According to Assistance Dogs UK, a coalition of assistance dog charities, over 7,000 disabled people in the UK rely on an assistance dog to help with practical tasks - offering emotional support and independence.
One of those tasks may be to support a patient when attending a dental appointment, so it's important to know how to deal with such a scenario. While the term 'assistance dog' 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. While many dogs receive specific training, it should be noted that some assistance dogs can be owner selected and trained.
The Equality Act 2010, and the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 in Northern Ireland, require access to medical treatment facilities for assistance dogs. In addition, staff 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 assistance dogs.
Healthcare professionals have a legal 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.
Although the best place for a guide dog is with its owner, there may be areas within the health facility where a guide dog may not be permitted because of infection control or health and safety issues. Assistance Dogs UK produces guidance on service providers' legal obligations, which addresses this by stating that it would be reasonable for service providers "to allow assistance dogs to accompany their owners into most situations where pet dogs would not be permitted, or for service providers to make reasonable adjustments in providing safe and secure accommodation for a dog and support for its handler in the dog’s absence, in, for example, an infection control clinical setting."
When considering reasonable adjustments, consider asking the patient what assistance they would need, such as sighted guide assistance to areas where the dog is unable to accompany them. If this happens, the practice will need to find a suitable location where the guide dog can be safely left.
Any adjustment should be made only when it's reasonable to do so. This is an objective test and one which the courts will apply to the facts of each specific case. For example, if a 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.
If a staff member is allergic to dogs or has a phobia, the practice should take reasonable steps to minimise that individual's exposure to assistance dogs. However, these are not valid reasons for denying an assistance dog entry to the practice.
Alison Large graduated from Newcastle Dental School in 1999. After qualification she worked in general practice for over 10 years, initially in the north east of England before relocating to Oxfordshire. She gained an MFGDP(UK) diploma in 2007, has been a vocational trainer and has also provided mentoring. She joined the DDU in 2008 and currently combines her dento-legal adviser role with looking after her young family.
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