Training your dog, with mobility challenges

Do what you can do, the dog will understand!

Evidence of new ways of training dogs is everywhere. Guide dogs for the blind and assistance dogs for the handicapped have a long and valued history, but these days it’s common to see dogs assisting humans in new capacities. Dogs are being trained to detect cancer or the presence of life threatening allergens, predict the onset of epileptic seizures, work with autistic children to better connect them with the world or to simply help kids read better in the classroom. Many people with disabilities are even training their own assistance dogs to help with household tasks; opening doors and picking up dropped objects on cue.

Physical or vocal challenges shouldn’t keep you from training your dog. We often forget, because our own species is so language based, that dogs are not verbal learners. They learn and interpret much more from the environment, from their heightened senses of smell and hearing, than from any information we give them. Scientists believe an average dog acquires a meaning vocabulary of about 180-200 words during his 10-15 year life span. This is slightly less vocabulary than what an average two year-old child might understand, but their ability for understanding sensory input is far superior to what any child, or adult, might understand. Dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors in their brains, compared to only 20 million in our own. Their hearing sensitivity is over 400% of ours. Is it any wonder that they sniff everything they find, and can hear a crumb drop in the kitchen while they’re sound asleep upstairs? We can use their superior sensory abilities to train them, since they are so aware of movement, sound and smell.

Training techniques can be adapted whether you have verbal impairment, are working with arthritic fingers or have mobility issues; using a cane, wheelchair or power chair. Abilities and disabilities vary from person to person and from dog to dog. Don’t worry about doing it “right”. Be creative in devising hand gestures or vocal cues that are comfortable for you, to signify the behaviors you want. Your dog will learn whatever you want to teach him, provided you use the same sounds and movements consistently, for the same meaning. If you approach training based on your own strengths and temperament, with patience for your own dog’s learning curve, you will be successful.

A positive attitude and positive reinforcement training go hand in hand, and produce the best, long-lasting results. They strengthen the bond between you and your dog, and produce a dog that is happy to be with you and to work for you. Harsh words and forceful handling produces a dog that is afraid of you and is unwilling to perform what you ask. Keep small treats available, or in your pocket on walks, so you can begin rewarding and praising your dog for every good behavior he performs. If you can’t hold the treat in your hand, you might keep a small plastic bowl with treats in your lap and teach your dog to “Take it” on cue.

Verbal and physical cues work best when used together, for the dog to understand which action matches which signal and group of sounds. If you don’t have the physical strength to hold the leash, enlist the aid of a helper, so that you do the cueing and rewarding the dog without also having to struggle to contain him. Some clients have better control hooking the leash to their wheel chair or power chair with a mountaineering carabineer (available at hardware or sporting goods stores). Pet retailers sell a “convertible” leash, which is a great option. These are leather leashes which can be used in 6 ft., 4 ft. or 2 ft. length, and can be hooked around a chair arm, looped around your shoulder or even around your waist for better control.

Whether you’re using a cane, crutch, wheel chair or power chair, the sound of the chair moving forward or the placement of the cane will need to be included in the training, to determine where the dog can walk beside you, how fast he must walk and where he can sit or lie down safely. If you use a chair, consider clearance for the footrests, which extend outward, and could pose a hazard to your dog. Turn outward, away from the dog first, then back the chair up to face him. Training any cue is made harder when the dog is anxious about being bumped with the chair.

Your dog is always happy to spend time with you, and will learn in what ever way is comfortable for you to teach him. Experiment with different sounds, gestures, tastes and smells. You will both learn more; about each other.

Dianna L. Stearns, M.A., CPDT, CDBC
APDT Professional Member #63433
IAABC Certified Member #139
AKC CGC Evaluator #3691