Every day, thousands of assistance dogs across the UK are hard at work offering a helping paw to their owners and handlers. These highly trained dogs provide an amazing service as they work to improve the independence, mobility, and quality of life for their owners.
As well as assistance dogs, there are also other categories of dogs and other animals that support people medically, emotionally and physically.
From therapy dogs visiting schools, to emotional support animals offering companionship, learn more about the different types of service dogs and the support they offer.
Assistance dogs are probably the best-known category of service dogs. They help their handler or owner to complete day-to-day tasks, or alert them to medical issues.
From a Guide Dog helping their owner navigate a busy train station, to a medical detection dog alerting their owner to an impending medical emergency, these hard working hounds transform day-to-day life for thousands.
Across the UK, it’s estimated that there are around 7,000 assistance dogs working to support their owners in 2022.
Vicky Worthington, development manager at the charity Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) explained to ManyPets that “an assistance dog is highly trained to carry out tasks and alerts that mitigate a person’s disability.”
Types of assistance dogs
ADUK work with a range of member organisations and charities that provide assistance dogs for specific purposes, including:
ADUK members are accredited by Assistance Dogs International or The International Guide Dog Federation. Each member works to the highest training and welfare standards.
As we find new ways that assistance dogs can support specific needs, other organisations are also working towards becoming accredited.
How to get an assistance dog
Each organisation or charity has their own way of training assistance dogs. “Some charities, like Guide Dogs, breed, train, and place dogs [through an application process].
Others work with rescue dogs, and some work in partnership with disabled people to train their own pet dogs as assistance dogs. Some assistance dogs are also trained by non-ADUK member charities or commercial organisations,” says Vicky.
“Lots of people choose to train their own assistance dogs. Because there are no standards of training laid out in law there is little regulation around what level of training they must undergo,” says Vicky. “But the Equality and Human Right Commission (EHRC) refers to assistance dogs as being ‘highly trained’ as well as listing a set of minimum behaviours you would expect from an assistance dog in public.”
Assistance dogs will not wander freely around premises
They will sit or lie quietly next to their owner
They’re unlikely to foul in public places
Assistance dogs and the law
Assistance dogs can usually be identified by their harness or jacket, although they don’t need to wear these by law.
The Equality Act 2010 and Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (NI) both offer protections for disabled people, including those with assistance dogs.
“Service providers must make reasonable adjustments for disabled people and other than in the most exceptional circumstances (for example, a disease-controlled ward) the reasonable adjustment for a disabled person with an assistance dog would most likely be to grant them access,” says Vicky.
That means you’ll often see assistance dogs on public transport, on flights, or in shops or restaurants where pets aren’t allowed.
Landlords, letting agencies and housing providers must also recognise assistance dogs and in this case, reasonable adjustments may include waiving their regular no-pets policy.
Currently, dogs are the only species recognised and protected by law as being able to offer assistance to their owners in this way.
But there are some other categories of service animals that offer different kinds of support.
Therapy dogs are pets who, with their volunteer owner or handler, visit a wide range of establishments like hospitals, schools, care homes, prisons, or anywhere else where people may not normally get the chance to interact with a pet.
One day they may visit a school to support the literacy skills of young readers, and the next they may be meeting residents of a care home to offer companionship and comfort.
While dogs are the most common therapy animal, sometimes cats also perform this role too!
Animal assisted therapy (AAT) or animal assisted intervention (AAI) is another way you may see therapy dogs and other animals at work.
These sessions are usually run by a therapist trained in Animal Assisted Therapy Counselling, although it’s important to note this isn’t a regulated qualification within the UK.
Trained therapy animals including dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, and more can help with specific health symptoms by creating a human-animal bond that may improve wellbeing, reduce stress, and increase physical activity.
Therapy pet training
There are a few different charities in the UK offering this service, including Pets as Therapy and Therapy Dogs Nationwide.
Before they can start visits, pets will need to complete a short application, which usually includes a temperament assessment. They also need to meet certain requirements, for example having up-to-date vaccinations, being of a certain age and not exhibiting specific behaviours like excessive licking or jumping up.
Before applying to work with a charity, you may decide to train your dog to a specific level to increase your chances of being accepted.
Therapy pets and the law
While they may wear a harness or jacket during their visits, therapy pets don’t qualify for any additional adjustments from service providers.
Emotional support animals
Emotional support animals offer one-to-one companionship and comfort to their owners.
Some people find that this support helps them cope with mental health disorders, phobias, loneliness, and more.
They differ from assistance dogs in that they don’t necessarily need to undergo any training to help their owners complete specific tasks. It’s their presence that makes a difference rather than their actions.
You may sometimes see other emotional support animals, including cats, birds and even miniature horses!
Emotional support animals and the law
Within the UK there’s no official register for emotional support animals, and unlike assistance dogs, they don’t have any legal protection either.
That means businesses and service providers aren’t obliged to offer any reasonable adjustments, so emotional support animals — in the eyes of the law at least — effectively have the same rights as any other pet.
While there are a number of different organisations that claim they can register your emotional support animal for a fee — these aren’t officially recognised and some may even be a money making scam – because there is no official register of emotional support animals within the UK.
Supporting pets that help older people
From offering companionship to increasing physical activity, the mental health benefits of sharing our homes with pets is well-known. Sometimes older people, or those living in care homes, owning a pet isn’t practical.
Across the UK, over half a million older people . sometimes go a week or more without seeing or speaking to another person according to Caredogs UK. There are some charities in the UK that aim to offer canine companionship to older people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to interact with dogs.
“Our befriending service pairs together older people who may be struggling with loneliness, social isolation or living with dementia with friendly volunteers — and their dogs — in their local area, CareDogs founder and CEO Delphine Chui told us.
“Our pairs meet once a week for a dog walk or home visit where the dog is always the centre of attention! We are very bespoke in matching our clients and our volunteers as we want to build genuine community friendships which are beneficial to all involved. We've been so happy to see the difference it's made in people's lives already, encouraging some to get out more and know their local area and neighbours better.”
While CareDogs currently operate in five South London boroughs, they hope to expand. There may also be other local charities offering a similar service in your area.
Any owner and their dog can become volunteers for charities like CareDogs. From Cockapoos to Greyhounds, as long as your dog is well trained and loves social interaction, there are no restrictions.
“Smaller dogs can be wonderful lap dogs who keep you warm and cosy with their cuddles but bigger dogs have a presence about them which make them great companions,” says Delphine.
Other charities like The Cinnamon Trust are designed to help support older people, or those with terminal illnesses. “Our primary aim is to help keep people and their pets together, by assisting with pet-related tasks such as dog walking, pet care and short-term fostering if an owner faces a spell in hospital,” they told us.
“We also provide long term care for pets whose owners have died or moved into residential accommodation which will not accept pets. Arrangements are made between owners and the Trust well in advance so owners do have peace of mind in the knowledge that their beloved companion will have a safe and happy future.”
Members of the public can also volunteer to help with dog walking, short-term foster, transport, and more.