Where's your Assistance Dog?

[Image description: Kirby (a 9kg tri-coloured dog) is lying on a polished terrazzo floor. He is wearing a blue, black and white harness that identifies him as an Assistance Dog and says “STOP Do Not Distract”. He is also wearing a black and white checked bow tie on his black collar. He is looking up at the camera with his ears pushed forward.]

[Image description: Kirby (a 9kg tri-coloured dog) is lying on a polished terrazzo floor. He is wearing a blue, black and white harness that identifies him as an Assistance Dog and says “STOP Do Not Distract”. He is also wearing a black and white checked bow tie on his black collar. He is looking up at the camera with his ears pushed forward.]

Most times that I go somewhere I am a “regular” without my Assistance Dog, Kirby, at my side, I’ll get this question: “Where’s your Assistance Dog?”

It usually comes from a really positive place, prompted by a wholesale acceptance that Kirby is a critical part of my ability to manage my disability when accessing my community. So if you’ve ever wondered, and been unsure if it was okay to answer, here’s the answer!

It depends, but to be honest usually sleeping. He really loves to nap in the sun. I’m kidding - there’s a longer answer too!

I leave Kirby at home (or with people he loves who spoil him rotten) for lots of different reasons.

Sometimes he gets sick, and it would either be unfair on him to work him, he might be contagious, or it would just be gross. When that happens, he gets sick leave just like us humans! Certain types of sick can actually revoke his right to public access as an Assistance Dog, because under Australian law ADs have to meet certain standards of hygiene at all times in public.

[Image description: Kirby, a small tri-coloured dog, is lying on a grassy hill. He has a big grin on and is panting from running around. He is wearing a purple harness that says “do not feed”.]

[Image description: Kirby, a small tri-coloured dog, is lying on a grassy hill. He has a big grin on and is panting from running around. He is wearing a purple harness that says “do not feed”.]

Sometimes it wouldn’t be safe for the Assistance Dog, or it is simply impractical. Depending on the handler, this is common when in sterile environments, visiting zoos, travelling overseas (biosecurity restrictions are important but gosh are they a pain), or even a university lab class. I also have one doctor who I choose not to take Kirby when I see because she has lots of patients with very severe allergies.

Sometimes as the handler, I know I won’t have the capacity to do my job of ‘handling’ Kirby. If I don’t have access to an alternate handler, that means that I won’t take Kirby with me. The most obvious example of this is certain hospitalisations. If I won’t have the capacity to see to Kirby’s exercise and enrichment requirements, his feeding, and his toileting, and don’t have someone else to do those things for me, I won’t take Kirby with me. (You can argue until the sun goes down that hospital staff should assist with these things as a reasonable accommodation for my disability. The simple reality in Australia is that this is not the policy, which is why this is such a common example of handlers not having their AD with them.)

[Image description: Kirby, a small tri-coloured dog, is sitting on top of a grey blanket over my legs. He is naked, and staring at the camera very intently with his ears pushed forward.]

[Image description: Kirby, a small tri-coloured dog, is sitting on top of a grey blanket over my legs. He is naked, and staring at the camera very intently with his ears pushed forward.]

Sometimes, despite the fact that Kirby loves work, I simply think that he deserves a day off! Very occasionally he will “tell” me that he needs a day off by starting a game instead of helping me get his work gear on. I think it’s important for both of us on these occasions that I “listen” and leave him at home. Other times I will leave him with humans and/or doggo friends who he knows and loves for a bit of spoiling.

Finally, sometimes I just can’t handle the way that other people act towards Kirby and myself when we’re out as a team, so at that particular moment in time it’s just easier for me to run an errand without him.

So basically, there’s lots of reasons an Assistance Dog might not be with their handler on a given day, or at a given time. It’s important to remember that there is no set amount of time that an Assistance Dog has to spend with their handler to be a “real” Assistance Dog, or to be genuinely needed by the handler. Always remember that they’re dogs, not robots, and so a responsible handler will pay careful attention to what their partner needs. For some handlers, that means that our AD might not always be with us.