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A guide dog standing next to a table with the dog's owner sitting in the background

Creating a positive environment for disabled customers: understanding what an assistance dog is

Posted on 14 June 2023

Assistance dogs provide invaluable support to users with a range of different disabilities. The duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 imposes an obligation on businesses to anticipate the needs of disabled customers, which can typically include amending a 'no dogs' policy to allow access for users with assistance dogs. This article will suggest ways businesses can recognise and support assistance dogs and their users, and create a welcoming environment for all.

Assistance Dogs UK ("ADUK"), a coalition of different assistance dog organisations, has produced a video highlighting a range of examples of the different types of assistance dog in the UK. Assistance dogs support people with many different types of disability, such those who are visually impaired, deaf, have autism or have post-traumatic stress disorder. Currently, ADUK member organisations have trained 70,000 working dogs in the UK.  

There is no national registration scheme for assistance dogs and their users do not need to carry identification, which can make it harder for businesses to understand the context and comply with their Equality Act duties. It is a common misconception that assistance dogs must be labradors or golden retrievers, which can lead to users with other breeds being unlawfully refused access to a business' premises. The ADUK video highlights the range of different breeds that can serve as assistance dogs, including cocker spaniels, miniature schnauzers, dalmatians and springer spaniels, as well as cross-breeds. It is therefore helpful for businesses looking to train their staff to bear this in mind. Guide dogs trained by the charity Guide Dogs can be identified by them wearing a harness, which is used to guide their owner. However, one way to identify many assistance dogs is by the jacket that the dogs are wearing. For instance, a dog trained by Medical Detection Dogs wears a red branded jacket, a dog trained by Hearing Dogs wears a burgundy jacket, while a dog trained by Support Dogs wears a blue branded jacket.

As we have previously highlighted, research by Guide Dog has shown that 81% of guide dog owners have been refused access to shops and other public spaces because of their accompanying assistance dog. Ensuring staff understand the variety of dog breeds and the dogs' important functions can help prevent unlawful access refusals and so reduce a business' legal and reputation risks.

Businesses may also wish to consider fostering a welcoming environment for service dog users. For example, public-facing businesses such as shops could put up signs saying that assistance dogs are welcome, and make drinking bowls available for assistance dogs. Such positive acts can highlight the business' commitment to accessibility, inclusion and those who have assistance dogs. 

ADUK's video "What is an Assistance Dog?"

Guide Dogs is the Innovation Department's charity partner.

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