It seems that everyone is jumping on the canine band wagon in attempts to make money or control us. In the last eighteen months we have had the Kennel Club, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and The Home Office all tinkering with our relationships with our dogs and now the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) Office for Disability is getting involved. The KC can be forgiven for at least dogs are integral to everything it does and I must make it clear that I have no problem with there being laws and regulations which are designed to protect the public and restrain the irresponsible. However it seems to me that as governments are on the one hand broadening our personal freedoms (human rights across the board, equal pay, access to abortion, re-drawing the boundaries of acceptable entertainment – all of which I favour) they are on the other, interfering intrusively in what I regard our cultural freedoms and public/society accountability – and I think it is going to get worse.
What happened to us each being responsible for our actions? What we can and cannot do appears to be morphing into what we can and cannot think and a ‘nanny’ state which is beginning to define every aspect of our lives.
I use as my example the work currently being done by the Office for Disability Issues to ‘rationalise’ the training and use of dogs for those who are disabled. All the material to which I refer is marked ‘Draft/confidential’. I am not surprised – I dare not think how many millions this is likely to cost at a time when education and health are under so much pressure: perhaps readers would like to make an estimate when they know a little more about what is proposed. It is also curious that the Office for Disability is asking for comments on the proposals – which seem to me pointless if even those with expertise are not allowed to see them. And the members of the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council, of which I am Chairman, are a group whose opinions should be sought. They have not been, and the material to which I refer in this article was sent to me privately by a concerned and disabled friend. I notice that the one training group closely involved with the proposal does not mention it on their website or in their newsletter and I cannot find any information from the website of the Office for Disability Issues.
Before going further, may I emphasise that I spent much of my professional teaching career helping and supporting young people with learning difficulties and problems adjusting to society and that I am entirely in favour of, and support, the various Acts of Parliament which, over the years, have given those less able rights and services which enable them, as far as possible, to live their lives with the same freedoms as the rest of us.
Dogs have long been helpers of man
Dogs have been helpers of man for centuries but the process became formalised as far as disabled people were concerned at the beginning of the last century when the Seeing Eye scheme was launched in the USA to help those who were blind to move about safely. In the UK, Guide Dogs for the Blind (now called simply ‘Guide Dogs’) was set up in 1931. Most countries now have such a scheme and as I was personally involved in establishing the one funded by Samsung in Korea, which created a partnership with the Blind Society of New Zealand in the 1990s, I know a little about the background. Hearing Dogs for Deaf People was founded in 1982, Pets as Therapy in 1983 (spun out of the Public Relations Organisation – PRO-Dogs – created by Lesley Scott-Ordish) and Dogs for the Disabled (Now called Dogs for Good) in 1986. Since that time, as the amazing senses of dogs have become more recognised, there has been an explosion of charities and individuals training dogs and their less able owners. Now dogs can be trained to sense when someone is likely to have an epileptic attack and to help those with autism: the list seems endless as do the charities which have been set up to help. My friend, the late Norman Ziman, a lawyer of distinction, was involved as a Trustee of one such organisation and he worked tirelessly to persuade several charities to come together, primarily to save money but also to share expertise. He did not succeed on the financial front but he did help establish Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) where charities with similar objectives have joined up to share techniques and provide a viable accreditation process for other charities with similar aims. There are currently eight members (Guide Dogs, Dogs for Good, Canine Partners, Assistance to Disability, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Medical Detection Dogs, Support Dogs and the Seeing Dogs Alliance) and it is itself, a registered charity. This area of canine/human expertise has been well organised and successful but I understand, like so many bureaucracies, it has become self protecting over the past few years and has taken on a role well beyond its remit.
So far so good
All these organisations employ many people but their Trustees are volunteers as are the many hundreds who offer practical help to those needing help with their dogs and who supply vital support through raising funds whether it is shaking collection boxes on the street, organising coffee mornings, companion dogs shows or working (for nothing) in charity shops. I wonder if they realise that some of the money they collect might be used to develop barriers to some disabled people having dogs as helpers and companions?
Now, through pressure from ADUK and other interest groups, the Department of Work and Pensions through its Office for Disability Issues has decided that the dogs and owners, should be ‘regulated’ by having to ‘pass’ what has been termed a Public Access Assessment. They have been told (I doubt they would have thought of it themselves) that some dogs are being trained to be assistance dogs by people who are not ‘proper’ dog trainers and so the dogs’ welfare could be compromised and those who come in contact with them could be in danger. ADUK is one of the groups which supports the Public Access Test although I am informed that many believe this is because it and its constituent charities want to retain control of all training of assistance dogs and stop others from so doing. So ‘A representative group of stakeholders with an interest in ensuring disabled people are able to access suitable assistance dogs (no notification has been published of who they are and what their ‘interests’ are incidentally) have come together and formed a working group. The working group is convened and facilitated by officials from the Office for Disability Issues acting on behalf of the Minister for Disabled people. The aim of the group is to create appropriate uniform standards and a nationally recognised assessment process to ensure that people who need an assistance dog are able to get a suitably trained dog for the role(s) they require, thereby meeting their needs and ensuring the welfare and well being of the dog.’ This is followed by thirty plus pages of rubric explaining and justifying (not very well, in my opinion, for no evidence is offered – just opinion) the reasons for implementing what I consider is a totally unnecessary and inappropriate barrier to disabled people having access to canine helpers and companions. The ‘guidance’ for those who are disabled runs to eighteen pages (including four pages for the application form) and includes such gems as ‘The dog should be friendly, relaxed and confident.’ And, under the section entitled: ‘Some examples of behaviours that show a dog is unsuitable’ is , ‘Continuous signs of fear – crouched body, tail tucked under, ears flat back, barking, avoidance, over reaction and delayed recovery to stimuli such as noise’. I would ask whether anyone, anywhere has seen an assistance dog behaving in this way.
A driving test for disabled dog owners
These Public Access Assessments take the form of a test similar to that used for drivers and they will be conducted by specially trained Animal Assessment Instructors who will take the dog and its owner out onto the streets and place them in a range of about thirty situations to see how well they cope. They are not unreasonable but, I would argue, they are totally unnecessary. For example, one requires them to check behaviours such as ‘whether the dog is comfortable around people’. Has anyone, anywhere seen an assistance dog which is not? I have had the opportunity to look at these criteria and I can tell you anyone, I mean anyone, would be able to make these assessments. I promise you no specialist training is required although I concede that if any owner is not getting the best out of their companion specialist help might be needed. But this is what the established organisations and experienced dog trainers and behaviourists already do – and very successfully too.
In my opinion this initiative is doing nothing more that give work to civil servants and dog trainers – and you can bet they are not going to carry out what will be thousands of assessments for nothing – and there is no indication of who is going to pay. And there will be sufferers: those disabled people who have dogs which help and support them, those who do not have access to dogs and training because of the barriers put in place by some charities and being put under much undue and unnecessary stress by form filling and being tested.
Apparently the plan is that the dog and owner receive a ‘pass’, ‘deferred’ or a ‘not suitable’ grade. Those that are deferred may apply again at a later date but what if a dog or owner fails the assessment? Will the owner be forbidden to have a dog if they do not demonstrate that they fulfill all the criteria of ownership (and there are a lot) or will the dog be taken away from the owner if the assessor believes it is a danger to the public? The papers I have seen do not say and, if those possibilities are not envisaged what on earth is the point of it all.
The paperwork also says that dogs need to be re-assessed regularly as, ‘a dog’s ability and suitability may alter with changes in its physical or psychological health. Hence, there is a requirement for periodic re-assessment during the dog’s working life in order to retain its qualification under the Public Access Assessment.’ This is true but there is a nice little earner here for a cohort of dog trainers with ‘qualifications’ and, presumably, little other demand for their services. If this Parkinson like initiative goes through there will be pressure to interfere with other aspects of dog partnerships soon – watch out Pets as Therapy.
Apparently there was a ‘Stakeholder Event’ in August 2017 which ‘won general approval’: from whom? I would ask – I can find no notification of it anywhere. But the paperwork in my possession states that the Office for Disability Issues would ‘now like the wider sector to consider these proposals during June and July 2018, with a deadline for responses by Friday 27th July 2018’. Again, evidence is not being sought – just opinion – the paperwork is watermarked ‘Confidential’.
There are three more things causing concern to disabled people with assistance dogs: the ‘panel’ making the decisions is anonymous (are any disabled people who are likely to be affected represented?), how are the disabled persons medical records being protected under the new General Data Protection Regulations and, finally, no risk assessment appears to be envisaged re the impact of this initiative on either owners or dogs. This is a bureaucratic car crash in the making.
I shall be responding to firstname.lastname@example.org I hope others will too.
An outrageous and unnecessary proposal by David Cavill FRSA