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Remembering the welfare needs of assistance animals

There are many reasons why someone may require an assistance animal, such as disability or post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs are generally the most popular choice to fill this role, due to their trainability and companionable nature.
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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Wednesday, 14 February 2024

There are many reasons why someone may require an assistance animal, such as disability or post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs are generally the most popular choice to fill this role, due to their trainability and companionable nature. Assistance animals hold the important role of helping their caregiver navigate the world safely; their caregivers trust and rely on them every day. Consequently, a strong human-animal bond often forms, with the assistance animal becoming one of the most important companions in their life.

The benefits of assistance animals for their humans are widely known and discussed, yet how the animal experiences this role and relationship should also be considered. So far, there’s been little research on the welfare needs of assistance animals and the organisations that oversee their programs rarely mention the animal’s welfare requirements in their guidelines, or that the animal should (also) experience a good life.

So, what are some of the welfare challenges for assistance animals? And, how we can ensure their needs are met to give them the most positive experience of the world in their unique position? We explore this topic below and also cover in depth in the RSPCA Animal Welfare Seminar 2024 – you can register here.

Potential welfare issues.

Assistance animals face a unique set of challenges that other companion animals do not. These can result from the processes they experience to prepare them for their role as well as the demands of their work. There’s also concern that the nature of their role may not allow for agency and the space to regularly engage in the natural behaviours that are important for their wellbeing.

Role specific stressors: Assistance animals may often need to work in environments that might be stressful to them, due to noise, crowding, unfamiliar people and other animals. They also may encounter unpredictable routines that can result in insufficient time to rest, recover, play, or socialise with other animals.

There is also the potential for work related injuries, with some of the tasks performed by assistance animals potentially causing discomfort or long-term physical strain and injury, particularly if the equipment used for these tasks is poorly designed or inappropriate.

Training and standards of care: In Australia, there are currently no consistent standards or regulatory oversight for the training of assistance animals and the education of their trainers. There is also no requirement for training to be provided by an accredited organisation, so standards of training can vary widely and may even risk poor handling or harmful training methods.

After the job is done: Assistance animals generally work with their companion for eight to ten years, while they’re in their best physical health. Unfortunately, there are no consistent retirement programs to ensure every assistance animal rehomed with good quality care and a smooth transition. Like a companion animal, the change in environment, routine, and loss of their primary caregiver after retirement will all be sources of stress and must be managed appropriately.

Keeping welfare top of mind.

Assistance animals can have a positive and transformative impact on the lives of their human companions, and they provide an invaluable service those that need them. However, it’s important that the welfare of assistance animals is not overshadowed by their unique role, and that their needs and wellbeing are monitored, evaluated, and prioritised.

On a national level, there is a clear need for the adoption of mandatory animal welfare standards for assistance animals and a registration and licensing system to ensure consistency for the breeding, rearing, training, management, housing, and care of assistance animals over their entire lifetime.

In the meantime, caregivers can provide a positive experience for their assistance animal by ensuring they are given adequate and appropriate socialisation and enrichment opportunities, adequate downtime for rest, and opportunities for positive experiences and to engage in their natural behaviours outside of their work. This will not only benefit the animal’s overall wellbeing; it can also strengthen the bond between animal and their companion, as they develop the trust that they are safe and their needs are being consistently met.

Safeguarding the welfare of assistance animals will ensure these special partnerships are beneficial for both animal and companion.

Have we piqued your curiosity, and do you want to learn more about how animals experience the world? Join us for the 2024 Animal Welfare Seminar, Strengthening our relationship with animals, to hear from leading experts about how we can support animals’ best lives.


Interested in learning more? Check out the RSPCA Knowledgebase

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