Not pets but partners: so why are assistance dogs like Ella's Moose being refused entry?

How assistance dogs help young wheelchair users but it's business owners and the public who need more training

Dogs change lives. Every dog owner will nod along to that statement. Some changes – sunny walks, feel-good cuddles, faithful companionship – are for the better. Other new experiences – rainy walks in the dark, chewed tea towels, an obsession with squirrels – aren’t as welcome. The difference they make applies to every kind of dog and every kind of life. But when it comes to assistance dogs, the impact on their owners’ lives can be so profound that it’s almost impossible to measure correctly. Indeed, “assistance” doesn’t adequately describe all the incredible ways these special animals can support their humans.

Assistance dogs are life-saving as well as life-changing. After extensive professional training that puts them constantly under their owner’s control, they can support disabled people in ways you can scarcely believe when you first learn of them.

The different types of assistance dogs

Of course, guide dogs for visually impaired people are the longest-serving example. Who hasn’t marvelled at a dog that can cross you safely over the road, particularly if your non-assistance dog is more likely to pull you under a bus when they’re straining on the lead? But these Labradors and Golden Retrievers are just the most high-profile canine assistants. Their hearing dog counterparts alert owners with hearing loss of smoke alarms, oven timers, and even crying babies. And people with autism can have autism assistance dogs to give them emotional support and help them connect with others.

Despite different skills, all assistance dogs give their humans confidence. Wheelchair users and those with limited mobility get invaluable support from assistance dogs that can help them with practical everyday tasks. From opening doors to pressing a lift button, fetching dropped items, and even loading the washing machine, they are a huge help. When your clever dog can retrieve your card from a cash machine, put their food bowl in the sink after eating and even help turn their disabled owner over in bed, it’s easy to see this relationship as a valuable partnership between human and canine.

Smell is their superpower

Perhaps most staggering are the assistance dogs who use their breed’s invisible superpower of smell. It’s no secret that dogs’ sniffing abilities are 100,000 times more powerful than ours. But a medical alert dog's ability to monitor critical health conditions in their human is remarkable. They can pick up the scent changes in their owner’s blood glucose levels and alert them when it’s too high or low. Similarly good with their nose, allergy detection dogs are trained to smell anything that could cause their owner to have an allergic reaction, like peanuts, picking up minute allergen particles floating in the environment and giving a warning.

Seizure alert and response dogs warn their handlers that they will have an epileptic episode so they can protect themselves and get help. They are working on such sensitivity levels that the science is split on whether the dogs use scent or observe minute behaviour changes in their owners to inform these warnings.

Whatever type of assistance they give, these incredible dogs are essential to their human partner’s life. We asked Ella, from the Kidz Board, about the difference her assistance dog Moose (above) makes to her. This handsome brown and white cocker spaniel has been by her side for over two years. She said,

It means I can function and have an active and busy life independently without needing support from other people.

This makes the problem of assistance dogs being refused entry to shops, restaurants and services an accessibility issue with significant consequences. When your dog is as much a part of the ‘equipment’ that lets you live your everyday life as your wheelchair, coming face and muzzle up against a barrier of ignorance is distressing.

We asked Ella if she’d been challenged when trying to enter businesses with Moose?
“Yes, often. I have been followed around by security guards telling me to leave the dog outside, despite explaining the law and that they have an ‘assistance dogs welcome’ sign in their window. This was a huge national chain that I go to frequently in my hometown – where everywhere else the attitude to Moose is amazing, and he is made very welcome.”

Why this breaks the law

More shocking than this ignorant attitude towards impeccably behaved dogs like Moose, is that this is against the law. The Equality Act 2010 means it’s unlawful for any business owner to “refuse a service to a disabled person accompanied by an assistance dog except in the most exceptional circumstances.” That includes access to all places selling food. Assistance dogs’ high levels of training and regular veterinary checks make them ideal hygienic guests who lie down at their owner’s feet when required.

Ella said: "Another time I went out for a meal where they tried to claim that their company policy overrides the Equality Act (spoiler, it does not!) and refused to let me in – luckily, in this case, a manager stepped in and told them to let me in.”

So what would she say to anyone refusing Moose entry?
“It is discrimination, it is 2023, and it should not be happening. Moose is not just a ‘dog’. He is medical equipment, and it's like refusing access because of my wheelchair.”

Don't bother them when they're working

A more understandable problem facing young wheelchair users and their assistance dogs is the canine half of the team getting lots of distractions from dog lovers when they are working. Many people can’t resist a stroke and a scruffle of a stranger’s dog, even if they are wearing a red coat with messages not to disturb. Does Moose attract lots of attention?, we asked Ella: “Yes, he does. He’s a handsome dog who is very cute and is often wagging his tail as he loves to work,” she said. “I find it very annoying if people constantly try to talk to me about him or attempt to distract him, but as long as they leave us alone, I don’t mind him being admired.”

Sometimes this takes a disturbing turn. Ella says: “We’ve had people lift their children up ‘to show them the doggy’ while I was unconscious on the floor, with Moose doing his job to help bring me back around, which is beyond inappropriate and insensitive.” 

There needs to be more education about assistance dogs and how important their work is to their owner. What would Ella say to people wanting to stroke or play with Moose when he’s working?
“Please don’t – he is covered in ‘’do not distract’’ signs for a reason. They need to respect our right to space and to live our life.

If Moose is distracted and misses an alert, I could get badly hurt, which is dangerous and would have a huge impact on my life.

It’s not just the distraction. Your dog has the effect of making you public property. Wheelchair users often find they aren’t given the space or privacy that non-disabled people are. An assistance dog can make this even worse: 

“I can also find it very frustrating as I am often trying to get something done just like they are. I will talk about him if I have time or want to, but when I say no or ignore your questions, it is because he is not public property, nor is he a learning tool. He’s my medical equipment, and I often don’t want to talk about why I have him as it is personal medical information.”

Whizz-Kidz CEO and dog lover Sarah Pugh said: “Assistance dogs like the wonderful Moose are essential to many young wheelchair users’ wellbeing. They help them go about their everyday life confidently and independently, giving their owners vital support and important warnings of critical medical conditions.

The law is clear, no assistance dog and their owner should be refused entry to any business or service.

“As a charity, Whizz-Kidz is there for young wheelchair users and believes they have a right to the equipment and skills they need to live as independently as possible. That includes assistance dogs so they can enjoy all the opportunities and activities that so many others take for granted, like freely accessing shops and restaurants. We will continue campaigning for a more inclusive world where every young wheelchair user is mobile, enabled and included.”

This negative flipside of the positive experiences these dogs bring wheelchair users indicates a lack of understanding of how important assistance dogs are to their owners. They aren’t pets but loyal partners. As well as helping in many valuable and unexpected ways, perhaps the most significant gift they give to their human partner is the confidence to live a more independent life.

They are another piece of assistive equipment for young wheelchair users, just cuter looking and with a wet nose. But they’re also dogs. Incredibly well-trained but still completely lovable. Has Moose ever had a bad day at work?

“He once fell off the stage at the House of Lords while I was giving a speech at the Annual Reception,” Ella said. “As he did a big stretch in his sleep – he attempted to style it out, but it didn't work!”

Ella tells us more about Moose

Kidz Board member Ella on her assistance dog, Moose.

Can you tell us about your dog?
Moose is a two and a half years old male English Show Type Cocker Spaniel. He is goofy and silly while adoring cuddles and affection. 

What assistance does he give you, day to day?
He’s a Medical Alert assistance dog. He can alert me to my blood pressure dropping, meaning I have about a seven-minute warning that I am likely to faint and have a high heart rate. 

He helps get me dressed and undressed, picking up things for me, like my phone and keys. He opens doors and drawers.

What was the process for getting your dog? 
Moose is an owner-trained assistance dog who was trained with Wild Spirit Dog Training, who help with the specifics of assistance dog training.

He came home as a puppy aged 12 weeks and began more formalised assistance dog training at eight months after lots of foundational work. 

We chose this route after being unable to access a dog through other sources due to long waits (often years), and I needed a dog sooner to live independently as I wanted. 

Were you involved with the training, or did you get any insight into how they would work with you?
I have been Moose’s primary trainer since day one, alongside Laura and Wild Spirit Dog Training, so he was trained to work precisely for me. All of his training has been done with me in mind, for example, he’s trained to walk on my right as my left side is my weak side, so I struggle with holding things with that hand.

What’s Moose’s daily routine?
He usually wakes up, goes outside for a toilet break, then gobbles breakfast and goes back to sleep until lunchtime unless I need him. I mostly work from home, so he sleeps while I work, and then we go for a lunchtime walk and a bigger one once I finish work.

If I am in the office, it's a morning walk before work, and then he just sleeps there instead. 

How does your dog fit around your life?
Moose fits into my life perfectly. He loves coming into the office with me and is always happy to travel. He loves the gym in the evening and is such an adaptable dog, happy to be involved and come everywhere. He particularly loves trains and is known to sing with excitement when he is waiting for one.

He loves Kidz Board weekends as he thinks a room full of wheelchairs is the best thing ever, with lots of laps to sit on.

What’s your dog’s favourite treat, game and thing to do?
He loves fetch with his beloved ball. His favourite treat is anything ostrich based and he loves bikejoring [a sport where your dog pulls you along on a bike] alongside my handbike.

For more information on assistance dogs, go to: 

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