Assistance dogs are still often turned away despite being banned for years: ‘It hurts so much’

It has been 7 years since the United Nations Convention on Disability entered into force in the Netherlands. Part of this is that assistance dogs should be welcomed everywhere, yet animals are still regularly rejected. “It happens in places you don’t expect.”

This is what Marlisse Aciman says, she has epilepsy and her dog Silly has been helping her identify and prevent seizures for the past four years. “When I first came to my previous GP, I was kindly asked to let Sally wait outside from now on. I was really surprised.”

“literally pushed aside”

According to Marlies, sometimes in stores or restaurants it happens that her assistance dog is refused at the door. “Sometimes I call ahead to ask if she can come in, but that still creates tension, when it really shouldn’t be necessary.”

She basically causes a lot of trouble, she explains. “Doing things you don’t want to and also taking away the fun in certain things. An assistance dog should give me more freedom, but things like this don’t make me feel free to go somewhere. It hurts so much when you’re rejected, you literally feel pushed aside.”

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Refusing a service dog is discrimination

Marlisse isn’t the only one to whom this has happened, as Ariane Le Duc from Hulfond Nederland knows. “We did research in 2019 and it shows that one in five people with a service dog regularly finds themselves in front of a closed door. We have no reason to believe that number has decreased in the past four years.”

This while it has been legally forbidden for 7 years now a dog has refused to help. This is stated in the United Nations Convention on Disability, which has been in force in the Netherlands since 2016. It is discrimination, Le Duc asserts. “Treating people differently based on their disability is not allowed and you would do that if you refused to help their dog.”

Ignorant rejection

Often, she explains, refusing service dogs is out of ignorance. “People don’t know that assistance dogs aren’t regular dogs. For example, you see that sometimes restaurants or cafes or stores don’t allow dogs and then the employee thinks: We don’t allow dogs, so that’s not allowed either.”

These are situations in which Marlies regularly finds herself. The fact that you can’t see from the outside that she has epilepsy doesn’t help either, she says. “People don’t realize how important the Seely is to me. It really is an indispensable tool for me, just like a wheelchair for others.”

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How do you feel this is a big mystery?

Sili can sense when her owner is about to have a seizure. “How it feels is a big mystery,” Marlies says. “We think it’s because of subtle changes in my behavior that I’m not aware of myself. But sometimes you also feel a seizure coming while I’m in the attic and she’s downstairs.”

The assistance dog warns 20 minutes in advance if something goes wrong. “Her behavior changes after that: she becomes anxious and doesn’t look at me anymore. She hits the alarm button in our house so that help can come from nearby family and friends. She also brings me my medication.” Marlies explains. “It helps tremendously with intercepting and reducing my seizures.”

“It hasn’t occurred to us yet.”

According to CDA MP Lucille Werner, Marlies’ story shows that assistance and service dogs really should be seen as total aids. “People need their dogs to participate in society.” You find it unacceptable that dogs are still regularly refused help.

According to her, “people haven’t yet realized” that assistance dogs are welcome everywhere, which is why “there’s still a lot to be done in terms of image”. Hulphond Nederland and KNGF Geleidehonden have been campaigning for two years to raise awareness of assistance dogs, but since they are charities, financial resources are limited.

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government campaign?

“So it would be good if the government took up the challenge and came up with a targeted campaign,” describes Le Duc from Holfond Nederland. Marlies is also hoping for a campaign from the government with a clear message that helping dogs are always welcome everywhere. “I think this will help a lot.”

And that awareness can come too, as she saw during a holiday in England. “It looked like a real ‘Valhalla Assistance Dog’ in there,” she says. “In many places there was a sticker on the door saying ‘No Dogs Allowed, but Assistance Dogs Welcome’ and inside there was often water and treats ready. Surprisingly, I felt more welcome there than here.”

Strategy for people with disabilities

MP Werner hopes responsible Minister Connie Helder will take action on the matter: “In October, the House of Representatives approved a motion, which I submitted jointly with Lisa Westerfeld and Mohamed El-Mohandes, asking the Minister to implement a multi-year national strategy for people with disabilities.”

The strategy is currently being prepared and will be discussed in parliament in two weeks. “This is the first time that the government has put in place a plan to ensure equal participation of people with disabilities in society,” says Werner. “I really think that would be a huge change.”

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