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European Standard for Assistance Dogs – Progress Report

The chair of the Standards Committee, Marijan Sesar gave an update on the progress of the creation of CEN/TC 452, a European standard in the field of assistance dogs, users and training staff to underpin future laws and regulations about assistance dogs.

Slide with Goals of CEN TC452

CEN/TC 452 was created in September 2016.  Marijan Sesar explained that it is a long slow process, and gave an overview of the meetings that had taken place since the last EGDF conference in Malta in December 2017.  The work of the Technical Committee is divided into six different working groups:

  • Working Group 01 Terminology
  • Working Group 02 Lifetime Welfare: convenor Karl Weissenbacher
  • Working Group 03 Competencies for assistance dog professionals (will be established during 2019 after plenary meeting)
  • Working Group 04 Training and Assessment: convenor Peter Gorbing
  • Working Group 05 Client Services: convenor Jennifer Ceia
  • Working Group 06 Accessibility: convenor Judith Jones

He stressed that the European standard would only be successful if its stakeholders and national representatives engage actively.  Co-operation is taking place with many stakeholders such as the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) and the ANEC consumer organisation.

Picture of Assistance Dog

Working Group 01 Terminology

The Terminology working group was formed first, because everyone involved needed to use the same terminology.   Peter van der Heijden was its convenor.

Judith Jones explained that people had many different ideas and Peter had done an excellent job creating a cohesive team and ending up with an agreed document. 

People used to say “Guide dogs and other types of assistance dogs”, but they are all assistance dogs.  The agreed definition is:

“Assistance Dogs are dogs specifically trained to perform tasks to mitigate the limitations of a person with a disability”.

Included within this definition are:

  1. Autism assistance dogs
  2. Guide dogs
  3. Hearing dogs
  4. Medical alert assistance dogs
  5. Mobility assistance dogs
  6. PTSD assistance dogs

Agreed to be excluded are:

  • Emotional support dogs
  • Facility dogs
  • Skilled companion dogs
  • Therapy dogs

The main distinguishing features are that assistance dogs assist a person with a disability, they are paired for life, and are trained for approximately two years.  If a person who is afraid of flying claims a right to have a dog with them, this might be a genuine fear, but the dog would not fall into the definition of ‘specifically trained’.

Although the Terminology working group finished its work before the others had started, it will need to incorporate any new definitions arising from the other working groups.

Working Group 02 Lifetime Welfare

Karl Weissenbacher is the convenor of the working group which focuses on health and lifetime welfare and takes account of legal and ethical considerations. Karl is from the Messerli Institute at the Veterinary School at the University of Vienna, Austria.

Referring to  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs Karl said that basic needs (food, water, shelter) would be satisfied anyway, but the dog is a living being, not just a means of assistance, and self-actualization (the desire to become the most that one can be) is important too.

Picture of Maslow's hierarchy of needsImage of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Referring to the Five Freedoms - the five aspects of animal welfare under human control - Karl explained that:

(1) Freedom from hunger and thirst:  includes having ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour;

(2) Freedom from discomfort:  includes considerations about having a dog in a small flat, and when in harness a need to ensure a dog can demonstrate normal movement;

(3) Freedom from pain, injury or disease:  is prevention or access to rapid diagnosis and treatment;

(4) Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour:  is achieved by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind;

(5) Freedom from fear and distress:  includes a need to provide conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.  Research concludes that stress leads to health problems, both for humans and from the veterinary side.

Regarding the ethical considerations, Karl referred to some work by the American moral philosopher, Martha Nussbaum:  “The goal of this approach is that all living beings thrive as what they are” and that every form of life should have the chance of a dignified existence, including “a positive experience of interaction with conspecifics”, ie dogs need to interact with other dogs and play.

Karl explained that although framework conditions are given in the Animal Welfare Act, there is a lot of room for improvement.  It’s currently a very low standard and there are no specific acts in most European countries about health requirements of assistance dogs.  It is important to look at the health and welfare of our dogs to have well performing working dogs.

The working group will consider the stages of breeding, training, working, and retirement.  We cannot forget about the dogs when they retire.  They deserve a good retirement.

Working Group 04 Training and Assessment

Peter Gorbing is the Chief Executive of Dogs for Good in the UK, Board Member of Assistance Dogs International (ADI) and Assistance Doges Europe (ADEu).  As the convenor of the Training and Assessment working group, Peter explained that their remit is to build on existing practice already in place around the world, such as ADI and the International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) in order to create the European Standard. 

It will include pre-training requirements, such as the minimum age before task training, the behavioural temperament needed, and also the socialisation process.  The standard is not just for organisations.  It needs to be relevant to anyone, irrespective of the process they go through, in order to encompass the explosion of people training their own dogs to be assistance dogs. 

“If research tells us something we don’t want to hear, we then need to develop solutions to that.”

Peter Gorbing

As well as the health and wellbeing of a dog, the standard will cover the key obedience skills, and key characteristics of a dog:  no aggression, no inappropriate barking, focus on the handler, responsiveness to cues, and an established toileting regime.  It will also include the ability to work with a range of assistive devices. 

ADI and IGDF’s standards have been based on expertise and experience, although they do not necessarily reflect the research in those areas.  Peter explained that we need to recognise how research changes those things.  Animal Assisted Intervention International (AAII) has created a set of standards and has matched those against the research applicable to those areas.  To develop credibility we need to improve the way we back up standards by reference to research.  If research tells us something we don’t want to hear, we then need to develop solutions to that.

Once we have a set of training standards, we then need to consider:

  • How we are going to assess them, at various points in training?
  • Do we need a public access test?
  • Who administers the test?
  • Who holds the information?
  • Compliance with data protection laws including how long the data is held?
  • How do we make sure that any sort of assessment is not one off?
  • Building in responsibly the recognition that there comes a point where a dog retires.

Image of a happy dog lying on grass

Peter asked delegates whether there is a level of acceptance for things to be done differently.  What needs to change to recognise the different landscape such as owner-trainers?  What will be the effects of having recognised European standards?

Working Group 06 Accessibility

Judith Jones outlined the areas of interest for the Accessibility working group:

  1. Registration and identification of dogs, including self-trained dogs.
  2. Obligation and responsibility of the client to access and accessibility
  3. Promotion and education of public re access rights
  4. European travel issues and barriers
  5. Access rights for handlers of dogs in training

Registration and correct identification of dogs is necessary in order to avoid the mess that happens in the United States of America, with pigs, ostriches, and other animals as a result of the legislation recognising comfort animals.  In the USA a lot of people object to being considered disabled.  One of the reasons that the standards process failed in Canada was that users objected to too much red tape. 

So are the people who have assistance dogs prepared to do something a little different to protect properly trained assistance dogs and distinguish them from other dogs?

Karl Weissenbach, Marijan Sesar and Peter Gorbing discuss the European standard for assistance dogs

Delegates discussed the effects of having recognised European Standards

Simon Adderley asked delegates to consider whether, as an industry, we are prepared to do things differently?  The owner-trainer movement is growing, and the standards process should help with that. 

Isabel Holdsworth was excited about the prospect of the standards and felt that it would make a huge difference for owner-trainers.  She shared her own experience of being an owner-trainer.  As there was no way for her dog to be certified, she was told that her owner-trained dog was a fake. 

Pam Megahey asked about standardisation of guide dog schools and trainers.  Currently the dogs are trained and passed in-house as suitable to be guide dogs, before going out to their handlers.  She asked if there will be a body with someone from each group of assistance dog types to inspect and pass them.

Peter Gorbing explained that they haven’t got to that stage, but he doubts that it will be a European organisation to inspect that.  The standards are guidelines and governments can use the standards as a basis for legislation.  Service providers such as the aviation industry can use the standards.  In the UK there are over 7,000 assistance dogs and the government will leave assessment to industry. 

Jesús Ángel Méndez Pas referred to the system in Spain where they have 17 different regional governments.  Five of the agreed types of assistance dogs are recognised, the exception being PTSD as there are no schools of that type in Spain.  The guide dog user must accredit their dog when they finish training.  They apply to the regional government along with photos and various documents to get accreditation as a guide dog/assistance dog.  The trainer needs to be qualified to IGDF or ADI standards.  Jesús congratulated the standards committee for their work on the standards for Europe.

Isabel Holdsworth said that the traditional assistance dog model is that someone without disability trains the dog and then passes it to a person with a disability.  What are the standards doing to redress this balance and ensure that disabled people are more involved in the training process?

Peter Gorbing said that the standards in themselves aren’t going to change the way they do things, but the process of going through those discussions opens up the opportunity for us to think differently. He agreed with the need to move away from things being done to people and move towards having more involvement in the process.  He referred to his earlier point about organisations needing to think differently in the future. 

David Adams asked whether the standards would be fixed once they are established, or will they be flexible to change?  Marijan Sesar replied that every standard is updated every couple of years.

“It’s not too late to get involved through national standards bodies …”

Judith Jones

Sean Dilley said that in the UK, with some people waiting two and a half years for a guide dog, what was being done to make sure you are not tying people up with more bureaucracy?

Peter Gorbing acknowledged that creating more and more standards could make things more and more complicated.  With too many standards you do a dis-service to the users as you are thinking about the standards rather than what you are actually trying to do.  His hope was that they could define the essence and let people be creative about how it’s delivered. 

Roxana Van Mourik said that although the Dutch Association of Guide Dog Users is represented in the standardisation process, she understands that there are no users involved.  Would users be a good addition?

Marijan Sesar agreed that it would, and encouraged people to get involved and spread the word.  David Adams mentioned that the consumer organisation ANEC also represents the voice of the consumer.  Local meetings are often held by Skype or the internet, one or two hours a month.

Judith Jones confirmed that it was not too late to get involved through national standards bodies, either to the main working group or mirror working groups in each country.  Mirror working groups have the right to comment on all the documents.  There are two types of committees, national mirror committees and the CEN committee.  Users can become CEN experts and national experts.  Users can join CEN working group meetings as an expert.  Alternatively, users can attend meetings as an observer.  She encouraged delegates to join in and express their opinions to the CEN meetings or be a member of a national mirror committee.

Peter Gorbing emphasised that it is not necessary to travel around Europe to be involved.  You can be involved in your own country.  It is important that mirror committees in each country represent the widest views, including owners and trainers, in order to have legitimacy. If you want to be involved but don’t know who to get in touch with in your country, talk to us and we can help you find the appropriate routing.  

Simon asked the panel to sum up the session in one sentence: 

 Peter:         “This is a challenging opportunity but a very exciting one and do get involved.”

 Marijan:      “You stole my sentence! I reiterate Peter’s message, we would appreciate more client opinions, do welcome and motivate people from your country to get more involved.”

 Karl:           “I see this as a big chance to improve animal welfare and welfare for you as dog owners.”

Judith:        “We need a definition of ‘recognised assistance dog’ and a way of identifying properly trained dogs, whether trained in school or by the handler; a European standard can avoid the problem of fake assistance dogs which is endemic in North America.”

 Delegates Photo

The Photograph shows some of the EGDF 2019 conference delegates with their guide dogs