When Jodie got an assistance dog for her autistic son, the benefits were immediate - but as more people turn to animals for assisted therapy, there is increasing confusion around the laws allowing them in public spaces and experts and advocates say it's time for change.
Video above: Insight finds out if the laws and regulation around pet therapy animals need changing? Pet Power, Tuesday, June 10 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand.
It was a Facebook post in an autism awareness group that first introduced Jodie Mizzi to the idea of getting an autism therapy dog for her son Charlie.
Charlie was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. At six he was non-verbal, couldn’t go to the bathroom independently and couldn’t sleep on his own.
But that all changed the night they brought home their therapy dog Yahtzee.
“He slept with my son the first night, and he slept right through the night, and nearly two years later, he has not skipped one night of going to bed on his own,” Jodie tells Insight.
“Not one tantrum, no crying, not even a whinge about going to bed.”
The transformation that the family experienced isn’t unique in the world of animal assisted therapy.
Twenty-five-year-old Dani Stevens lives with Baloo; a seizure alert Labrador who barks three to five minutes before Dani has a seizure.
Dani has roughly three to four seizures a day, but has had up to 30 an hour in the past.
When Baloo barks, Dani knows to get to a safe place where she won’t be injured during a seizure.
“Before I got her we were in hospital once a week in ER,” Dani tells Insight guest host Marc Fennell.
“I would fall to the floor and burn myself, cut myself – whatever.
“In the past year, we’ve only been there a couple of times. She just stops so many injuries.”
Dani and Charlie’s dogs are part of a new wave of animals being used in healthcare to alleviate the effects of various disabilities.
But the laws that allow them to take their assistance animals into public spaces – like shops, public transport and restaurants – are vague, complex and have created confusion.
Paul Harpur, a disability lawyer and law academic at the University of Queensland, says that whilst the use of assistance animals in Australia has played an important role in helping those with disability live independently, industry regulations lack ‘clarity’.
The Disability Discrimination Act is generally held as the national guideline for what constitutes an assistance animal.
“The Disability Discrimination Act uses the word "animal" to mean any animal,” says Paul, who is also visually impaired and has a guide dog.
“It was intentionally made very broad in its outset, but traditionally it's always been guide dogs.”
He says there was a recent case of a bird travelling on New South Wales transport but in other instances animals other than a dog have been refused access to transport.
Public access rights for assistance animals are determined by the Disability Discrimination Act. Some states and territories have their own laws, but ultimately the Federal Law, which has been criticised for being vague in its wording, overrides these.
Paul says the Federal Law fails to outline who can accredit a dog to be an assistance animal, or what specific training an animal needs to have to be an assistance animal.
If we have one assistance dog in a restaurant that's a good thing, but if we have 30 dogs, one of which is a genuine assistance dog and 29 of which are pretending to be, that is just a recipe for disaster.
Professor Pauleen Bennett, an expert in human animal relationships at La Trobe University, says it’s time for a national accreditation and identification system to clear up such confusion.
“If we have one assistance dog in a restaurant that's a good thing, but if we have 30 dogs, one of which is a genuine assistance dog and 29 of which are pretending to be, that is just a recipe for disaster.”
“We need a system.”
Experts and advocates, like Paul Harpur, say that a national accreditation system would clear up such confusion.
“It would have to be wide, it would have to be researched and well thought out.”
“The point is, if a federal government has decided that that person's qualified to be with that animal in that place then if you show that card then that animal is allowed in.
“Imagine if the police pulled you up and you hopped out of the car and they said, ‘can you drive this car?’ and you have to do a driving test on the spot.
“It's impossible, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”