Tips for a Service Dog Owner
"As a power wheelchair user, I’d like to add some things (to your videos) that might be helpful, especially to people who are raising and training their own service dogs from puppyhood.
Personally, I can’t imagine trying to train and use a
dog that was afraid of the chair. One of the things we tested for and paid
a lot of attention to was a puppy’s ability to recognize and react to
discomfort/pain; quickly recover and then “forgive” whoever or whatever
caused it. By itself, my chair weighs over 350 lbs and although my service
dog, Laurel and I work hard for me to not run her over (it’s only happened
about 5-6 times), as active as we are and the close quarters we are often
in, I believe it is inevitable that I will occasionally do so. It is pretty
traumatic when it does occur and if Laurel couldn’t recover and be willing
to come right back next to my chair, it would severely limit what she could
do for me and what we could do together. At least for someone in a power
chair, the dog must have the ability to get run over and still not be afraid
of the chair.
My service dog is a Labrador Retriever and we got her when she was about 8 ½
weeks old. From that time until she was about 4 months old, when we went out
with her she either sat on my lap or I used a manual chair and she could
walk or sit in my lap. When she got too big to sit in my lap but was still
small enough that if I ran her over in the power chair, I risked breaking
something, I only took her out with my manual chair.
From the time we got her, I used my power chair around the house and she
learned to stay out of its way. When I started working with Laurel, I found
the wheelchair to be a barrier between us which really annoyed me (and there
are still times I feel that way). I think that is because when I could still
walk, I trained and competed in AKC obedience so I know how much easier it
is to train on your feet than in a wheelchair. Early on with Laurel, there
would be times I would get on my feet to train something but since I am a
disaster at walking and I realized that things she learned that way didn’t
necessary translate when I was using my chair, I quickly determined that
regardless of the frustration involved, I needed to stay in my chair to
train everything. On a side note, we have been doing agility for a couple
years now and being in a chair never bothers me but I never did agility on
my feet so I have nothing to compare.
When we started working with Laurel walking next to my power chair, we did
so in a large enclosed training room. We had her off leash and used her
ability to target to come up into heel position. We taught her “left” and
“right” and when we turned left, I would throw a treat in that direction so
that she would move there before my chair did. I still use the directional
commands when heeling, in agility and for all sorts of things.
I realized early on that Laurel’s “heel position” when doing rally and
obedience versus when we were out in public had to be two different things.
When we were out in public, Laurel naturally wanted to walk further forward
than she did when we were in the ring training or competing. I realized that
when we were out, she wanted to be able to see around the chair to the other
side. Since I thought that was pretty reasonable, we trained the two
different positions depending on the situation and she does them
consistently and reliably.
When we started doing rally, obedience and agility, I looked to see if there
were any videos out with people in wheelchairs doing those sports. I think I
found one video of someone in a chair doing rally and that was it. As a
result, I have put a number of videos of us doing those things out on
youtube so that others who want to compete can see that it’s very doable and
a great way to have fun with your service dog."
"I found leash weights, types, and lengths to be an added concern for
me when working my dogs from my chair. To heavy and I could not hold on to them,
wrong material and they caused pain, to long and they became wrapped up in the
wheels, if I could not gather the leash up fast enough. I have tried many
leashes over the years and found a simple six foot cotton web training leash
with a second handle I tie in the middle to be the perfect set up for me.I can
loop the main handle over my handle bar if needed, and grab the second one to
quickly take up slack and avoid entanglement. The leash setup also serves as a
very versatile ever ready door pull."
Melissa and SD Shiloh
List of Tasks for Wheelchair
It is usually easiest to teach the following tasks with the handler either sitting on the ground or in a chair first, then train sitting on the wheelchair. Experiment to see what works for you and your dog.
*Nudge fallen arm or foot back on chair
*Retrieve dropped item to hand
*Step up to deliver object to lap
*Delivering and retrieving objects to store counter/clerk
*Retrieve wheelchair from storage
*Retrieve objects from backpack attached to wheelchair
Other Useful Behaviors:
*Pulling the chair up inclines (manual chair only)
(This is reserved for dogs that have the build, stamina and sufficient size to handle the occasional or daily stresses of pulling a manual wheelchair with handler on flat surfaces or up minor inclines such as ramps. Use a properly-fitted harness and condition your dog first. Consult your veterinarian.)
*Small dogs can learn to sit on foot rest or lap
*Negotiate electric wheelchair lifts
*Avoid curbs and stairs
*Locate wheelchair ramps
Training Tips with the Wheelchair:
1. Each time you add a new criteria ( such as a chair or leash) to training, expect your dog to need to relearn the behavior from the beginning (reshape the behavior as if your dog does not know it). Each time, the process will go much more quickly. If your timing is off or if you are distracted by things such as handling the wheelchair, your dog’s learning will slow down. Ideally, you can practice with the new objects without the dog first to increase your skill with them.
2. Working your dog on a leash with a wheelchair may take some practice to learn how to coordinate it, the chair, the treats and clicker. An 8 foot adjustable to 4 foot leash (is easily shortened or lengthened) may give needed distance for going through some heavy doors or in narrow hallways before doors.
3. It is easiest to start training stationary skills and tasks, then as your dog becomes more comfortable with the chair, progress to the skills and tasks that require the wheelchair to move. By that time, your coordination around the chair will likely have improved.
4. Training should begin in a familiar environment, then as dog is successful, taken to other less familiar locations, then with increasing distractions.
5. If the person with the disability is unable to train the basic skills (due to physical disability), an assistant can train the dog first to verbal or eye cue as appropriate for the person’s disabilities) before transitioning the dog over to the handler.
If you have other ideas for useful tasks with the wheelchair, please let us know!
Preparation for Training:
There are several basic skills that are need for an assistance dog that helps the handler when in a wheelchair.
All begin with foundation behaviors of
* paw target
*loose leash walking
*30 seconds of eye contact
Desensitizing your dog to the sight, sound and proximity of bicycles, scooters, skateboards etc before training with the wheelchair, will help your dog to become comfortable with the wheelchair much more quickly and be able to focus on learning the tasks.
The basic skills and tasks can be taught with the trainer in a standing position. They can also be sitting in a swivel chair. This is the easiest way to train the eye contact-based behaviors such as swinging to right of left side, backing and gets the dog accustomed to working with the person in a seated position and a chair that has movement. This is a very different perspective for many dogs who are accustomed to seeing their trainer stand up.
When the dog is successful training near the swivel chair, transition to a stationary chair with arms (such as an armchair) or actual wheelchair to retrain the behaviors.
Training with the Wheelchair:
Desensitize Your Dog to Your Wheelchair
It is important that your dog feel comfortable with the wheelchair as he will come in close contact with it at times and need to know how it moves, the sounds it makes and that it is not something to be fearful of.
Treat the chair as a novel object and spend several sessions playing “101 Things to do with a Wheelchair”. Make sure to lock the brakes so it cannot move. Shape your dog to sniff all parts of it, nose pouch, paw touch, rest chin, place front paws up on it, climb on it, jump off it, retrieve objects from near, then under it etc. until he is very comfortable with it.
Next walk the dog beside the wheelchair over a variety of surfaces with you pushing from behind (or walking behind if it is an electric wheelchair). Pavement, gravel, bark mulch, over small bumps, ramps, up and down inclines etc.
If your dog shows any fearfulness or startles easily, counter condition him by playing with him near it, feeding him near it, using really yummy treats anytime he works near it etc. Progress to calling him past it, doing behaviors near it etc. Always make sure you can control the movement of the chair (by locking or blocking the wheels if necessary) to prevent scaring your dog unexpectedly. When you start training with movement, keep all changes small and build on previous successes. Ensure that the environment you are training in will not have any unexpected noises etc that he may attribute to the chair.
Skills With the Wheelchair
Your Dog needs a variety of skills when working with you near the wheelchair. All of these are helpful to position your dog for the tasks as well as moving around in tight spaces in stores, buses etc. Start by shaping these into the finished behaviors, then adding a cue as in normal training. What will happen with practice is that your dog will start to anticipate your needs and the cue in many situations will not be necessary.
For example, as you start moving forward, your dog will start moving with you uncued, turn uncued, as you start making a turn the dog will watch the front wheels for clues he needs to turn etc. The cues, however, will still be useful when you want to get your dog to move when he is sleeping (Jessie, Let’s Go!) or to prevent him from being startled if you need him to get into or out of a position quickly (for his or your safety etc.). (Jessie, Back!)
*Walking on a loose leash on both sides of the chair
*Following behind you on a loose leash
*Switching from one side to the other
*Moving with the chair around objects
*Passing though doors, gates etc either before or after chair
*Circling around the chair
*Moving to stand in front of the chair facing handler
*Backing up while facing handler
*Walking forward while facing handler
*Backing up at the side of the wheelchair
*Swinging around into heel position to right and left sides
*Getting front paws off your lap (after delivering an object to hand for example)
*Being comfortable being sandwiched between the chair and other objects or people (for tight spaces such as elevators and in corners of stores etc)
See our video Part 1 Wheelchair Skills
Generalizing a behavior is a very important skill for every owner-trained assistance dog, and in dog training generally. Yet, it's not often discussed!
It is also a characteristic that humans are usually quite good at and most dogs do not do easily. This often creates mis-understandings and disharmony in the human-dog team. The human believes the dog "should" be able to do the behavior as he already "knows" it. In fact, the dog only "knows" a behavior in the settings where he has been already trained with that behavior and been successful. Other factors such as anxiety, fear or distractions in that new environment can also make it harder for the dog to successfully complete tasks.
What is Generalizing?
It is the process of teaching the dog to be able to successfully complete a cued behavior or task in many different locations, with a variety of distractions, and may even be with a variety of handlers.
For most dogs, the process involves teaching each behavior from the very beginning at each new location. Pretend that your dog does not know that behavior or task at all and start teaching at each new location. Make a point of scheduling practice at specific new locations. It helps to schedule it on a calendar. With enough training at enough different locations, and enough other distractions, the dog eventually is able to remember what the cue(s) mean without having to be re-taught in a new location.
Humans actually do not have good generalization skills in some situations either. Take test taking for example. Students do better when they are tested in the same location where they previously learned the material. Studies show their success rate is much less when the test is located in a new environment.
Ever heard of the expression "having it down cold"? This simply means that you have practiced the material or skill so much that you can reproduce it anywhere, at any time when presented in any order. This is the comfort level with each task you want to get to with your dog, without boring your dog so he refuses to perform.
How long Does it Take?
It really depends on the dog and the trainer. If your dog has any anxiety or reactivity issues or is easily distracted, it may take much longer. Some dogs seem to have a natural talent for it, while others take much longer. If you are taking your dog to new locations once or twice a week, it will take longer than someone who take their dog to a new location or two each day.
Here are two excellent videos showing how to generalize the behavior of Loose Leash Walking (by placing a small amount of tension on the leash in a sitting, then standing postion), making it into game at each new location. It is a variation of level 1 of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels 'Leash Manners' behavior.
This dog is able to ignore distractions such as other animals, bikes, people etc.
Build in generalizing training into your day. Make a point of taking the time to retrain and practice behaviors when you are away from home.
One topic rarely discussed among Assistance Dog Handlers is the level of stress that a dog (and person) lives with. Chronic stress in dogs, as in humans, leads to health problems and can trigger problem behaviors and even cause the need to retire your dog early.Examine the Big Picture:Your Home & Work Environments, Exercise
and FoodHome EnvironmentIt is important that dog guardians carefully manage their dog's home environment as this is where she recharges her batteries.How can you do this?Look hard at your life and determine what stresses you out the most. Make a list. Prioritize. What choices can you make that will lower or ideally remove that stress? There are always choices. You may have to do some research (or have a helper do it for you) and be creative, but there are ALWAYS options! If it's complicated, it's probably not the right choice.Some ideas:* Have a regular routine where possible* Eat meals at the same time, at the same place* Go to sleep and rise at the same time every day* Schedule ongoing medical-related appointments etc
for the same time and day each week. Same for recreation outings.* Post a schedule where everyone in the home can see what is happening each day and in the future* Avoid 'switching things up to keep it interesting' at home) Moving furniture from room to room, switching contents of cupboards and drawers for no reason creates chaos where none needs to be* Set up your living areas so they make efficient use of space* Ensure pathways to hallways and doorways are clear* Get regular exercise even if it means sitting in your wheelchair and lifting your arms to some music. If you are in better shape, you can handle stress better.* Manage your own health thoughtfully- quality food, exercise, sufficient sleep etc are all important factors.* Limit excessive activity level in your home (people coming and going)* Be Efficient in your day-to-day errands etc (do several on one outing instead of going out several times)* Consider bulk deliveries for groceries (canned or frozen items) or regular weekly deliveries for fresh (eat lots of fruit and veggies)* Turn background noise (such as TV's or radios down or off)* Choose colors & patterns for your walls, drapes, bedspreads etc that you feel good around or calm you. (Avoid light green as it is stressful for most people.) Light blue is calming.* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.)Emotionally:* Discontinue harmful relationships* Carefully examine the medications you are on to see how they affect your mood. (Remember that how you feel affects your dog!)* If you are a perfectionist, lower your expectations of yourself* If you are a pessimist, try to think of positive outcomes* Mark and reward positive things that you do, see or say. Looking for the positive in life shapes how you view what is happening to you. (You use this approach with training your dog and see how great it works! It is successful with people too!)* Have some fun on a regular basis (laugh, read or watch funny movies etc)* Learn to meditate* Set aside time each week just for you!At Work & PlayManaging stress away from home can be more difficult but still doable.Think about the set up in your workplace. What changes can be made to decrease stress for you and your dog? Enlist the help of an empathetic co-worker or boss.* Use natural lighting where possible instead of overhead fluorescent tubes. (Locating your desk near a window, installing skylights or the 'tube lights' that poke through the ceiling or wall in dark corners might be solutions.) * Choose desk space closest to a door for easy access*Bring a fan to keep your dog cool on hot days*Take a toy to play with or chew on while you are otherwise engaged* Choose one person as
your work contact that you can depend on in case you need help with your dogRegular Exercise*Make sure your dog gets daily heart-raising exercise to an appropriate level for your dog and what else she will be doing that day (chasing a ball, playing with a dog buddy or jogging with your wheelchair are all great ways to get exercise).
Off leash exercise where possible is best as it is less stressful on dogs. They, not you, then determine how much and what intensity they need.*Consider reducing the length or intensity of training (often less training is actually more)Feeding Your DogSince the body is built on what you feed your dog, deciding what to feed your dog is key to helping the dog manage stress. Choose a good quality food that matches your dog's physical activity and mental needs. Some dogs do well on a good quality kibble (do not assume that cost is an indicator of quality). Look at the ingredient labels. Make sure the protein, fat
and calcium levels are within moderation. Too much fat gives extra unneeded energy to a calm dog. Think of it as using jet fuel for a commuter car. Lots of wasted energy! Too high protein is not necessarily better. Raw animal meats, for example, only contain between 15 to 20% protein. Why pay for what you don't need?Homecooked or raw feeding might be an option. If you have access to reasonably-cost protein, it could actually be cheaper than feeding commercially-made foods. Raw meat and bone foods are also available in packages as complete meals.Whichever you choose for your dog, adding antioxidants to the diet are known to help remove the free radicals that result from stress. Any of the bright intensely-colored veggies and fruits have lots of antioxidants naturally (blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, kale, spinach etc) Do an internet search for ' antioxidants'. Avoid feeding any that might be toxic to your dog - such as raw garlic, soy, grapes, cruciferous veggies. Here's one linkHere is an article with another approach to stress reduction in your dog:Also, you can use the tools in "Control Unleashed" by Leslie McDevitt to help your dog focus and stay calm. Ultimately, decreasing stress levels for your dog will decrease your own stress level since you know that your dog can do her job unimpeded.