Aussie Researchers Want Better Job Descriptions For Support Animals

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Who doesn’t love a dog with a job?

According to the studies that used genome sequencing to figure out the history of dogs, they were the first animal to be domesticated, sometime between 33,000 and 11,000 years ago. Of course the relationship between humans and animals is a special part of history that continues evolving today.

Agriculture was the next big shift in human and animal collaboration, around 10,000 years ago. Goats were likely to be first, then sheep, chickens, and then the big guns, like oxen for ploughing and horses for transportation.

And understanding this collaborative relationship between animals is important enough that La Trobe university recently published a study calling for clearer and consistent definitions.

How Many Definitions Are There For Support Animals?

There’s a growing number of dogs with jobs out there in the past few decades.

“One thing I’ve noticed in the 20 years since I’ve been involved and I’ve had my own assistance dogs is that there are more disabilities that are being supported by service animals,” Tim McCallum told Junkee.

Tim experienced a spinal injury back when he was 18 and has worked as an advocate for assistance animals, as well as being an incredible opera singer on the side. 

“So not just seeing eye dogs or hearing dogs, there’s now physical assistance dogs and autism assistance and early education intervention.”

There have been many attempts to better define relationships between humans and their animal assistants. One set of definitions were based on what animals did, like animal-assisted therapy, or learning.

But Monash researchers want to uses terms to describe the animals themselves. The definitions were developed by a panel of 137 anthrozoology experts who attended conferences in 2018 and 2020. Based on this conference and other definitions in legal statutes, peer-reviewed scientific publications, and industry publications, the researchers developed nine recommended definitions.

There’s a table with all the definitions, like assistance animal or emotional support animal. They also have a handy flow chart to lead us to the right definition based on what the animal does.

Tim’s dog has been trained to do a whole list of tasks, including picking things up off the floor, opening and closing doors, turning lights on and off, and pressing pedestrian buttons.

“So they’re the things that I absolutely need my assistance dog to support me with.”

Why Definitions Matter For People With Support Animals

These definitions matter because it affects whether there are legal protections afforded to the owner or animal, like being in public spaces. For example, a service animal in the US and Europe usually means animals with disability assistance roles, while a service animal in the UK refers to an animal working in the military or police.

Tim points out that it helps increase understanding at many different levels of the animal assistance system.

“It helps the training organisations understand what it is that they’re providing their customers. I think it helps with legislation. I think that’s really important because that’s at a critical juncture at the moment, locally [and] internationally.”

Importantly, it helps people with assistance animals to understand their animal’s role and skills.

“My heart grows full when I see people and animals working together for a common goal. My life’s been changed because of my assistant dogs: Buster, Roxy, and Casper. I would like that to be available for everybody out there that would need it.”