Understanding Owner-Trained Assistance Dogs In The UK

/ by Jasper Molloy

A golden retriever in a blue assistance dog harness laying down on grass

What Is An Assistance Dog?

An assistance dog is a specially trained dog that performs a role as an auxiliary aid for a disabled individual. Assistance dogs are protected in the UK under the Equality Act 2010.

Assistance dogs can be trained to assist with a range of disabilities and can be trained by a charity, organisation or by their owner.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s advisory document on assistance dogs (Assistance dogs – A guide for all businesses) states:

“Assistance dogs are also trained to help people with hearing difficulties, epilepsy, diabetes, physical mobility problems and more. Assistance dogs carry out a variety of practical tasks for people as well as supporting their independence and confidence.”

What Can Assistance Dogs Help With?

There are a wide range of categories of assistance dogs, that aid with a variety of medical conditions, as these examples highlight. As well as physical disabilities, assistance dogs can be trained to support disabled individuals who are neurodiverse or have psychiatric disorders.

Assistance dogs can support individuals with invisible disabilities, where the handler’s condition is not immediately obvious just by looking at them, so it is always inappropriate to judge whether a handler is disabled based on their appearance.

Countless types of disabilities may have an impact on people’s daily lives, and dogs can be trained to support a large number of these conditions.

What Is The Difference Between An Assistance Dog And A Pet?

Assistance dogs are different to pet dogs and have certain rights that pet dogs do not. The EHRC explains:

“Assistance dogs are not pets and are treated as ‘auxiliary aids’. Assistance dogs are highly trained which means they: will not wander freely around the premises, will sit or lie quietly on the floor next to their owner, [and] are unlikely to foul in a public place”.

Assistance dogs usually go through extensive training to ensure they do not disrupt the public while they are working, and that they do not behave inappropriately or dangerously. This enables them to be kept under control in public places where dogs are usually unwelcome.

Assistance dogs can be any breed, and come in a wide variety of shapes, colours and sizes.

How Can I Identify An Assistance Dog?

Many assistance dog users will use equipment so that their dog is immediately identifiable as an assistance dog, either by having a harness, jacket, or lead sleeve with signage on it. Some handlers also choose to carry an ID book.

However, it must be emphasised that it is not a legal requirement for assistance dog users to have a vest on their dog or carry an ID book, as stated in the EHRC document:

“The law does not require the dog to wear a harness or jacket to identify it as an assistance dog. Some, but not all assistance dog users, will carry an ID book giving information about the assistance dog and the training organisation together with other useful information. Again, this is not a legal requirement and assistance dog users should not be refused a service simply because they do not possess an ID book.”

So there is no easy answer to the question of how to identify an assistance dog – you may not always to tell unless informed by the handler. Denying a disabled person access to a service on the basis that their assistance dog isn’t wearing a vest is classed as discrimination.

What Are Owner-Trained Assistance Dogs And How Are They Trained?

Assistance dogs that have been selected and trained by their owner are referred to as owner-trained assistance dogs (or OTADs).

Owner-trainers may do so completely independently, but it is often advised that people without previous dog training experience seek support from an organisation, charity or private trainer to help get their dog trained to the appropriate level.

Getting support from a professional trainer or organisation, or undergoing a public access test, is entirely voluntary and is not mandated by UK legislation. It is the decision of individual owner-trainers whether to do so.

Some of the reasons that people may seek support with owner-training their dog is because assistance dog training involves a high level of obedience in often very challenging environments, and many medical tasks are best introduced with the supervision of a professional to ensure they are done so safely and trained to the right standard.

Owner-training is a difficult and demanding process, which can be overwhelming for many disabled people, particularly if they have not spent much time training dogs before this.

A brown cocker spaniel sat on a path

Why Do People Owner-Train Assistance Dogs?

There are a number of charities that place assistance dogs that are already trained (pre-trained). Some of the most recognisable charities are members of the Assistance Dogs UK (ADUK) and/or Assistance Dogs International (ADI) coalitions.

However, certain specific eligibility requirements can lead to a number of disabled people being unable to access an assistance dog through the charity route.

In addition to this, many of the charities are strained in terms of meeting the current demand for assistance dogs, which can lead to long waiting times for disabled people.

Some charities and organisations providing pretrained dogs have very large upfront costs, which are a barrier for many disabled people who require their services, who may be unable to work and reliant on the limited amount they have access to through the benefits system.

While owner-training can still be very expensive, it can be a more affordable option for a lot of people.

Other individuals may have very particular needs, so a charity dog that has been through a more general training programme may not necessarily be able to accommodate these.

These individuals would benefit from having complete flexibility and control over the types of tasks and behaviours that are taught to their dog. This may be the case for many people with complex conditions and comorbidities.

Owner-training means that the tasks and behaviours can be closely tailored to fit the needs of the individual person.

The owner-training route empowers disabled people to achieve independence and freedom by training their own dog to support them with their condition(s), improving the lives of disabled people who may not have been able to access an assistance dog by other means.

There are countless reasons that someone may opt to owner-train their assistance dog, and owner-trained assistance dogs have the same rights as charity-trained ADI or ADUK dogs.

Certain charities and/or non-profit organisations offer support with owner-training too, such as Infinity Dogs CIC and Dog AID.

What Are The Challenges Of Owner-Training?

Training your own assistance dog requires a lot of time, patience and hard work. This needs to be considered if you are debating pursuing the owner-training route, and there is also the possibility that despite the amount of time, money and commitment invested into the dog, that the dog may ‘wash’ for a variety of reasons.

Not all dogs are suitable as assistance dogs – in fact, very few pet dogs are – and the process of deeming a dog unfit to continue as an assistance dog (or assistance dog in training) is referred to as ‘washing’ within the community.

While the likelihood of a pretrained dog from a charity washing is quite low, as they have been through a specialised breeding, selection, socialisation, and training process before coming to the client, the probability of an owner-trained dog washing is higher in comparison.

It is important that owner-trainers, especially those who acquire young puppies as assistance dog prospects, have a plan for the possibility that their dog turns out to be unsuitable as an assistance dog for any reason.

This is also why selection is important – finding an appropriate breeder and puppies with a solid temperament and clean health is key to setting yourself up for success.

Rescued and rehomed dogs with unknown lineage can be more of a gamble, as their health and temperament are less predictable, but sometimes appropriate candidates can come from these backgrounds too.

Comprehensive assessment of potential breeders/sources and prospective puppies/dogs is key to setting an owner-trained partnership for success from the outset, and is a service we offer our clients who are looking to owner-train an assistance dog.

The Importance Of Assistance Dogs For Their Handlers

Assistance dogs are life-changing for disabled people, empowering individuals to access the world independently and opening up tremendous possibilities that would not have otherwise been available.

For many handlers, their assistance dogs have allowed them to go outside and explore the world with freedom that would have been impossible before.

The public must understand the importance of an assistance dog to a disabled handler, and that they crucially should never distract or interfere with the dog’s work.

In a significant number of cases, interfering with an assistance dog’s work could actually lead to a life-threatening medical episode for the handler.

While the dog is distracted, a medical alert could be missed, due to the dog’s attention being drawn away from the signs of an oncoming medical event that they have been trained to look out for.

Public attitudes towards assistance dogs that lead to strangers attempting to interact with or interfere with them tend to stem from a lack of awareness, understanding and education. These incidents can be distressing, dangerous and traumatic for assistance dog handlers, who can also end up the targets of unwanted harassment while using their assistance dog in public.

Unfortunately, assistance dog handlers (charity, organisation or owner-trained alike) can face discrimination when trying to access services. These experiences are described as ‘access refusals’ within the community. A number of campaigns and organisations strive to fight against this, including the disability advocacy service P.A.D – Policies for Assistance Dogs.


For more information about assistance dogs, owner-training and the law, we recommend looking at some of the following resources:

If you are looking for support with owner-training your assistance dog, please get in touch and find out how we can help. To find out about other assistance dog training options that may be available to you, please visit CATE UK’s Training Provider List.

This blog post was written based on our interpretation of the current UK legislation (last reviewed 23rd February 2024) and is not intended as a substitute for professional legal advice.