Assistance Dogs: four paws are the key to active participation
Assistance Dogs: four paws are the key to active participation
Society lacks education and awareness when it comes to assistance dogs. There are also no official uniform training standards and not even the term "assistance dog" (known as a service dog in the United States) is protected: While the benefits of these four-legged helpers have been shown time and again, there is still a lack of laws and legal resources. REHACARE.com took a closer look at the obstacles people must overcome when it comes to the training and financing of this precious resource, learned about everyday challenges with an assistance dog and explored the upcoming changes in Germany.
Assistance dogs are a great help in the everyday life of people with disabilities, but still too often have to "stay outside". However, in Germany this will change with a new law. Then assistance dog owners will have a legal right to be accompanied by their helper.
For people with disabilities, a wheelchair is more than just an assistive device: they consider it a part of themselves since the technology increases their mobility, fosters their self-determination, and enables increased participation. Yet it obviously does not solve all problems. People with physical disabilities may need help with dressing and undressing or assistance if something falls on the floor. While those might seem like trivial issues for the average person, getting support makes all the difference to those in need.
Assistance dogs can be a real help in these instances. Unfortunately, you can’t just buy them at your nearest supermarket. The average cost of training a dog runs between 25,000 and 30,000 euros. While German Health insurance covers the costs of guide dogs for the blind, it does not cover the cost for service dogs. What’s even more alarming: there are no international standards that regulate the training of these dogs. The term "assistance dog" is likewise not protected. This means virtually everyone can put the "assistance dog" label on a four-legged helper and sell them to people who are in desperate need of their help.
"As a member of ADEu[Editor’s note: Assistance Dogs Europe is an umbrella organization of the national assistance dog organizations across Europe, which promote uniform high standards], we are very concerned and alarmed about the market being flooded with inadequately trained and unqualified assistance dogs due to their rise in popularity and a lack of regulations in the individual member states," Tatjana Kreidler, founder and CEO of VITA eV Assistenzhunde sums up her market observation. Part of the problem or likely one reason for this issue: German health insurance companies do not cover assistance dogs as an assistive device at this point. Only guide dog training is presently listed as an approved benefit in the assistive technology catalog.
That is why these dogs enjoy greater popularity. "There is still a lack of awareness. Not everyone is familiar with assistance dogs or has seen them in action and knows that the animals are trained to perform special important tasks," says Ulrich Zander from the WZ Hundezentrum (English: Dog Center). Nina Hoffmann, who has been living with her second assistant dog Hazel for the past year, also wished that "society would be more open-minded and tolerant towards assistance dog teams". She refers to more education, though this also applies to mandatory quality standards in terms of training, laws, and regulations. Aspects VITA e.V. has been committed to for many years.
For Anne-Mieke Kanning, having her own assistance dog would be a real game changer. But the hurdles are big at the moment. But the 21-year-old is not deterred. You can find the link to her crowdfunding in the text.
How to crowdfund for your assistance dog
It is currently very difficult to get an assistance dog, especially since the costs are a major hurdle. Something that Anne-Mieke Kanning can attest to. The 21-year-old has hip dysplasia and spasticity and has been in a wheelchair since childhood. An assistance dog would be a great solution for her: “I rely on the support of other people since I am in a wheelchair. I need help getting dressed and undressed, loading and emptying the washing machine, picking up things from the floor, opening doors, etc.” These are all tasks the support animals learn during their training. The young woman also suffers from clinical depression relapse. Since service dogs can also offer people emotional support, a four-legged helper would serve a dual purpose in this case and give the young lady a double boost.
"I know from experience that a dog can give me tremendous (self) confidence, peace of mind and a sense of security. It would enable me to venture outside and live my life with self-sufficiency and independence! I'm only 21 years old and want to live as independently and enjoy as much freedom and self-determination as possible," she adds. Something that Nina Hoffmann has also experienced along the way. Thanks to her dog, it now comes more naturally for her to go outside. Her black Labrador also makes it impossible for her to feel down or be in a bad mood. "Hazel pushes me to get up in the morning to face life’s challenges and she helps me get in touch with other people."
The training of an assistance dog is lengthy and logically also cost-intensive. For this you get not only a well-trained assistant for your everyday life, but a companion and a bridge builder.
In Germany, there are two ways to get an assistance dog: You either train your own puppy with the help of a professional dog trainer or you have the dog trained by a third party via an organization like VITA or the WZ Hundezentrum. Anyone who has ever raised a puppy knows how exhausting this job can be and how much time you have to invest before you even start with any type of training – even if you don’t have a disability. The wheelchair user candidly admits that "my physical impairment keeps me from training an assistance dog and making it pleasant for the dog at the same time."
Thanks to financial assistance from foundations, endowments, sponsors, and donations, organizations like VITA e.V. can bear the costs of dog training and care. But the COVID-19 pandemic has also left its mark on these organizations. Anne-Mieke Kanning learned that "they are struggling financially. The current waiting period for an assistance dog is three years." But this doesn’t mean the young woman has given up hope. She has launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover at least some costs herself. If you want to support her in this effort, please visit her crowdfunding page.
Incidentally, the WZ Hundezentrum also helps people in their search for sponsors or donations. So far, they have always come up with a solution because finances should never be a barrier to participation.
Recognize assistance dogs for what they are: Helpers in everyday life and trailblazers for more participation - that's what Nina Hoffmann is calling for. Her Labrador dog Hazel helped her through the pandemic.
Act for Full Participation and Equality for People with Disabilities is just a beginning
Dog owners still face other challenges, even if they can pay to train an assistance dog and the animal helper is finally ready to work. "Unfortunately, you always have stores, institutions or public parks that deny access to assistance dogs," says Nina Hoffmann. Though you can always reason with people and usually make them understand, raising awareness and educating people is not something you can or want to do all the time. The power of persuasion also often fails when it comes to doctor’s appointments or hospital visits. But for people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, medical visits are an inherent part of life or at least tend to be a more frequent event than they are for healthy people or those without disabilities. "In this context, an assistance dog not only offers key practical help but also gives emotional support to a person," Nina Hoffmann knows from first-hand experience.
That is why it is more important than ever that things are happening at the legislative level: Germany’s so-called Teilhabebestärkungsgesetz (Editor’s note: The Federal Participation Act amends several laws with the goal of strengthening the participation in society of people with disabilities and their self-determination) guarantees that all people with disabilities will soon have the legal right to use their assistance animal in all areas that are open to the general public - even in facilities that have "no pet" policies in place. The new regulations also provide a clear definition of what an assistance dog is and outline definitive training standards. To ensure a high level of training, the latter must focus on the human-dog team aspect. "The teams must be trained by a certified training facility and overseen by an independent auditor," explains Tatjana Kreidler. She is excited because "we view the draft of the Participation Act as an important and necessary signal." Thanks to VITA e.V.’s many years of experience in assistance dog training and the organization’s high standards, it was appointed to the committee of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) to provide input on the draft.
Having said that, coverage by health insurance and subsequent assistance dog approval as an assistive device is not yet earmarked for the new law. At least not yet. For now, the BMAS has commissioned a study to establish quality standards for assistance dog training to determine subsequent health insurance coverage at a later point.
There is no question that assistance dogs can be relied upon for many day-to-day activities. They are vital to people with disabilities and promote self-determination and mobility. That is why Nina Hoffmann insists that "assistance dogs should be recognized for what they are: invaluable animal helpers who offset disabilities and make their owner feel safer, happier and more independent."
Anne Hofmann (Translated by Elena O'Meara) REHACARE.com