Mobility Dogs: Wheelchair Transfers

If you are considering having your dog help you with mobility wheelchair transfers, this article will help you to understand the reasons why not to use your dog as a transfer tool. 

Let's look at what mobility transfers are, 5 bio-mechanical reasons not to have your service dog help you with them and how you can learn to do them yourself.

What are Mobility Transfers? 

Any movement involving a shift of weight by a person with limited mobility to move them from one surface to another surface.
Typically the person uses their hands and arms to take some pressure while other parts of their body are shifted.
The person needs at least a partial ability to stand. Transfers may be done by the person alone or with assistance from another person or sometimes 2 people.
Transfers can also be done mechanically with a manual or electric lift. 

Here are some examples.

  • bed to wheelchair  https://youtu.be/BWzcIl1SGgw
  • wheelchair to toilet
  • wheelchair to tub or shower
  • wheelchair to couch
  • wheelchair to car
  • ground to chair (after a fall)

The number of transfers per day adds up quickly.

The Primary Goal of a Successful Transfer
is to prevent falls and avoid injury (shoulders, arms, skin, bruising) of the transferring person.
A secondary goal is for the person to use the wheelchair independently.

Injury Among Human Helpers
Transferring a person from one surface to another is one of the highest causes of long-term injury for human helpers of wheelchair users.
Another is the rotation while pushing the chair (lower back compression).

The Same Can Be Said for Service Dogs
The goal of having a service dog is to help the handler to gain more independence but not by putting the dog at risk,
especially when there are other more effective and less harmful ways for a person to transfer themselves.
Service dogs can easily get injured during transfers and be rendered useless to the handler. The handler potentially loses not just independence, but their partner.

5 Biomechanical Reasons Why Not To Have Your Service Dog Help

1. Dogs are not designed to be weight-bearing, even large dogs.

Dogs don't have a collar bone like humans have, and the muscles do the work of holding the shoulders together. Pressure goes from the muscles to the dog's spine. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and spine can be injured with just a small amount of weight, even in big dogs. Soft tissue injuries take a long time to heal. Spine injuries can be chronic and disabling for a dog.

While some breeds of dogs are bred to pull carts, they can carry only a very small amount of weight. Pulling a maximum of ten percent of their body weight is generally recommended for dogs with a suitable bone structure and are appropriately muscled. This weight is spread over their body with proper harnesses and is a pulling forward motion. 

2. Humans have little ability to estimate the amount of actual pressure they put on their hands, especially while in motion.

Typically for transfers, handlers place their hand or hands on the dog’s shoulder. The recommended weight is 10% of the dog’s body weight, the same as for pulling except the pushing pressure is downward.
Say your mobility dog is 45Kg (100 lbs). Do you know how much pressure 4.5 kg (10 lbs) feels like?

Try this: Use a bathroom or kitchen scale and place your hand (fingers or knuckles) on the scale for 5 seconds and try to hold it at 4 Kg. Don’t look at the scale but have a friend or family member watch the scale to tell you the highest amount of weight you put on the scale after each trial. Repeat 10 times and write down each trial result. How accurate are you on average to put a maximum of 4 Kg on the scale?
I bet not very!
Now imagine you are trying to move your body to one side, balance it and estimate and control the amount of weight you put on your dog’s shoulder. Can you do it? Are you willing to risk her health? Using a stabilizing pole or transfer board that can take much more weight than what you can put on it makes more sense than using your dog.

3. There is too high a risk that the weight may be placed in the wrong location.
People with physical disabilities are often told to put the pressure directly over the dog’s shoulders when using the dog for stability, rather than on the back or rear end. The idea is that the weight will get transferred to the ground rather than stressing the dog’s muscles or bone structure.
During transfers, it is not always possible to place your hands exactly where you want them since where the dog can stand may not be ideal for the transfer. The handler’s angle may also put the pressure in the wrong place on the dog.

4. It’s not just simple weight involved.
If your dog moves during the process (accidentally pushed by too much pressure form you, takes a step to the side, gets distracted etc.) she is adding shearing force to the transfer.
Shearing force is unaligned forces pushing one part of a body in one specific direction and another part of the body in the opposite direction. If the forces push together, this results in compression at the centre point (like spine compression).  If the forces push away from each other tearing results (like cruciate ligament tears). Neither is what we want for a service dog’s spine, tendons or ligaments.  

5. Depending on the handler’s level of disability, there may need to be many transfers each day. The more transfers, the more stress that is put on the dog’s body.
This comes out in the long-term wear of the dog’s skeletal system and the greater probability of injuring your dog.
This can shorten your dog’s working life and result in severe pain even if he never suffers an acute injury.

Learn How to do Transfers Without Your Service Dog’s Help,

Consult your physiotherapist or occupational therapist. He will show you how to use your body and tools in your environment to safely transfer yourself in and out of a wheelchair no matter where you are based on your specific abilities. Have your dog sit or lay down off to the side until you are safely transferred, then put her back to work.

Here is a partial list of tools to use instead of your service dog:

  • poles
  • grip bars
  • railings
  • armrests
  • transfer/sliding board
  • swivel cushions (that rotate easily such as for getting in and out of the car)
  • metro car handle to push up on-fits on U-bolt of door lock
  • ramps

Other suggestions:

  • raising beds and car seats in low cars or lowering beds and car seats in high vehicles helps to ease transfers from higher to lower
  • drive wheelchair directly into the car (including driver seat)
  • place leading hand -lower (pushing) or higher (pulling) are better than median such as on the steering wheel, which puts more torque on the shoulder and increases the chance of injury
  • etc.

 If you are training a mobility service dog, check out our new class Wheelchair Loose Leash Walking for Service dogs.