Claire Lush

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs, interviews Claire Lush –

Dogs and their roles in helping humans

We are all familiar with seeing Guide Dogs supporting their humans but assistance dogs come in many forms.  It is well recognised that assistance dogs and dogs in therapy can provide humans with greater independence, self-esteem, confidence and safety but it may be something that most of us know very little about.

To find out more, I posed a few questions to Claire

Can you describe the varying roles or areas that dogs may be involved in with regards to assisting humans?

The domestication of dogs has led to selective breeding and training dogs to assist humans in a variety of roles. Dogs initially supported humans with a variety of hunting and guarding based activities, as well as providing companionship. Now we rely on dogs to support us with a huge range of things:

  • Detecting bombs, drugs, human cadavers, guns, viruses, cancer, and a range of health conditions.
  • Tracking and searching for people and dogs as well as tracking wild animals for conservation purposes. 
  • Physical support, health support, emotional support and learning support. 

There is great demand from the general population for assistance dogs and therapy dogs as people try to find ways to help themselves, their family, or their clients. Assistance dog charities are inundated with applications from people looking to have their own dogs to help them with tasks with a view to seeing an increase in their independence, self-esteem, and overall wellbeing. In the UK, according to Assistance Dogs UK, assistance dogs need to meet specific criteria to be deemed as supporting their client and this includes being trained to carry out tasks, not just for emotional support:

  • alerting their guardians to changes in odour associated with their medical condition.
  • alerting to sounds such as: alarm clocks, smoke alarms and doorbells. 
  • guiding their guardians around obstacles and stopping at curb sides to prevent their client from walking into a road. 
  • retrieving dropped items, emptying and filling things like a washing machine, helping to undress their clients and opening doors and drawers. 
  • providing pressure using their weight, to help with anxiety.
  • retrieving medical bags when the guardian’s alarm goes off to remind them to tend to their health needs. 
  • and many more tasks!

As well as assistance dogs who support one person or family, many people are looking for the emotional and physical help a dog can bring in community settings. Animal assisted intervention is the term used to cover the huge range of ways that animals can help:

  • Animal Assisted Activity
  • Animal Assisted Therapy (including Animal Assisted Play Therapy)
  • Animal Assisted Education

With the increase in research surrounding how beneficial dogs can be in supporting people with a wide range of needs, more and more people are seeking the help of dogs or providing help with dogs. 

So there is an obvious and huge benefit to the humans?

Many studies around animal assisted intervention and assistance dogs focus on the benefit to humans. There are very few studies looking into the wellbeing of the dogs in these situations. With easy access to articles and small studies relating to the wellbeing of people who have dogs, the challenges of dog guardianship are not always considered when researching dogs as support animals. This can lead to a lack of wellbeing for the dogs, behaviour that is challenging because of high expectations, and then as a result, relinquishment to rescue centres and breeders. 

Within animal assisted intervention, Lincoln University have been researching the benefits of dogs to children and within this have produced a LEAD risk assessment tool due to a lack of best practice standards in animal assisted intervention in general: 

Their risk assessment is a general document that can be used as a template for people looking to work with dogs in community settings such as schools, but I believe there are more wellbeing considerations that could be added for dogs. Animal assisted intervention is vastly different to assistance dogs as the dog could be interacting with a range of clients on a one to one or group basis over a period. They may be visiting various locations throughout their lives and interacting with huge numbers of people too. With this in mind, we need to be taking a close look at the suitability of dogs, their individual needs and regular assessments to determine whether they should be in their role.  

There is little research into the cortisol levels of dogs working in animal assisted intervention or as assistance dogs. As Winkle.M, Johnson.A, and Mills.D state, the considerations for animal wellbeing, particularly in animal assisted intervention is not specific: 

This can and does lead to dogs ‘working’ in environments that are beneficial to the humans but not enjoyable and beneficial to the dogs. We all have a responsibility to ensure that dogs are enjoying their ‘work’ or we are putting our dogs and clients overall wellbeing at risk.

Can any dog be involved in supporting people? Are some breeds better than others or more suited to the roles?

Specific organisations providing working dogs, assistance dogs and dogs for animal assisted intervention tend to have their own preferences of breeds to train for the variety of roles. Genetics appear to play a strong part in the suitability of a dog for the role that they have been chosen for, but the training process can also play a large part in their success. Sometimes these preferences come down to the selection and training process that dogs go through overall so it can be difficult to say that a particular breed is more suited than others. 

Dogs who are chosen to support people in animal assisted intervention tend to be chosen based on the individual preferences of the therapist or dog handler. Both methods of selection have their benefits and their challenges but overall, the important things to consider when choosing a dog are their individual capabilities and needs, specific to the role that may be asked of them. 

Technically, the dogs are working dogs?  We all need to have times when we are not actively working, how can that be managed or achieved?

As dogs do not follow the same sleep pattern as we do, it is important to ensure that clients receiving assistance dogs, and those working in animal assisted intervention, get to know their individual dog’s ideal routine and provide lots of time off for them. 

On average, we understand that dogs sleep around 12 – 18 hours a day but much of this will be taken in short periods while still being restorative to the dogs. Assistance dogs and dogs in animal assisted intervention are usually raised in a way that teaches them how to get good quality, short sleep cycles in throughout their guardian’s more active periods and longer sleep cycles when they are more sedentary. Dogs are encouraged to learn how to settle on their own so that they are not continuously alert to their client’s needs and clients are taught how and when to give their dogs plenty of breaks from ‘working’. 

Dogs needs days off from visiting public access areas and supporting their clients, and they also need to find their ‘work’ reinforcing. If a dog’s ‘work’ is a redirected version of using their natural instincts, is paired with reinforcers for that specific dog, and the dog has a choice over whether to do it or not, then I believe that we are helping to ensure our ‘working’ dogs needs and wellbeing are being met.

Are there any negative impacts for the dogs when in a supporting role?

Wellbeing of dogs in these roles should be paramount and lots of thought taken into the physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing of everything that they are being asked to do. Each dog is an individual and the level of work, or type of work that one dog may offer is likely to be different to another dog, so this should be considered. 

If we do not advocate for the dog and ensure that we are not putting dogs into situations that are unsuitable then we will end up with repercussions: 

  • Emotional trauma
  • Challenging behaviour 
  • Grieving 
  • Sensory overload 
  • Physical ailments
  • And more

There are so many things that can be done to ensure that each individual ‘working’ dogs’ wellbeing is at the forefront of a trainer or therapists mind. It is important that we look at ‘standards of practice’ in the field and work together to ensure that these are well publicised, encouraged and adhered to. 

Thank you, Claire, it’s clear from all that you have said that we really must take each dog, their strengths and weakness into account but also whether they can adjust to a supportive role or not. The welfare of dogs is paramount and the fabulous changes that they make to people’s lives cannot be understated.


Mark Bridger-Pescott of Bone Canis

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs, interviews
Mark Bridger-Pescott of Bone Canis

Dogs are part of the family.

Research has shown that there are some similarities in relation to the feelings of connectedness that we experience with dogs to those of other human significant relationships. A 2010 study states that ‘ In developed nations, approximately half of household environments contain pets. Studies of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) have proposed that there are health benefits and risks associated with pet ownership.’ (Westgarth et al 2010)  Indeed, many would describe their relationship with their dogs as being ‘Part of the family’. We care for our dogs; engage in activities such as play and ensure that their needs are met. There are many discussions around terminology in describing our relationship too, are we owner, guardians, pet parents or carers? 

The notion of ‘it’s only a dog’ is one that many consider to be an unsuitable way of describing the close bond that we feel. The pain experienced by many when they must say goodbye to their dog can be as traumatic as the death of a family member or close friend and in some cases the person is losing a companion, a significant attachment figure, a loved one or their constant companion.

It is unsurprising then that we would want to share some significant events with these important figures in our lives, including attending weddings. A growing understanding of canine behaviour and body language provides us with the information to enable a much more supportive approach when considering whether our canine family members could or would want to be as involved as we may wish.

I posed a few questions to Mark, who has practical experience of his special guests attending the wedding.

You were keen to have your dog involved in your special day; can you explain why this was so important to you?

I have been around dogs all my life; they have always played a large part and I really can’t imagine being without a dog in some capacity. My wife didn’t grow up with dogs but is now a firm fan since we took in our two rescue GSDs!!!

When we decided to get married, we chose to have a very small ceremony: just us with two others to act as witnesses, best man and photographer, so we wanted to include the dogs somehow.

We didn’t take the dogs to the service, but found out afterwards that we could have done (a real shame, but they still played a huge part). However, we did involve them for the rest of the celebrations; they played a big part in our wedding photos and attended our family and friend parties afterwards.

What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to involve their dog or dogs in such an event?

In the first instance you need to decide whether your dog will be happy to attend, or whether they will find it too overwhelming. 

Be very mindful of the temperature to ensure that your dog will be happy and comfortable. If you are having a summer wedding, make sure there is plenty of shade and water for the dogs. 

Then you need to find a venue that is ‘dog friendly’ – there are many around the country, county councils hold information on whether registry offices allow dogs too. Next, plan to have someone on hand as your pets’ ‘chaperone’, this is so you can relax knowing that someone is ‘looking-out’ for your pet at all times, and your pet is also entertained throughout the day too, so they don’t get too bored. Your chaperone also needs to ensure your dog is happy at any party you may have afterward too – ask them to be mindful of the level of noise at these events and guests’ behaviours around the dog.

There are many pet chaperone companies around the country, they specialise in looking after your pet throughout the whole day, and even during the honeymoon. They will look after your dog at home to get them ready, and then bring them to the venue for the wedding and, if you want, they will look after your dog whilst you go on honeymoon (unless of course you book one of the wonderful holiday homes that allow dogs, and you take them with you). Make sure that the chaperone you choose is qualified, has a very good understanding of canine behaviour ( if possible, qualifications in it too), and is fully-insured.

Decide what role you would like your dog to play… are they your best man? Maid of honour? Ring-bearer? etc. Then make sure they are comfortable and happy doing this. If you are going to use special wedding day collars, make sure they are comfortable and safe. It’s best to not go overboard with dressing your dog up – lots of dogs don’t like this, and we want to ensure that they not stressed.

Please be very aware of what is poisonous to dogs, this includes the flowers and any food being served. You need to be very aware of children who may be eating sweets / wedding favours etc. so the chaperone should be very mindful of who gives the dog/s what. There are resources available to provide lists of plants and food that are known to be poisonous to dogs such as the Blue Cross website Blue Cross

It’s really important to let your photographer know that your dog will be attending, and that they will be in lots of the pictures; the photographer will then arrive fully- prepared. 

How would you recognise and reduce any possible stressors?

You will most likely be very stressed yourself and this can feed into your dogs too, so try to relax yourself and enjoy your special day. It goes without saying therefore, that organising everything fully in advance will help to calm you down and feel prepared. It would also help for you and your dog to meet your chaperone before the wedding day, to get to know each other.

Your chosen chaperone should be very aware of your dog’s body language and should be confident enough to let you know when they feel your dog is getting too stressed and have the foresight to take the dog away, if or when they feel this is necessary. Stress can be difficult to identify without close observation but signals such as lip licking, turning away from or avoiding people, tense facial muscles and whale eye are some of the basic areas to be aware of. Of course, it very much depends on the dog and barking, jumping up or showing signs of excessive excitement can also indicate that the dogs is becoming overwhelmed. There are many resources online detailing the classic signs to be aware of.

If you are looking after your dog yourself, then make sure you research the signs of stress in dogs and look out for them all throughout the day. There are so many things that can stress your dog out from you looking different, to the whole day being a different energy, to losing sight of you at regular points on a strange day for them; people may be walking up to them to try to stroke them; kids will be running around screaming; they may see / interact with drunk people; they may be tolerating loud music for long periods; sampling various smells of food… the list goes on and on…..

If your dog is showing signs of stress, they must be taken away to a quiet area to relax; you should then do some enrichment activities to help them decompress or go for a nice walk somewhere quiet.

If your dog is finding it too stressful, then your chaperone should take them home to relax –  don’t forget that as much as you may want them there, it’s only ok if they are happy too – they should share in your special day in a way that’s ‘special’ and enjoyable for themselves too… 

Thanks Mark, it sounds like you had everything covered and had prepared well in advance. For some dogs, even this amount of preparation could not ensure that the dogs in question did not feel overwhelmed or find the experience too stressful. It is about knowing your dog and understanding that this novel and unique experience may be too much to ask of them. 

There may be options though to involve them in the photographs for instance, in a quieter area, to have a helper bring them along at a point where there isn’t too much in the way of activity. 

Our dogs are very much part of the family and it is natural that we would want them to be part of special celebrations and this can be a wonderful experience for all concerned, but we do have to take steps to support our dogs and in some cases, the best approach, is to leave the dogs at home and arrange for someone to care for them while you enjoy the celebrations. If you can include them in some way, follow Mark’s advice, plan, plan and plan!

Mark Bridger Pescott, Bone Canis

To find out more about dog body language

Family Pet Ownership during Childhood: Findings from a UK Birth Cohort and Implications for Public Health Research

Plants poisonous to dogs

Lisa Hird, Vice Chair of INTODogs

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs, interviews
Lisa Hird, Vice Chair of INTODogs and Joint Principal of the ISCP

Is there such a thing as ‘The Dog’?

Marc Bekoff has famously stated that we should no longer be thinking of domestic canines in general terms as ‘the dog’. He urges us to look at all dogs as individuals and to remember that there is no such thing as a ‘universal dog’. Yet, we are still bombarded with information about what dogs need, how to provide for them, how much and what type of exercise they need, and we often see heated debates and arguments via social media regarding the rights and wrongs of different approaches. Now I am not talking here about whether we treat dogs with kindness and fairness, there is simply no argument against that which stacks up, the discussions are concerning what is best for ‘the dog’. No one would be so opinionated to believe that they know what is best for every dog, but we all hold strong beliefs about this topic. It can be tempting to mistakenly go down the route of disagreeing with anyone who doesn’t have the same viewpoint. Just as we tell our clients, we must see the dog in front of us.
If we are genuinely aiming to treat dogs as individuals, we must also take into account that they are a species different from ourselves and therefore must have basic needs that go with being part of that species. Bearing in mind the diverse range of sizes, breeds and personalities of dogs, can we be sure that we are providing not the best for ‘the dog’ but for each individual dog, identifying and responding to their definite likes, dislikes, skills, strengths, weaknesses, preferences and needs.

I posed a series of questions to Lisa Hird to gain an insight into her views of this topic.

Can you share your views on this topic and why you think it’s important? 

I really love the point that Marc Bekoff raises.  My favourite mantra is “consider the individual dog“. 

While dogs of all different breeds fall under the category of Canis familiaris, they are also vastly different. Through selective breeding, we have chosen to highlight and encourage certain traits. How much these traits are evident in the individual dog varies from dog to dog.

As Dale mentioned, the only part of what is best for the dog that is not negotiable is that we must treat them with respect, kindness and not use confrontational/punishment methods.

Every single dog has a unique set of circumstances. Who he lives with, how many humans he lives with, their knowledge and experience, the accommodation/environment he lives with, health, fitness and so on. The list is endless. What is right for one dog may not be right for the other. 

Clothier, 2018 talks about asking each dog the elemental questions and seeing the dog in front of us. We really must consider the needs of every single dog as an individual.

Given that there is a vast amount of information available now online, on television and through written materials, how would carers or guardians navigate through to find good quality information and do you think that doing so could improve or strengthen their relationship with their dog?

This is a hard one to answer. In the age of Dr Google, wading through and filtering the glut of advice and information about dogs is like walking through quicksand. 

We can only caution carers or guardians to seek professional advice. After all, asking Dr Google about a health issue instead of going to a professional healthcare person is asking for trouble. It is the same for our dogs. Talking with rescue centres may be a good source of information.

The biggest piece of advice I would give is to filter any information through the following:

  • does my dog enjoy this?
  • do I feel closer to my dog?
  • do I feel the connection and strong relationship with him?

and to treat the dog as the wonderfully made individual that he is.

Of course, this goes for so many topics such as general advice about enrichment, training activities and other activities. Do you think that certain breeds automatically have particular needs, we often hear statements such as ‘collies need to chase and herd’, is there an element of truth in that?

Taxonomy is the branch of biology responsible for classifying and naming each of the living beings. There are seven main taxonomic ranks: kingdom, phylum or division, class, order, family, genus, species. When we consider the domestic dog, we see

  • Kingdom – animal
  • Phylum – Chordata
  • Class – Mammalia
  • Order – Carnivora
  • Family – Canidae
  • Genus – Canis
  • Species – C. lupus

Subspecies – Canis familiaris (sometimes called Canis lupus familiaris

After this come the various breeds. Not all members of a particular breed will have been as heavily selectively bred for that trait and they may not have such a strong desire to display these traits. We know there is a great deal of variation even within breeds with many research studies highlighting this. Mills et al, 2016 found from their study that that the differences WITHIN breeds exceeded the differences BETWEEN breed, demonstrating that generalisations based on breed are not appropriate.

So, once again, we come back to the individual dog. 

I think a more pertinent question to ask is would be “is it healthy for the individual dog”? 

While many collies need to chase and herd, is it really good for them? Has the behaviour become obsessive or highly repetitive? Can we replace the activity with something that meets their needs without encouraging them to display this trait?

Collies are a great example where we presume they need to chase and herd. We often take them to agility or encourage fast paced chase games, when they don’t actually enjoy them!

I think that you have made a really valid point, some dogs (not just collies) will absolutely enjoy certain activities while others may not find it rewarding at all. Humans have ‘created’ modern day breeds, and there will have been choices made about enhancing or positively selecting for specific traits, this is not static and is an ongoing process. 

We know that there are so many factors that contribute to the makeup of each dog, that it is impossible to tease each one out and isolate them. 

I think that going back to the original statement is a great way, to sum up this discussion: 

Look at the dog in front of you

Dale McLelland, Trustee INTODogs

Lisa Hird, Vice Chair INTODogs

Bekoff, Marc.

Hare, B, Brown, M, Williamson, C, Tomasello, M. (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs Science, 298 (2002), pp. 1634-1636

Miklósi, Á, Topal, J.  (2013) What does it take to become “best friends?” Evolutionary changes in canine social competence Trends Cogn. Sci., 17 (2013), pp. 287-294

Duffy, D, Hsu b, Y, Serpell, JA (2008) Breed differences in canine aggression Academic journal of canine science

Mellor D J et al (2008). The Sciences of Animal Welfare, Wiley Blackwell, West Sussex, UK: 126

Gunter, LM, Barber, T and Wynne, C (2016) What’s in a Name? Effect of Breed Perceptions & Labelling on Attractiveness, Adoptions & Length of Stay for Pit-Bull-Type Dogs Published: March 23, 2016

Clothier, S. (2018) Finding a balance. Expanded Edition. Flying Dog Press, St Johnsville, NY.

Fadel, F, Driscoll, P, Pilot, M, Wright, H, Zulch, H, Mills, D. (2016) Differences in Trait Impulsivity Indicate Diversification of Dog Breeds into Working and Show Lines