Assistance dogs are making a profound difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities, providing both friendship and practical assistance. These remarkable canine companions are specially trained to aid people with various disabilities, including visual impairments, mobility challenges, and even emotional support needs.
One of the most common types of assistance dogs is the guide dog. These highly trained dogs are commonly used by people with visual impairments, granting them a renewed sense of self-reliance and assurance. In addition to guide dogs, there are other assistance animals such as mobility assistance dogs, whose abilities extend to opening doors, supporting human stability, and retrieving items. Therapy dogs play a crucial role in the healthcare system. These dogs provide emotional support to patients in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes. Spending time with dogs helps with a range of negative emotions, and can alleviate stress, anxiety, and loneliness.
Legal regulation on assistance dogs in the EU
The term ‘assistance dog’ is defined as a dog specifically trained to perform tasks to increase independence and to mitigate the limitations of a person with a disability, although it should be noted that ‘assistance dog’ is an umbrella term.1 All EU Member States have signed and ratified the UN Convention covering the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNBR) which grants not only people with physical disabilities, but also people with sensory, intellectual or mental disabilities/chronic illness, the right to animal assistance and the right to participate in an equal way as people with no disabilities.2 Unfortunately, the European Union still lacks comprehensive EU-wide laws and regulations related to assistance dogs.
It can be mentioned that Austria stands out in regard to legal regulation on assistance dogs by implementing a nationwide law that deals with the requirements and procedures for the official qualification and recognition of the different types of assistance dogs.3 However, EU-wide regulations regarding assistance dogs are lacking.
Legal regulation on assistance dogs in Lithuania
Lithuania is no exception when it comes to the lack of rights of assistance dogs. In the country’s national legislation, there is no definition of an assistance dog as well as there is no law which would define the right of a person with a disability to use an assistance dog.
As a matter of fact, one of the main problems with obtaining an assistance dog is the cost: it takes thousands of euros to train a dog, and there isn’t any financial support from the government. Usually, dogs are trained with the personal funds of disabled people and thanks to donations. It should be mentioned that training a dog takes years; and while there are cynologists in Lithuania who can do it, as well as breed them, the price of the dog itself and its training might be too high to afford. Today these dogs are trained with the help of the Mulan Fund, a charity and support fund.4 It is important to emphasize that these high prices do not include maintenance costs. Therefore, acquiring and maintaining an assistance dog can be expensive as the expenditure includes training, veterinary care, grooming, and food. The fact that not everyone can afford these expenses limits access to these valuable companions.
Another problem is that it is not easy to enter public institutions and shops with such helpers. This is primarily due to a lack of awareness, misunderstanding of the law, or occasionally, discrimination. Efforts to address these issues should focus on education and awareness-raising within society, as well as providing guidance and resources to businesses and organizations to ensure that everybody understands and complies with social norms.
Two years ago, the Parliament started amendments to the Law on Social Integration of Persons with Disabilities and the accompanying legal acts, which were discussed with the aim of legalizing the status of assistance dogs, regulating their registration, marking, distinctive signs, the procedure for training, and the procedure for issuing documents. Unfortunately, the process was inconclusive and the intended results were not achieved. The legislation stipulates that an assistance dog is a dog, included on the list of Assistance Dogs, trained under an assistance dog training program to support a person with a disability. According to Justas Džiugelis, a member of Parliament who initiated the amendment to the law, the assistance of these dogs to humans is currently not regulated in Lithuania, even though it is legal in almost all European Union countries. As it appears in the draft amendments, a person with a disability accompanied by a service dog would be able to use public transport infrastructure, as well as the transport concessions provided, and to access public spaces and public buildings. The dog would have to be marked with distinctive signs when assisting a person with a disability, and the person using the assistance dog would have to be in possession of a certificate (or a copy thereof) issued by the State Food and Veterinary Service.5
Assistance dogs in Lithuania are not only valuable companions but also ambassadors for inclusion and accessibility. They break down barriers and foster a more inclusive society where everyone can participate fully in their daily lives. As the demand for assistance dogs keeps growing, Lithuania’s commitment to supporting these remarkable animals and the people they serve should be enhanced through the implementation of relative laws. Lithuania should no longer ignore the problems of people with disabilities and adequate measures must be taken.