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Service dogs, assistance animals and companion animals on campus

Education and training providers receive regular requests from students and staff to bring animals on to campus. Some responses are straightforward – is it a trained and qualified guide dog (also known as an assistance animal or service animal) for a student, staff member or visitor who is blind, vision or hearing impaired? Then the answer would be an automatic yes. 

Beyond that, many disability practitioners may find the issue difficult and confusing, with practice inconsistency in the sector. But it needn't be – there is sufficient guidance in the law and established practice to frame your response to any request.

Australia has been conservative in the legal parameters around assistance animals and doesn't legally recognise companion animals in any legal sense. This conservative approach to assistance animals is of benefit to disability practitioners in the education settings, since extremely liberal definitions and practices in the United States of America has led to students attending classes with a range of animals including miniature horses, rats, hamsters and cats, all being described as ‘emotional support animals’, ‘therapy animals’ or ‘companion animals’ for people with various disabilities, but particularly psychiatric conditions. The Americans with Disabilities Act has had to be revised to restrict recognition for assistance animals to those who have undergone recognised training, and which serve a purpose in a particular setting. 

We also have some FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) for further information

The legal definition of an assistance animal

Under Section 9(2) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, an assistance animal is a dog or other animal that is:

  1. accredited under a State or Territory law that provides for the accreditation of animals trained to assist a persons with a disability to alleviate the effect of the disability; or
  2. accredited by an animal training organisation prescribed by the regulations for the purposes of this paragraph; or
  3. trained:
    1. to assist a person with disability to alleviate the effect of the disability, and
    2. to meet standards of hygiene and behaviour that are appropriate for an animal in a public place.

Further, treating a person with disability less favourably because they are accompanied by a guide dog, hearing assistance dog or any other trained and accredited assistance animal is unlawful. The Act recognises that people with a range of disabilities other than vision and hearing impairments derive valuable assistance from appropriately trained dogs. 

A man with a vision impairment is walking along a path. He has a cane to guide him and is also holding the lead of his guide dog - a blonde labrador.

Why have an assistance animal?

Over generations we have become used to people who are blind using a guide dog. In more recent times, the value of assistance animals to support and keep safe people with a range of disabilities has been recognised. This may include:

  • people with physical disabilities who use dogs for assistance with mobility and with carrying or retrieving objects 
  • people living with episodic conditions such as epilepsy or blood pressure issues who use assistance dogs to alert them in advance of an episode so that they can situate themselves safely and to care for them during an episode 
  • people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and severe anxiety is also growing.

Assistance Animals and Companion Animals – the same thing?

A simple answer to this question is no – in most jurisdictions. But with many clauses in the DDA, it is defined only by precedent case law.   

A review of Section 9(2) of the DDA, conducted in 2003, concluded that there is a distinction between assistance animals and animals used for the provision of comfort and reassurance alone (often called companion animals or emotional support animals). Almost all submissions stated that this distinction should be maintained in the interests of public acceptance of assistance dogs. 

A 2019 report by LaTrobe University for the NDIS looked at the common terminology and definitions for different types of animals used by people with disability and their effectiveness in support for people with disability, training required and public access. This report’s recommendations are consistent with the Review of Section 9(2) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

For example, a dog which is trained to provide assistance to a person with a psychiatric disability in respect of the disability would be an assistance dog within the meaning of DDA Section 9(2) and should be recognised as such so long as evidence can be provided that the dog in fact provides such assistance and has appropriate training, behaviour and hygiene. 

The DDA does also not specify the type of certification an assistance animal is required, the qualifications of a trainer, or regulatory bodies providing certification. This does not mean however that a companion animal may not be considered, as the DDA has not been amended to an extent sufficient to define this issue clearly enough to prevent any legal challenges. However, it is useful to return to the DDA Section 9(2c) and education and training providers need to make individual judgements based on the evidence provided by each applicant.

Practical applications for the Disability Practitioner

Policy framework

Many institutions have written policies, procedures and forms that cover assistant animals, animals on campus, registering for disability support including registering assistant animals, and risk assessment documents (especially for specific learning activities, work-integrated learning activities, or training activities). 

It is recommended that education providers have clear policies and procedures available to prospective and current students and staff, and visitors. This framework ensures that:

  • legislative responsibilities in relation to access, equity and reasonable adjustments are complied with for persons with an assistance animal
  • students, staff and visitors with an assistance animals feel supported and are not discriminated against
  • all health and safety considerations are considered for the person with the assistance animal and the animal itself
  • all health and safety considerations are considered for all students, staff, and visitors
  • natural flora and fauna, facilities and campus environment are protected.

Some examples of educational providers with assistant animal policies are listed below.

    Points to consider

    The following points should be considered in developing an institutional response to requests for assistance animals within the context of Section 9 of the Disability Discrimination Act and the Disability Standards for Education (DSE).

    Legal considerations

    • The legal precedent set by Sheehan v Tin Can Bay Country Club means that education and training providers cannot require that an assistance animal be physically restrained. If the student can demonstrate that the animal is sufficiently controlled by vocal command and is toilet trained, then a leash or harness should not be required (DDA Section 54(8).3). Evidence might include a practical demonstration in a simulated environment, a statutory declaration, provision of references and/or certificates of training. The requirement for obedience to vocal command would normally exclude cats and other animals as assistance animals.
    • Any assistance animal brought onto campus can be required to wear identification that would mark it as a trained assistance animal. While there is no specific guidance on minimum requirements for training an assistance animal or on the accreditation of trainers it is recommended that this be requested as a part of health and safety and risk mitigation. Education providers should consider making it clear that their preference is for assistance animals trained and accredited by pre-determined organisations. Refer to Australian Government Disability Gateway for a list of organisations.
    • As with any reasonable adjustment, the institution’s Disability Service can require that the person with disability provides evidence of their need for the assistance animal to attend campus with them. This recommendation is consistent under Section 9(2) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 relating to its effectiveness in alleviating disability and meeting standards of hygiene and behaviour.

      Reasonable adjustments

      • The same process applied to any reasonable adjustment should be followed and outlined on a Learning Access Plan. Details of the assistance animal would include information about training, vaccinations and registration as well as the supports the assistance animal provides to the student. This is especially important in environments where mobility of staff and students or use of potentially dangerous substances may be an issue (e.g., laboratories, accommodation, workshops or practice studios, or where other animals might be housed).
      • The provisions relating to assistance animals do not affect the liability of a person for damage to property caused by an assistance animal. Policies should include reference to owner’s responsibilities. While Practitioners may wish to check with their own legal department about any liability issues it is still important to be aware of the legal right for people with disability to be provided with reasonable adjustments by way of their assistance animal.
      • Published policies should include contact persons so prospective and current persons with disability can access relevant information and support. For example, Disability Officers for students and Human Resources or Equal Opportunity representatives for staff.
      • Arrangements should be made for orientation to campus. In the case of most providers of guide or assistance dogs, this can be provided by the organisation that provides the dog. In other cases, orientation may need to be provided by staff or trained and designated student volunteers.
      • Regular communication and training to the institution’s community is useful in terms of how people should interact with guide or assistance dogs. This includes teaching and learning staff, peers or colleagues who are supporting or interacting with a person with disability and making appropriate arrangements for animals in teaching and workspaces. There is useful information about guide dog etiquette below.

        Animal certification and wellbeing

        • A certificate from a veterinarian identifying the animal's vaccinations and current health status should be provided.
        • Assistance dogs should have local government registration to ensure that it is an approved breed and doesn’t have any history of aggressive behaviour towards people and other animals. There are several restricted dog breeds in Australia which vary state to state.
        • Specific areas should be designated for toileting and relief of the assistance animal. These would include a space for toileting, water and waste disposal. On a large campus, several locations may need to be designated, with care to ensure that they are available close to where students and staff with assistance animals are located.
        • Consideration needs to be given to the welfare of the assistance animal as well. Education providers should have policies or guidelines governing animal welfare. The RSPCA has some useful information on welfare issues for assistance animals that should be considered in risk management plans.

        • Work is currently being undertaken to develop certification for trainers of animal assistance dogs, see information below.

          It is not unlawful to discrimination against a person using an assistance animal if:

          • the assistance animal is reasonably suspected of having an infectious disease;
          • discrimination is necessary to protect public health or the health of other animals; or
          • if the person with the assistance animal fails to produce evidence that the animal:
            • is an assistance animal; or
            • is trained to meet standards of hygiene and behaviour appropriate for an animal in a public place (s 54A(6)).

          The impact on the health and wellbeing of staff and students may also need to be considered.  For example, phobias and allergies may make the presence of an assistance animal a hazard under provisions of Work Health and Safety legislation.  Health and safety hazards can override rights under the DDA and Disability Standards for Education.

          Find out more information via our FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

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