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  3. What are the potential animal welfare issues associated with assistance animals?

What are the potential animal welfare issues associated with assistance animals?

The benefits of assistance animals to people are widely discussed but the impact of the work on the animals must also be considered [1]. Assistance animals face a unique set of challenges because they experience a number of processes to prepare them for the specialised roles and work they undertake [2], and because of the demands of their work and frequent changes to their living environment. There is limited research into this, with the following areas needing special attention to ensure the safety and wellbeing of assistance dogs (the main assistance animals used in Australia) across the various settings in which they are used. These areas should also be addressed with regard to other assistance animals:

  • Selection and breeding: Assistance dogs are selected for particular characteristics such as size, temperament and trainability. For this reason, purebred dogs are often used but this can introduce the risk of inherited disorders that reduce their welfare. It is also important to prevent breeding more dogs than are required and to accurately predict whether young dogs will be successful in their required assistance work as adults.
  • Rearing and housing: It is essential that assistance dogs are provided with adequate and appropriate socialisation and enrichment opportunities and that they are gradually introduced to unpredictability in their routines.
  • Training and working: Currently there are no consistent standards or regulatory control of the training of assistance animals or the education of their trainers. There are some state-based accreditation systems, but assistance animal training does not need to be provided by an accredited organisation. In addition, there are no enforceable standards for humane, evidence-based training methods. This could place animals at risk of being subjected to poor handling and training techniques.
  • Abrupt changes to living situation: Some assistance dogs may experience several different living arrangements during their lifetime, which can be highly stressful.
  • Sources of stress: Assistance animals may often work in stressful environments due to noise, crowding, unfamiliar people, and other animals. They also have to cope with unpredictable routines, sometimes with insufficient time to rest, recover, toilet, play, and socialise with other animals and people when they work for long periods.
  • Work related injuries: Some of the tasks performed by assistance dogs can cause discomfort and may impose physical strain and eventually lead to injury, particularly if the equipment used for the tasks is poorly designed or inappropriate [2]. Future research is needed to identify the factors that can lead to injury in assistance dogs.
  • Ageing and retirement issues: When assistance dogs are unable to keep working, they will need to be retired to safeguard the dogs’ welfare, but this must be carefully planned as changes of routine and the loss of their primary human contact/owner are potential sources of stress [2].

The RSPCA acknowledges that assistance animals can have a positive and transformative impact on the lives of people. However, it is important that the welfare of assistance animals is also monitored, evaluated, and prioritised.

The RSPCA advocates the adoption of compulsory and enforced animal welfare standards and a registration and licensing system for situations in which animals are used for the purpose of assistance work. Compliance with compulsory standards for the breeding, rearing, training, management, housing, and transport of working animals must be made a condition of licensing (see RSPCA Policy C03 Working Animals). In addition, future research on assistance animals needs to move beyond a focus on the benefits to people to include an investigation of the experience and welfare of the animals, so we can identify practices that need to be discontinued or better managed. Safeguarding the welfare of assistance animals will ensure that these special human-animal partnerships are mutually beneficial.


[1] Burrows KE, Adams CL & Millman ST (2008) Factors affecting behavior and welfare of service dogs for children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 11:42–62.

[2] Serpell JA, Coppinger R, Fine AH & Peralta JM (2010) Welfare considerations in therapy and assistance animals. In: Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy. A. Fine (Ed.). Elsevier.

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Updated on October 8, 2019
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