Assistance dogs in the practice

A GP called the MDU advice line to ask about assistance dogs. A regular patient at the practice brought a large, boisterous dog to every consultation as her assistance dog and, during one consultation, it had jumped up at a healthcare assistant who was frightened of dogs.

The GP asked the MDU whether the practice could refuse entry to the animal on the basis of hygiene, or patient safety. Here’s what the experts had to say… 

This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on the MDU Journal website.

While the term ‘assistance dogs’ most commonly refers to guide or hearing dogs for blind or deaf people, it can also mean service dogs for those with health conditions not related to vision or hearing. Although many of these animals receive specific training it should be noted that some assistance dogs can be owner-selected and trained.

The MDU adviser explained that the Equality Act 2010, and the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) 1995 in Northern Ireland, require access to medical treatment facilities for assistance dogs. In addition, staff at these establishments must not treat the owner less favourably due to their impairment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has also produced a guide for businesses on welcoming customers with assistance dogs.

The same legislation confirms that hospital and medical professionals have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable disabled users to access services; this would extend to changing any ‘no dogs’ policy to allow assistance dogs. This duty is owed to a disabled person regardless of who the dog was trained by.

Medical professionals have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to enable disabled users to access services.

If a staff member were to be allergic to dogs, or have a phobia, then the practice should take reasonable steps to minimise that individual’s exposure to assistance dogs. The Guide Dogs organisation also acknowledges that, ‘there may be areas within the health facility into which a guide dog may not be permitted due to infection control or health and safety issues.’ However, these are not valid reasons for denying an assistance dog entry to the practice.

Assistance advice

In this scenario, the GP explained to the healthcare assistant that the dog wore an identifying yellow assistance coat and the patient had told them that it was an assistance animal. Failing to allow the patient to bring a genuine assistance dog with them into consultations could result in a complaint, or a claim of disability discrimination, which could involve financial compensation.

The ‘reasonable’ element of the duty owed under the relevant legislation means that any adjustment should be made only when it is reasonable to do so. This is an objective test, and one which the courts will apply to the facts of each specific case. As such, if it was obvious that the dog was poorly trained, the court would factor this in when deciding whether or not it was reasonable to allow the dog into the practice.

Given the incident with the healthcare assistant, it would seem reasonable to ask the patient to try to ensure the dog is well-behaved when on the premises. It would also be advisable to try to ensure that any staff member with dog allergies, or phobias, is not involved in the consultation with that particular patient.

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