Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 19 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Assistance Dogs in Ireland: Discussion
Our second session today is to discuss the increasingly important role played by assistance dogs in helping a range of families across our communities and the measures needed to regulate for quality assistance dogs to play a caring, therapeutic role into the future. We are joined by representatives of the Irish Assistance Dogs umbrella group, which represents a number of organisations working with assistance dogs. I welcome Dr. Louise Burgoyne from University College Cork, UCC, who is carrying out research into best practice in the area, Ms Jennifer Dowler, CEO of Irish Dogs for the Disabled and Mr. Andrew Geary, parent representative with Irish Dogs for the Disabled. I thank Mr. Geary for his assistance in organising today's meeting.
I also welcome Ms Lean Kennedy, Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, Ms Nuala Geraghty, Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland, and Ms Sinead Dutton, My Canine Companion, who will participate in the questions and answers session after the opening statements. I also welcome some special guests in the Visitors Gallery, in particular Oisín and his dog Oscar and Olivia and her dog Fifi.
I remind the committee and our witnesses of the position regarding privilege. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Dr. Burgoyne to make her opening remarks. She has approximately four minutes for her presentation.
Dr. Louise Burgoyne:
On behalf of the Irish Assistance Dogs umbrella group, I thank the committee for inviting us to make these presentations. I will brief the committee on the current research in the sector and our work within the umbrella group. The positive effects of assistance dogs, AD, programmes have generated considerable interest and enthusiasm from care givers, service providers and researchers. I have provided supplementary information to the committee so members can refer to that for references to the published literature. Essentially, there is a need for more rigour in this evidence base and a greater clarity on the deployment of resources in this area. To this end, researchers at UCC are working within this new umbrella group to strengthen the understanding of the impacts of AD services on family functioning.
Ireland has been at the forefront in the development of assistance dogs programmes. Launched in 2005, the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind assistance dogs programme for families of children with autism spectrum disorder, ASD, was the first of its kind in Europe. Since then there has been a surge in development, resulting in the establishment of three more charities in the area. Our research to date with members of this group has included an evaluation of parents' perceptions of assistance dogs for families with children with ASD. Our findings indicate that they are a valuable resource for families.
On the basis of this study, we developed a protocol and we were funded by the Irish Research Council to carry out a user-led needs assessment of AD services in Ireland. The findings indicate that while the need to protect children from environmental hazards are currently being met outside the home, there is a need to sustain child safety within the home, a need for increased access to these services and a need for additional resources. There is also a role for technology in the development of AD services in Ireland. We are currently seeking funding opportunities to carry out a complete economic evaluation to estimate the costs associated with these services, the cost effectiveness and the cost per quality adjusted life year, or QALY. We have recently engaged as well with the life sciences interface group at Tyndall National Institute with regard to increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of ADs using advanced technological solutions.
The committee can refer to the supplementary slides in respect of this also.
Currently there are 188 service animal interventions registered with the international standards body Assistance Dogs International, ADI. Assistance dogs include guide dogs for the vision impaired, hearing dogs for the hearing impaired and assistance dogs for people with other disabilities such as autism. I will now give the committee some definitions because it is important to clarify what kind of dogs are involved in certain interventions. There are three formal groupings of animal-assisted interventions which involve dogs. We have service-animal programmes, with which we are most familiar and include guide dogs and assistance dogs. These assist people in their daily lives and live in-house with them. We have animal-assisted activities which are delivered by trained personnel in environments such as hospitals and educational settings. A good example is a therapy dog trained to provide affection and comfort to patients in nursing homes. We also have animal-assisted therapies, which are practised by professionals, including psychologists, psychiatrists and occupational therapists, and have individualised therapy goals. The goal is on improving physical, social and cognitive functioning. An example is an occupational therapist who may work to promote fine motor skill development in a child via a series of structured tasks with a dog. A "companion dog" describes a dog that provides companionship as a pet and is akin to the family dog.
I will now pass the committee over to Ms Dowler who will talk a little further about the umbrella group charities.
Ms Jennifer Dowler:
I thank the committee for having us here today and congratulate Dr. Burgoyne on her presentation. I will talk about the history of assistance dogs. Assistance dogs originated with the guide dog after World War One. Approximately 40 years ago the broader concept of assistance dogs was developed. Assistance dogs are trained to assist people with a wide variety of disabilities. We have the guide dog, which is trained specifically to assist people with visual impairment. The hearing dog assists people with hearing impairment. Assistance dogs, also known as service dogs, cover all other areas.
I will introduce to the committee the charities we represent. Irish Dogs for the Disabled is a national charity which trains assistance dogs for children and adults living with physical disabilities so that they can achieve greater independence. Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind is the longest acting assistance dog-guide dog organisation in Ireland. It was founded in 1976 and helps the blind and visually impaired as well as children with autism and their families. My Canine Companion was set up in 2011. Its main purpose is to provide highly trained and skilled service dogs for people with autism. Autism Assistance Dogs Ireland is a national charity which trains assistance dogs for children with autism and their families. In addition to the group, the Irish Kennel Club promotes responsible ownership and breeding of dogs throughout Ireland through education, registration, training and support. In 2014 a coalition known as Irish Assistance Dogs was formed to encourage the exchange of ideas and best practice among its members, raise awareness among the general public and promote behavioural and legislative change to ensure that vulnerable clients and adults are protected within the sector.
All the groups have agreed to the standards set down by Assistance Dogs International and are fully accredited or in the process of being fully accredited. The accreditation process covers standards in the following areas: administration, client training, training of dogs, health and welfare of dogs, staff training and volunteers, facilities, prison programmes, self-certification and privately trained assistance dogs teams.
We are here today because there is a need for change in the law. Currently, all laws regarding public access pertain specifically to guide dogs for the visually impaired although keepers of assistance dogs are exempt from being prosecuted for keeping a dog on a property where food is being supplied. Our group believes assistance dog users need the same legal rights of access as guide dog users; all organisations, be they not for profit or private, must ensure that public liability insurance is provided for all qualified assistance dog partnerships upon graduation; all organisations must, as a priority, ensure the welfare and safety of both the client and the dog at all times and ensure that proper procedures are in place to address any problems that would arise in this area; all current allowances received from Revenue to guide dog users should be extended to all assistance dog users; and all assistance dogs should be exempt from the dog licence requirement, which is the case with guide dogs.
The group is proposing an individual passport-style document would be issued to each ADI certified partnership to assist in the identification of genuine partnerships. Our greatest concern is the increasing number of companies selling assistance dog-style jackets and branded materials and the ease with which anyone can acquire these items. Our fear is that insufficiently trained dogs will behave in a manner which will affect access for all certified assistance dog partnerships.
Mr. Andrew Geary:
I thank the committee for its invitation to address it and Ronan and Denis for their great assistance in putting together our presentation. I am here as a parent. The first thing I will point out are the enormous benefits to a family having an assistance dog. It allows the family to behave more as a family and allows a person to socialise and go to places which may have not been possible before becoming part of an assistance dog partnership. Many trips to local restaurants or on a plane or ferry would be impossible without the assistance dog partnership. Assistance dog partnerships provide health benefits as both emotional and physical needs are met and this is evident from international and national studies.
There are two distinct groups of parents in the assistance dog sector. There are approximately 450 lucky parents who are part of an assistance dog partnership. They have received dogs from the charities represented here today. These dogs have been fully trained over the course of at least two years before being placed with the family. However, these lucky people are facing problems they have not faced before. The problems relate to access to restaurants, public parks and transport. The problems have only come to light of late in this country because such a high standard had been set in relation to guide dogs and all assistance dog charities inherited the standard. There are a number of other issues for the lucky families. All the charities are financed through voluntary and charitable work. I help Ms Dowler's charity on numerous occasions throughout the year. This is illustrative of all parents in partnerships in the sector. Parents are out fundraising even though we all have children with a disability, be it physical or another type of disability such as autism. There are many wants and needs for those children.
There are also unlucky families who have not been able to get onto waiting lists. Charities are under pressure to produce partnerships but they must at all times maintain the minimum standards. There are at least 700 unlucky children on the waiting list in the sector. Those people are being targeted by the non-charity sector. Enormous amounts of cash have been handed over and there is no recourse for the families except that provided by contract law. All of the charities have been forced to close their waiting lists given the pressure on them. The charities cannot allow their standards to slip because those standards are international standards. We want to ensure all our dogs are accepted. I took a partnership dog to the UK last year. There was no problem with the dog's accreditation because the standards applied in Ireland were known.
I ask the Oireachtas to consider this issue from a parent's point of view. We ask it to review the legislation in place and take account of practice in the English speaking world where legislation has been enacted in the equality or equal status sphere where guaranteed access is approved and penalties apply where there is a lack of access to transport and accommodation. We also ask the Oireachtas to protect the service retail industry in this context by ensuring it knows that in this sector we provide dogs trained to the highest standard to ensure it will recognise the accreditation involved in the sector.
We represent a number of disability groups. We ask the Oireachtas to focus on what is required, but there is also a need to focus on what will be required in the future. There is no hearing dog assistance charity in the Republic of Ireland. As Dr. Burgoyne outlined, there are a number of other avenues our near neighbours in the United Kingdom have examined in the medical detection field.
I have no questions because this issue is self-explanatory, but I took a great interest in Joe Duffy's recent coverage of the Service Dogs Europe issue. It was one of the best and most important examples of public service broadcasting in recent times. I do not if it has done much damage to the sector in which our guests are involved, but it has clearly done much damage to those who have been affected by it. In the light of what the Vice Chairman said, it might not be appropriate for Mr. Geary to comment as the matter may be before the courts, as I presume it is. The value of our guests coming before the committee is that it highlights the issue for the Oireachtas.
I was not overly aware of the access issues involved. If there is more information available, I would be very interested to hear about any instance privately, even if Mr. Geary is not prepared to give the information in public. I certainly was not aware that this was an issue, as I have not received complaints about it. I am, therefore, shocked to hear about it and I am not sure what we can do about it. Clearly, the sector needs a huge amount of funding. We have neighbours who are apparently on a waiting list for an assistance dog for a child with autism. People have been let down by the company in Dundalk and I do not know where we go from here. Are there many private operators involved in this sector or are all of the operators charities? When I first heard about the issue in Dundalk, I was not aware that it was a business. I had always assumed that it was a charitable endeavour.
Mr. Andrew Geary:
Luckily for us, the vast majority of dogs placed in this country have been placed by charities. However, what has happened in Ireland has been replicated in every other democracy in that when waiting lists cannot be met, this type of operator takes advantage of the situation and that is when problems with access occur. There was no problem until this year, but our service and partnerships are definitely encountering difficulties in public parks, a place where one would never expect to have a difficulty with an assistance dog, and shopping centres.
That is appreciated. I may have to leave as I am due to speak to speak shortly in the Dáil.
I welcome our visitors. I thank Dr. Burgoyne and Ms Dowler for their very informative presentations.
A representative called to my consistency office some time ago about this matter and made me aware of the difficulties arising in that respect. Guide dogs and assistance dogs are very important for the families and individuals who require them. What sources of funding do the various organisations represented have? Is it all on a charitable basis? Are there individual contributions or are public funds made available to any of the various organisations represented here?
Is there a national scheme to fund the training of assistance dogs and, if so, it is recognised legally? I certainly was not aware that there was a big difficulty with access, although the issue has been raised in the media in more recent times. Does the difficulty concern the number of guide dogs and assistance dogs available?
Ms Dowler has said changes in the law are required. Has there been consultation with the Government or the Department responsible? If not, today's presentation marks the start of such consultation. I know that the committee will be supportive of the presentation made, as well as of the requests made by our guests.
I thank our guests for coming. It has taken me a year to get them here and I was trying to do so before the issue arose on Joe Duffy's radio programme.
I would like a member of the panel to explain how important it is for a child with autism to have an assistance dog and to talk about how the life of a family and, more importantly, the child is transformed. I do not think people understand this. I have to put up my hand and say I did not understand it - I was a school principal in charge of 600 plus children - until I saw how it had transformed a child's life in the home. People will be listening to these proceedings or may track them at a later stage. It is important, therefore, that this information be outlined for the families concerned and also on the issue of access and the problems people encounter in travelling on public transport and retail shops. We all talk about this issue but not too many really understand it.
I heard Mr. Andrew Geary being interviewed on "Morning Ireland" and what he had to say here about training hearing assistance dogs. It was new to me. I did not know about it until I spoke to him and I have spoken to him on numerous occasions by telephone. I became interested in it when one of my constituents contacted me and talked about the third issue in an article that had been submitted. It concerns the current allowances granted by Revenue for guide dogs. People with assistance dogs for children with autism do not receive the same revenue allowances as others. For the information of those listening to these proceedings who are interested in this issue, the dogs are very sensitive in terms of their diet. They have to be taken to the vet and are not a family pet. They are well trained and their diets, if not properly controlled, can completely wreck or change them.
It was not until I heard the Joe Duffy show that I realised there were other operators - the rogue operators as Mr. Geary described them. That is not good enough. It is very expensive to train these dogs and parents of children with special needs cannot afford to fork out money for something that is not going to work for them and that will cause more hassle in their lives. For the benefit of anyone following these proceedings who is interested in this issue, there is a lovely summary in an article of how an assistance dog can change the life a child with autism. It states: "As a result of the use of the dog, the child often begins paying attention to other people, sometimes even engaging and speaking to them".
Children who have been uncommunicative for years can begin to make friends. For many parents, this is little short of a miracle - one that is only possible through the support of the organisations concerned. I saw that happen in a constituent's house. I saw how things were both before and after the child became attached to the dog. I could not believe it. It transformed things. It was a miracle. We want to do the best for the organisations and resolve the different issues that emerged during the summer. I am interested in how education leaders understand how a dog can transform a child's life. Perhaps the dog should be allowed in the school environs. Perhaps that is what we need to think of. I would like the witnesses to address that aspect.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations and all the work they are doing. It might be helpful if we could get some idea of the total number of dogs, ranging from assistance dogs to dogs for the blind. What kind of numbers are we talking about? If we wanted to meet all of the targets, what numbers would we need to train every year from now on in respect of dogs for the blind and assistance dogs for people with any kind of disability?
In respect of a change in legislation where recognition is given to dogs for the blind but not assistance dogs, it might be appropriate for the committee to write to the Department. I presume it is a matter for the Department of Health. Have the witnesses identified the legislation that needs to be amended? Is it a case of introducing an amended Bill or do we need to introduce a range of new legislation to deal with this issue. Do other issues need to be dealt with? Rather than doing it in a piecemeal way, do we need to do it in a comprehensive way?
When one looks at the progress that has been made by the different groups in Ireland, how far behind the UK are we? It is only in the past ten years that we have moved away from the belief that guide dogs are only for people with a visual impairment. We are moving into a range of other disabilities, which has only happened in the past ten years. We are still a bit behind the UK. Could the witnesses outline the new developments that occurred in the UK in this area? It would be helpful in terms of planning a programme in this country over the next five to ten years.
Are we talking about legislation or the Revenue Commissioners changing some of their rules? If we want assistance dogs to be exempt from dog licensing, can this be done through the Revenue Commissioners and would it be a case of no more than the current allowances for guide dog users being extended to all assistance dogs? I would think this rule is coming from the Revenue Commissioners.
We had an engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, before this meeting. Reflecting on some of the questions asked by Senator Burke and Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, there is no one Department that will resolve this issue. It seems that there are issues for the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Finance in terms of equality and the Revenue issue. The discussion with the Minister of State focused on the fact that there is no one section of Government dealing with the far-ranging issues relating to disability. This engagement further highlights the fact. Just totting up the Departments, the dog licence issue is probably dealt with by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Could the witnesses indicate who wants to respond because there are a lot of far-reaching questions?
Ms Lean Kennedy:
I will not name the four dog schools again but we are coming here today as a coalition. The Vice Chairman is right in saying that this involves different Departments. Guide dogs are mentioned in legislation like the Control of Dogs Act. This comes under the remit of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Blind and visually impaired persons who have a guide dog get a guide dog allowance to feed and care for their dog. The Equal Status Acts come under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. People with assistance dogs have rights of access under the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2011. We did work with the Department of Health which trickled down to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Environmental Health Officers Association where they included assistance dogs for children with autism and companion dogs for people with other disabilities in their guidelines on food hygiene regulations. We have access.
Somebody asked about the UK. A similar situation pertains there. Assistance Dogs UK is a coalition there. The Equality Act was introduced in the UK in 2010. This Act is modelled on the Equal Status Acts 2000 to 2011. The terminology is very much the same. Service providers must make reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities. They must recognise that an assistance or guide dog is essential to their owner. They are essential mobility and safety aids. As they are exempt from food hygiene regulations, there is no reason not to allow dogs. This is what we are asking for today. We are asking for assistance dogs to be formally included in legislation. In respect of the Control of Dogs Act, we have carried out awareness work with dog wardens and we have a lot of good will from them. They are looking at ways of changing local authority bylaws to include assistance dogs. We are trying to engage all the Departments to create awareness that assistance dogs, particularly dogs for children with autism, need to be formally included in legislation so that we are all reassured that families with assistance dogs will get the same rights and allowances that guide dog owners get.
We are also here to assure everyone that the four schools all meet the highest standards of training, veterinary care and grooming. We all work together and meet the same standards. I assure businesses that assistance dogs meet the same requirements as guide dogs and are just as essential to their owners. I hope this answers the questions.
Ms Sinéad Dutton:
We have had Oscar for four years. Before we had him, we could not go to Dundrum and today, my son is in the Oireachtas. He has just stepped outside to go to the bathroom. We travel on the Luas and visit public places. He asked for a coffee outside earlier. We were in Buswells Hotel this morning. It has really changed our lives. It is amazing. We bring Oscar everywhere. He comes on holiday with us. He goes on trips to Tesco with us. He is everywhere. He has had a huge impact on all our lives, particularly on Oisín but also on the older sibling who is 15 and who can now go to the cinema. Before that, we had to say that we could not go because it was too noisy, the lights went down, it was dark and Oisín would not be happy having people around. Now if he is unsure, you will see him. His hand will drop down and he will gently stroke Oscar. Before we had Oscar, I remember an incident in a crowded elevator where people would bunch in together. Oisín kicked out his leg at someone who was getting too close and invading his personal space.
Oscar now acts as a natural barrier to ensure Oisín has that personal space.
Ms Nuala Geraghty:
Ms Dutton has covered most of the benefits assistance dogs bring to families. I can only go on the feedback I get from the people who use our services, but it is really about the very simple things we take for granted like a trip to the local shop to pick up milk and bread. These activities can be very stressful for the parents of children with autism. I recall a parent telling me about the first trip to the shop with her child after the assistance dog had arrived. Her words were: "I get it now." The child was attached to the dog and could not run out onto the main road. The mother did not have to keep hold of his hand, throw her money at the cashier and run out of the shop. For the first time, she could stop, get her money out of her purse and talk to the person behind the counter before walking calmly out of the shop. It is those everyday activities which most of us take for granted that are huge for families which include a child with autism.
Safety, of course, is the most important issue. I am sure Ms Dutton will agree that parents find they are much more relaxed when they go out because the child is attached to the dog and there is no longer a requirement to hold onto the child's hand for dear life. That makes an everyday trip a relaxed event as opposed to being very stressful. Before getting the assistance dog, a lot of parents had stop taking their children out because it was simply too stressful. In many cases, one parent had to do the shopping, for example, alone, while the other members of the family stayed at home.
An issue that needs to be emphasised is the importance of early intervention. The younger the child is when he or she gets an assistance dog, the better the results that can be achieved. We do get good results with older children, but where we can place dogs with families from the time the child is four or five years, he or she will get used to going out and may not go on to develop some of the behaviours that make it very difficult for parents to partake in everyday trips.
Dr. Louise Burgoyne:
The use of assistance dogs is quite new to the research scene, but there is emerging literature which shows that they are a very valuable resource. To sum it up in one sentence, the dog acts as a bridge between the person with the disability and society. As Ms Dutton and Ms Geraghty explained, the dogs ground the person and allow him or her to function independently in society. I am sure Ms Dowler will give examples of how that works for people with physical disabilities.
There was a question about whether we had received funding for our study which focused on children with autism. We received a little funding from the Irish Research Council, about which we were delighted. The study involved making an assessment of parents' needs and what we found was that basic needs were being met in that the child was grounded and could not bolt. In short, the dog acts as an anchor. How it works is that the handler gives commands to the dog, the child being attached to the dog either by holding a handle or by a leash and belt system. Our study showed that needs were being met outside the home in terms of the dog being able to ground the child, prevent bolting and function as a source of calm and comfort. However, there also are needs to be met within the home, particularly in regard to safety. There is work to be done in assessing how assistance dog services might help to meet these needs.
The needs assessment also highlighted the importance of utilising new technologies. We have just started working with staff at the Tyndall National Institute to explore ideas around how we can maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of assistance dogs by using advanced technological solutions such as sensors. There is the potential, for instance, to develop a type of early warning system for parents. If a child is going to go into meltdown and the parent has not picked up on it, although most learn to pick up on it very quickly, the dog might be able to alert the parent to what is happening. We find the dogs cue on things we do not even notice. It is a question of harnessing that ability to make the dogs more effective.
In terms of the literature in general, most of it is extremely positive, as I said in my opening statement. We do, however, need greater rigour as to methodology to be used. A randomised control trial is required to show that an assistance dogs service really works. We also need to make a full economic evaluation. We are seeking funding to that end.
Ms Jennifer Dowler:
At Irish Dogs for the Disabled, we do not deal with autism but solely with physical disabilities. We train two types of assistance dog, namely, a stability dog for children like Olivia who has difficulties in walking and, second, a dog for wheelchair users which is required to be able to open doors, turn on and off light switches, trigger alarms and so on. Olivia would not be able to walk down the steps today without her dog. When she came to us for training last summer, she could only walk for about ten or 15 minutes while holding her mother's hand. Last weekend she walked 5 km. That is the difference a dog makes. We work with a lot of children who were told they would never walk and who are now walking. Moreover, their gait has improved, their heels are on the ground and they are getting stronger and taller. Our concern is for physical improvement, getting people stronger and more active in society and achieving their full potential. If somebody catches Olivia's shoulder as he or she walks by, having her dog with her means that she will not fall to the ground. If she does, she can get back up unassisted rather than have somebody pick her up.
For wheelchair users, having an assistance dog means they can get themselves out of bed in the morning if their special needs assistant does not turn up. They can turn on the light. If they fall out of their wheelchair, they can access emergency services because the dog will hit the alarm button. They can let the emergency services enter their home because the dog can open the door. We are now putting dogs into primary and secondary schools and workplaces. They are allowing people who previously could not leave their home to play a full part in society. They no longer have to worry about falling out of their wheelchair because even if that were to happens, their dog would get help for them. If they drop their wallet or keys, the dog will pick it or them up. Rather than looking at a future in she would be wheelchair bound, Olivia can now look to a future in which she will be able to walk down the aisle to get married. That is the difference an assistance dog can make and I see it all the time with our clients. The dogs are truly life changing. Our clients are often quite sceptical initially when they get the dogs because our style of training is quite new. Many parents have faced years of seeing their children get worse and worse, their high muscle tone increase and their becoming, as a result, more disabled. When the dog arrives, the child suddenly can walk to the bathroom or around a shopping centre. It is quite a simple process in that once children start moving and walking, the stronger they become and the stronger they become, the more they move. Our clients could not conceive of being without their dogs.
Ms Lean Kennedy:
Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind was founded in 1976, since when it has been training guide dogs for people who are blind and vision impaired. People know that guide dogs are essential to their vision impaired owners and it is the same with the assistance dogs we provide for children with autism. We speak to families every day who tell us how the dogs have changed their lives. As other speakers have outlined, many people were not able to go out together as a family for fear the child with autism would bolt or have a meltdown.
They had to reorganise their lives completely. Sometimes a parent would stay at home with an autistic child so that the other parent could bring the other children out to do a family activity. Now the family is united because the parents do not have to think about it any more. They can rely on the assistance dog; their child is attached to it and it keeps the child safe and acts as an anchor so that the child cannot bolt. The dog is also an aid to keeping the child calm so that he or she is not over-stimulated by noise and everything that is going on in public places. We would not pick up on those things so much but children with autism are very sensitive to them. The dog gives the child confidence and calmness. Everybody in the family can get on with their lives knowing that the child is safe. It is absolutely life changing.
Mr. Andrew Geary:
If I could address the question about where we are compared with the UK, I have studied the models across the world from a parent's perspective, although I am totally new to all this. Although we were number one in Europe in 2005, we have slipped off that radar. We were the first in Europe to have an autism assistance dog programme and now, as Deputy Mitchell O'Connor highlighted, the UK has 1,000 hearing dogs while we have one in the country at present, in Dublin, which was provided by a UK charity. Ms Dowler is kindly training one as an example to prove it is possible. She has enough other disabilities to cover that it will not be part of her list.
Looking at the English-speaking world from a parent's perspective, there is a lot more protection for me if I am refused in New Zealand, Australia, Canada or the UK compared to here. The legislation there is very similar to that which was drafted here, as Ms Kennedy highlighted. It is in either the equality or the equal status Acts generally, and is piggybacked onto previous legislation. The UK put its legislation around assistance dogs in place in 2009 and it is already out of date because the country has suffered with the rogue element. Almost everywhere there is an assistance dog programme, there is a problem with it.
There was a question from Deputy Healy about numbers. We have about 650 working dog partnerships in the country, including guide dogs and assistance dogs. The demand is infinitely greater than that. We have at least 750 on our waiting lists for assistance dogs for children on the autism spectrum. Only My Canine Companion will deal with children beyond the four to seven age range. There needs to be research into whether the dog would continue to provide health and physical benefits beyond that.
I am involved with the Cork Deaf Association and other deaf charities. Going by demographics, if there are 1,000 dogs to a population of 60 million in the UK and if we divide that number by 12, we would probably need between 80 and 100 hearing dogs in Ireland. In the UK, those hearing dogs are broken down into 150 dogs for children and about 850 for adult partnerships. After guide dogs for the blind, the second biggest need internationally is for hearing dogs.
I am involved with the criminal justice system in my full-time job and I am delighted that Assistance Dogs International, ADI, is providing a very strong baseline for our charities here. They are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Two of them are formally approved by ADI and the other two are in the partnership scheme and on the way to full approval. Thanks to the Irish Kennel Club and Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind we expect to bring another expert from ADI from Europe to meet with our umbrella group in the new year. We had a conference last year which was addressed by the chairperson of the European side of Assistance Dogs International. Senator Colm Burke was present on that day.
As regards legislation, there is a need to protect parents. The standards set by our charities are so high but there is a need to protect people from going down the route of the rogue operator. According to the legislation in New Zealand, there are no recognised partnerships other than those approved by the legislature. The dog partnership charity or company has to be ADI approved, as a minimum, in order to get state permission to travel around that country.
That was my thinking on how to protect parents. As a parent myself, if I think something is going to make my child's life better, I am going to walk over hot coals to do it. If there are people listening now who are frustrated by the waiting list and see time slipping away, what should they be looking for to ensure what they are getting is what they need?
Mr. Andrew Geary:
They should look for the Assistance Dogs International badge on the jackets of all our workers once the charities all have full approval. That is the minimum. They should go to a charity that has Assistance Dogs International clearance or partnership status. There are three different charities focusing on autism spectrum disorders. Parents then have to match the options to the needs of their child. Our umbrella group is hoping to come up with a joint application form in the new year. The process is in the very early stages. There is some cross-contamination of waiting lists. If I need a dog for my child, I might have applied to three of the charities to get on all three waiting lists. We are trying to address that.
We need the State to look into formalising how an assistance dog is recognised. In some countries they even have the likes of the HSE inspect the partnership to determine if it is up to standard and whether the provider can have public rights access across the state.
My second question was about the sale of clothing with words on it. I would be interested to hear about that. Am I right in saying that people are free to sell clothing that has "assistance dog" printed on it? Such clothing could be put on any dog? That would contaminate, for want of a better word, people who have their dogs trained to such a high standard. Is this why we are experiencing difficulties with access to places such as public parks?
Are there any guidelines around assistance dogs being given access to schools?
Ms Jennifer Dowler:
We have a few dogs in schools at present. We just talk directly to the schools and use the Equality Act to gain access. We are concentrating on our stability dog programme, primarily in secondary schools. They might go into a sixth class in primary to do preparation for first year in secondary school, when the children will be doing a lot of walking from class to class. There is a need in secondary school for the stability dog to get the child from class to class, to walk up and down steps and so on, and to deal with crowded corridors. It is a health and safety issue for the clients.
Assistance Dogs International is the standard. It is a very thorough standard that has to be achieved by organisations. I was talking with members of ADI during the week. Currently, only charities can become members. The organisation we mentioned earlier was obviously not a charity and it was using that as a means to say it could not get accredited because it was a private company. While ADI is trying to cut that loop out by inviting private companies to apply, it is felt that it is unlikely that many of them would reach the standard. They would have to have all provisions covered to meet all needs in terms of the client, the dogs, the breeding, the follow-up, insurance and everything to make sure the client and the dog are protected. They would have to deal with public access as well.
Ms Lean Kennedy:
On the query regarding harnesses and equipment, we give all our guide dog and assistance dog owners a photo identification card which contains the Environmental Health Officer Association stamp on the back of it. We try to create awareness among businesses that if they need assurances about a dog they can ask the person for his or her identification card.
Ms Lean Kennedy:
In regard to Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind, we estimate that it costs €38,000 for us to provide each guide dog and assistance dog partnership. The guide dog or assistance dog owner leases the dog from us at a cost of €1, the purpose of which is to ensure we have an agreement in place because the dog owner has an obligation to us to maintain the dog in terms of grooming, veterinary care and so on.
On average, it takes about two years to train a dog. A puppy begins training at two months old. It is fostered by a volunteer puppy walking family-person, who is under the supervision of a puppy walking supervisor within their area. The volunteers and their puppies also attend classes. The role of the volunteer is to socialise the puppy in the context of its future role as a guide dog or assistance dog. The puppies are taken to public places such as shopping centres and are also taken on public transport so that they learn how to behave in terms of not seeking attention. They are also toilet trained and taught not to be easily distracted.
When the puppies are 12 months old they undergo six months of rigorous training at our centre in Cork. They are initially trained to be guide dogs and then mid-way through the training they are assessed to see whether they meet the criteria to be a guide dog or an assistance dog. The key difference between a guide dog and an assistance dog is that a guide dog needs to use its initiative. There are times when a guide dog will have to over-rule its owner. For instance, if a guide dog owner is at a pedestrian crossing and he or she indicates to the dog to cross the road but a car or cyclist is coming, the dog will need to use its initiative and over-rule the owner and not follow through that command. As an assistance dog is under constant control by a parent, by whom all decisions will be made, it does not need to use its initiative.
When a dog is 18 months old, we review the application list and decide which dog best matches an applicant. We must ensure that the partnership is going to work out. The chosen family then visits the centre, where they undergo residential training. For an assistance dog parent, this involves a week's training, which is then followed up with a number of weeks training in their home area. The instructor visits the family in the home area to ensure that the dog and child are happy to be attached to each other and that they are working safely and confidently together in the home area and familiar with all the routes. That support is ongoing. Similarly, we do the same in relation to a guide dog. Along with the initial comprehensive training which the dogs undergo, we also provide training for the potential owner, namely, the blind or visually impaired person or the parent of a child with autism, in relation to how the dog needs to behave in public places and how to be a mobility and safety aid to their owner. We also provide follow-up after care as well for up to six months to ensure that the partnership is reliable and working well and that the owner and the dog are working well together and are safe in meeting the standards that we have set for them. Overall, the training takes two years.
In regard to the conference in Cork, I thank Mr. Geary and all involved in arranging that conference. It was very useful in the context of getting people to work together. The presentation made today is proof that there is a lot more to be achieved by working together rather than as individual groups. Long may that continue. I hope the committee can be of assistance in relation to the changes being sought. This is an issue which I believe the committee should follow up on.
I agree with Senator Burke. I would like to assure the witnesses that the committee will follow up on the issues they raised. The Chairman, Deputy Buttimer, was unable to be here for this meeting, in respect of which he sent his apologies, but I know he is very interested in this issue. I will do my best, with the assistance of the clerk, to ensure this matter is followed up.
I thank everybody who shared their experiences and stories with us today. I apologise for the small attendance at today's meeting, which is due to the fact that there is currently health legislation before the Dáil.
Following on from what Deputy Mitchell O'Connor had to say, some of the issues raised today, particularly around access, are not ones with which we were familiar. As a committee, we will contact all the Ministers who we feel have a role to play in terms of bringing about the changes required to the relevant legislation. I am sure members of the committee will also do all they can to further heighten awareness in relation to this area.
I also thank Olivia and her dog Fifi and Oisín and his dog Oscar for being here today. I was delighted to hear about the impact guide dogs are having on their lives and on their families. I propose that a transcript of these proceedings and the opening statements be forwarded to the HSE and the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch. Is that agreed? Agreed.