This is not something I can teach in a few paragraphs, so it will span a couple of weeks. I am currently training a service dog to work with and pull a wheelchair for a disabled service veteran so the topic is on my mind. I should say here that I don’t do any specific task training with a dog until they have obedience training in place. So before the wheelchair training begins the dog knows basic obedience.
I start a dog that has to do wheelchair work by first getting them used to the equipment that they will use and the wheelchair. Before I ever hook the dog to the chair I have the dog wear the harness I will be using and walk the dog with the bungee leash that will be eventually attached to the chair. This is conditioning the dog. Everything we do with a dog is a form of conditioning a dog to training them as to what we want them to do. The safest harness for a dog that is pulling is a harness with a padded breast plate. 707593 – Wheelchair Pulling Harness A dog’s power is in its chest when pulling and I don’t want any strain on its neck. I think this is the most important piece of equipment for this type of work. There are many kinds of harness that will work but I like a harness with two girth straps for several reasons. One is I have had young dogs back out of a single girth strap harness. It is a little more work to snap two girth straps in place but I feel it is worth the little extra time to put on the harness. The second girth strap also stabilizes the harness to ride more evenly around the back of the dog. Any harness is going to pull somewhat towards where it is pulled from but having two girth straps helps prevent the harness from turning too far to one side. If you use a two-girth strap harness be sure they connect together on the underside of the dog. It is important to have the harness fit snug around the dog’s girth and chest area. The first girth strap should sit just behind the front legs of the dog. I use Sherpa wraps around the girth strap to make the harness more comfortable on the dog. I am asking a lot from a dog that works with a wheelchair so I want to give them all the comfort I can as well as the right tools for the job. I need to work well with the dog to prevent pressure injuries on my body and my dog's.
The second most important piece of equipment in having a dog work with a wheelchair is the bungee leash 407042 – Bungee Leash. Alternatively, you could use the 707592 – Bungee Pulling Lead. The bungee leash will give the dog the ability to step into the pull. By that I mean the dog takes a step and gets a stride before the chair starts to roll. This gives the dog momentum. For a dog that has good leash training the dog knows that when the leash stops you stop and the dog is also to stop. So the bungee leash tells the dog there is a leash there but it is ok to move because the leash is not totally stopped. Once again it is conditioning the dog to think of what it is doing and what I am asking of it.
So first thing I do is put the harness on the dog and have the bungee leash in my hand. Then just take a leisurely walk. I ask very little of the dog at this point. I am just letting the dog know how the equipment works and how it feels when wearing it. I will walk in and out of doors, go to the bathroom, sit on a chair, move around objects, etc. that sort of thing. No pressure, just normal walking and movement with me. I do this because if you just put new equipment on the dog and attach it to a wheelchair and roll it is a lot of new experiences and not natural to the dogs way of thinking. If you do the prep work it makes the actual training on the wheelchair transition faster and easier.
Next week we’ll cover the rest.