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An assistance animal is an animal specially trained by an accredited assistance animal provider to help you do things you can’t do because of your disability. These are things the animal wouldn’t naturally do otherwise, like guiding you through crowded places.
It’s an animal that actively helps you to do things you previously couldn’t do because of your disability. It’s not an animal or pet used for therapeutic or companion support, even if you’ve trained it to do some tasks for you. We also know animals can be good for helping with routines and for social engagement, but these things alone don’t mean it meets the definition of an assistance animal.
To help us decide if an assistance animal will be effective and beneficial for you, we have adopted the internationally recognised definition of assistance animals recommended by La Trobe University. It describes what is and isn’t an assistance animal. La Trobe University worked with 50 international experts to look at reports and industry websites and get agreement about the best definition for assistance animals.
You can read the full La Trobe University report – Key terms for animals in disability assistance roles (DOCX 356KB) .
We need to make sure the assistance animal is related to your disability, otherwise we can’t fund it. The La Trobe University report defines assistance animal as “an animal that is trained to perform at least 3 tasks or behaviours which mitigate the effects of a person’s disability”. This means an assistance animal that has been trained to do at least 3 specific things that you need, but can’t do because of your disability.
When we talk about the tasks the assistance animal does to help you, we mean active things that:
- the animal wouldn’t naturally do that help you manage your disability
- mean you need less of your other funded supports.
The tasks might be things like:
- open and close doors or fridges
- open and close drawers or cupboards
- pick up dropped items
- reassure you in times of extreme anxiety such as helping you to leave your home when you’re too frightened to go out
- press the button at traffic lights
- take clothes out of the washing machine
- help you find your way around safely, including stopping at kerbs and stairs
- guide you through crowds
- find a spare seat on a bus
- help you find doors on cars and trains
- blocking or being a barrier to other people if needed.
An example of an assistance animal is a dog guide. They’re specially trained to help you do tasks, for example if you have a severe vision impairment or blindness. They can guide you so you can independently and safely move around at home and in the community. By doing this, a dog guide will reduce your need for other supports.
We use the name ‘dog guide’ as this is the general name for dogs that help people with a severe vision impairment or blindness. Guide Dogs and Seeing Eye Dogs are both brand names of dog guides in Australia.
The La Trobe University report says the assistance animal, “must also be trained to a high level of obedience”. This means they can safely go to public places that are typically off-limits to animals, such as a train station, café or shops.
The types of assistance animals we fund are:
- dog guides
- hearing assistance animals
- physical assistance animals
- assistance animals for some participants who have been diagnosed by a psychiatrist with long term but stable Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who are able to take on the ongoing responsibilities of a primary handler.
We can only fund an assistance animal if there’s evidence that the animal will be, or is likely to be, effective and beneficial for you, taking into account current good practice. When we say taking into account current good practice, we mean thinking about what’s recommended, or has been found to work well, for other people in situations like yours. The types of assistance animals we fund are based on research for hearing, vision and physical impairments, as well as PTSD.
When we fund an assistance animal, we make a decision based on the criteria in the section How do we decide if we fund an assistance animal.
What about other kinds of animals?
The La Trobe University report – Key terms for animals in disability assistance roles (DOCX 356KB) also talks about other types of animals which are not considered assistance animals. These include:
- companion animals - an animal kept for company or fun, including pets
- emotional support animals - an animal that provides emotional and informal support
- therapy animals - an animal that takes part in therapy activities that are led by a therapist
- facility animals - an animal that may or may not live onsite and is trained to work in a specific facility or type of facility, such as a residential aged care home
- visitation animals - an animal that belongs to a volunteer or provider and is trained to visit residential, health, or educational facilities. These animals bring enjoyment to the clients or students.
All these types of animals can be helpful in your life, but they’re unlikely to meet our NDIS funding criteria.
We’ll always consider your individual situation when we decide whether a support meets the NDIS funding criteria. But we generally won’t fund an animal if it doesn’t meet the definition of an assistance animal or dog guide. This is because they’re unlikely to be a disability-related support, effective and beneficial, or value for money.
We generally don’t fund medical alert animals, even though they can sometimes be seen as a type of assistance animal. This is because there’s currently not enough evidence about the effectiveness of these animals, having regard to current good practice.
For example, there’s currently very little evidence that epilepsy seizure dogs are an effective and reliable disability support. It’s not clear that an animal can effectively detect and warn someone of an epileptic seizure. The existing evidence base is weak, and the narrowness of existing research make it hard to draw clear conclusions about their effectiveness.
If you have epilepsy, there are other supports that would meet our NDIS funding criteria, that are more effective and beneficial and better value for money. Our Guideline – Disability-related health supports has more information about epilepsy supports we may fund.
We must look at available evidence of how effective the assistance animals are for other people in similar situations. We’ll look at things like:
- published and refereed academic research
- any agreement of expert opinion
- your lived experience or the experience of your carers
- anything we have learned in our experience at the NDIS.
We must also take expert opinion into account. This is because it might be relevant to whether an assistance animal will be effective and beneficial.
We’ll also think about your individual situation. For example, if the animal is for a young child, or if you have any behaviours of concern. The La Trobe University report – Reviewing Assistance Animal Effectiveness (PDF 1.1MB) provides more detail about the effectiveness of assistance animals.