Thousands of people across the UK enjoy their lives with the assistance of highly trained canine companions. Small business owners should know how to uphold the rights of assistance dog users and should welcome them into their business.
What are assistance dogs?
Dogs who qualify as assistance dogs must fit the legal definition provided by the Equality Act 2010. The Act defines assistance dogs as those which have been either:
- trained to guide a blind person
- trained to assist a deaf person
- trained by a prescribed charity to assist somebody who has a disability such as epilepsy that affects mobility (or similar), or
- trained to assist somebody with another prescribed disability
Assistance dogs are usually trained by one of the charities accredited by Assistance Dogs UK, although some are trained by individuals. They’re trained to be calm and well-behaved in public places, and to assist their users with various tasks (eg crossing roads) and situations (eg by predicting epileptic seizures).
Assistance dogs can be various different dog breeds. They are usually identifiable by their jackets or other identifiers such as harnesses. Certain coloured jackets often indicate what a dog’s tasks are, for example, hearing dogs often wear burgundy and guide dogs often wear white.
What rights do assistance dog users have?
Users of assistance dogs have a right under the Equality Act not to be discriminated against based on their disability. Small business owners or managers may find themselves discriminating if they do things like:
- excluding assistance dogs and their users from premises, for example by imposing a ‘no pets’ rule and not making an exception for assistance dogs
- asking assistance dog users to sit or be in a separate place to others
- requiring assistance dog users to pay more for services than others (eg to cover additional cleaning or staff costs)
Assistance dogs can only be excluded when doing so is reasonable. For example, in a medical setting in which preventing contamination is vitally important for others’ safety.
These rules may seem worrying for small business owners who work with food, who should be serious about upholding their food hygiene practices to comply with food safety laws. Assistance Dogs UK explains that assistance dogs are specially trained and regularly health-checked so that they don’t pose a health and safety risk by being in such premises – at least not so significant a risk that excluding them would be reasonable.
Service providers (eg small business owners) are also required to make any reasonable adjustments that are necessary to reduce disadvantages caused by people’s disabilities. This includes making reasonable adjustments to allow assistance dogs to accompany their users. Examples of adjustments that would likely be reasonable for a service provider to make include introducing additional cleaning measures or allowing extra time for somebody and their dog to engage with a service. Remember that assistance dog users should never be charged more to cover the costs of such adjustments.
Sometimes, when determining what adjustments are reasonable in certain circumstances, an assistance dog user’s rights will need to be balanced against those of another person. For example, if somebody in a restaurant is allergic to dogs, they have a right to have their safety taken care of inside the restaurant by not having a dog seated right next to them. However, it’s unlikely that it would be reasonable to exclude an assistance dog from the premises completely in such a situation. In situations like this, legal compliance requires finding and facilitating a balance between the rights of both parties.
Is the law on assistance dogs adequate?
One issue with the current law on assistance dogs is the specificity of the ‘assistance dogs’ definition. Emotional support animals (ie animals that provide emotional and psychological support to their owners whose health conditions don’t fit into the prescribed disability category) are excluded from the definition. They and their owners do not have the same legal rights as assistance dogs, despite various studies supporting their mental health benefits.
This means that service providers are not required to make reasonable adjustments for emotional support animals, or even to allow them access to premises. As evidence on such dogs’ efficacy continues to develop, perhaps this is an area of law that needs to be adjusted to support all individuals deserving of equal treatment.
Who else should be aware of assistance dog rights?
Everybody! As members of the public, everybody should be aware of the rights that assistance dog users have in society, and should be prepared to help ensure these rights are upheld if such is ever required.
Moreover, the duty to make reasonable adjustments also applies to employers. If you employ anybody who has an assistance dog, you should make reasonable adjustments to help them perform their job well and healthily.
Landlords should also make reasonable adjustments to their properties or tenancy agreements when such is required to allow an assistance dog user to live in a property. For example, by making an exception to a no-pets rule. As for service providers, which adjustments are ‘reasonable’ depends on the circumstances, for example the need to protect others’ health and safety.
Assistance dogs are an important (and lovely) medical tool that helps many people to live their lives with more independence than may otherwise be possible. As well as upholding assistance dog users’ rights, small business owners should ensure that they make them feel welcome. Consider, for example, putting up signs on your premises that reassure assistance dog users that you are happy to make any necessary adjustments to help them access your business.
For more information, read Service animal rights, Equal opportunities and discrimination, and Disability and reasonable adjustments. You can Ask a lawyer for help if you have any questions about compliance.
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