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 as they are easy to train and make good companions.
Assistance animals hold the important role of helping their caregiver navigate the world safely; their caregivers trust and rely on them daily.
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.
So, what are some of the welfare challenges for assistance animals? And, how can we ensure their needs are met to give them the most positive experience.
The topic will be covered in depth at the RSPCA Animal Welfare Seminar 2024 - register at https://www.rspca.org.au/learn/animal-welfare-seminar/.
Potential welfare issues
Assistance animals face a unique set of challenges. These can result from the processes they experience to prepare them for their role as well as their work demands.
There's also concern that the nature of their role may not allow for 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.
- Potential for work related injuries - some of the tasks performed by assistance animals can potentially cause 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.
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After the job is done
Assistance animals generally work with their companion for eight to 10 years, while they're in their best physical health.
Unfortunately, there are no consistent retirement programs to ensure every assistance animal is re-homed 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.
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, positive experiences, and engaging in their natural behaviours outside of work.
This will benefit the animal's overall wellbeing and can strengthen the bond between animals and their companions as they develop the trust that they are safe.
- For information visit the RSPCA Knowledgebase