permanent owner. Furthermore, and not least, it intends to protect the dog specifically by assessing its suitability with regard to health, behaviour, and training status, helping ensure the dog’s welfare.
Looking beyond the European border, there are other countries that have already implemented laws addressing the definition and function of assistance dogs, such as Australia. Having a closer look at the Australian system can provide further beneficial insights into potential frameworks, approaches, and caveats that must be recognized.
In Australia, the law surrounding the use of assistance dogs is clear, at least in principle. A search of the Australian Government Federal Register of Legislation (https://www.legislation.gov.au/
) was conducted using the following search terms: assistance animal, animal, assistance, disability, service animal, service. One law in particular is relevant for defining assistance dogs. According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1999/2009, Section 9 (provided here verbatim), an assistance animal is a dog or another animal that is:
accredited under a law of a State or Territory that provides for the accreditation of animals trained to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability; or
accredited by an animal training organisation prescribed by the regulations for the purposes of this paragraph; or
to assist a person with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability; and
to meet standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.
In principle, this means that any animal that meets the training requirements of behaviour and hygiene for public access, and helps mitigate the effects of an owner’s disability, is an assistance animal. In practice, the reality is far less clear. The main limitation of enforcing the law as written is that there is currently no official state, territory, or federal accreditation system for assistance animals, although the state of Queensland does require assistance dog providers and trainers to be registered with the state as part of the dog’s qualification [22
]. Governments at all levels rely primarily on the assistance animal provider organisations to accredit their own animals for assistance work. Fortunately, according to a recently completed review for the Australian government, providers currently working in this area take their roles very seriously, and are committed to improving outcomes for individuals with disability [23
]. Therefore, there currently appear to be no attempts in Australia to take advantage of the accreditation gap by accrediting dogs not well-suited to service roles, in order to make money for themselves. There are no guarantees that this will remain the case in the long-term. Indeed, a large piece of legislation that was passed in 2013 will increase funding for disability supports within Australia. As of March 2018, AUD$
15b in funding has been committed to a new scheme that is currently rolling out nationwide. It provides disability support for approximately 160,000 people, 44,000 of whom have never accessed disability supports previously [24
]. This potential boost in funding could encourage unscrupulous providers to enter the assistance dog sector.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) Act 2013 provides a national basis for meeting the extra costs to participate in society that individuals younger than 65 years incur because of their disability. It is not intended to replace accessible environments, the responsibility of mainstream organisations (e.g., health) to avoid discrimination against people with disability, or the informal support that people in society rely on. A key feature of the NDIS is that each individual has a tailored plan that reflects goals, outcomes and the supports they will need. A main requirement of the NDIS Act is that the list of supports that are funded by the government must be considered “reasonable and necessary”. With that in mind, the agency responsible for NDIS management contracted a research team in Victoria, Australia, to review existing evidence around whether assistance animals would represent an effective support to address the NDIS participant’s needs. Based on the results of the review [23
], the NDIS has agreed to provide assistance animals, but on a case-by-case basis. Given the large size of the NDIS, it is possible that provider organisations could be established simply to gain access to some of this funding, without considering the needs of the individual with disability. While there is no current evidence of this for assistance dogs, there have been anecdotal reports of other disability sectors taking advantage of this lack of regulation (e.g., day care providers for people with disability; [25
]). To avoid this possibility, the authors of the review [23
] suggested to develop a nationally recognised, independent accreditation scheme for any assistance animal provided as part of the NDIS.
The Australian situation indicates that, even if laws covering assistance dogs exist, implementing these laws into practice is far less straightforward. An independent assessment of each assistance dog to be officially qualified and recognized, instead of being assessed only by the training facility, would be important to ensure objectivity, providing an important way to progress in the future.