Are you training your own mobility service dog and wondering how to train a dog from a wheelchair or with an unsteady gait? Or are you a professional trainer working with a client who uses a cane, crutches, or mobility scooter?
In its essence, dog training always involves setting up the dog for success with easy first steps, rewarding the dog when it does the right thing, and then slowly increasing the challenge level. However, for trainers with mobility impairments, sometimes the methods for how to do this look a little different than for someone with full or easy ambulation.
This is a huge topic! We can’t fit everything you need to know about training with a mobility impairment in a blog post. But we hope these tips and tricks will be useful for getting started or getting past challenges. We also have a Youtube channel with many training videos that you may find helpful, so be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get more training tips in your email in-box! We specialize in helping people with disabilities to train their own service dogs, and we also provide online training and consultation for pet professionals and pet owners who have disabilities. If you have additional questions, drop us a line!
Do what works for YOU (Break the Rules!)
As someone who lived with chronic fatigue and pain for many years and now helps disabled people train their own service dogs, I can’t stress enough how important it is to make your dog training schedule and approach work for you. Don’t be limited by what you think training should look like (what it looks like on online videos or TV, etc.). For example, I often find our clients think that to train their dog, they must be standing in front of their dog, with the dog on leash, ready to train for half an hour. So they keep postponing training sessions until they feel well enough to do that. Not true! None of these things are required to train your dog…
Train Where You Spend Time In Real Life
You can and should train your dog when and where you feel most able. Train your dog from your bed, from the recliner or couch, from the toilet or the tub. There are several important reasons for this….
- Your dog is learning all the time, everywhere. Training a bit here and a bit there, throughout the day, is actually the most efficient type of training!
- Train when it works for you — when your energy level, pain level, or mental sharpness allow. Two minutes of training with you lying on the couch is 100 percent more effective than not training because you’re waiting to feel well enough to get outside.
- Training that is done in a variety of situations and positions will teach your dog to generalize these skills, which is one of the most important parts of effective training! This means that your dog will learn that “Sit” still means sit whether you’re standing or sitting or lying down, whether you’re whispering it or signing it, whether you’re indoors or outdoors or making a meal or watching TV.
- When you train in real life scenarios, your dog is learning your real-life skills. Suppose you spend most of your time on your recliner, and you want your dog to eventually retrieve dropped items for you or alert you to psychiatric or medical symptoms. If you mostly train these skills when you’re out at a training facility or standing in the yard, you’re not training your dog for when you are most likely to actually need these skills! Your dog will be less likely to recognize “real life” as a working or training scenario! Instead, make training and “real life” look as similar as possible!
Prep or schedule training for your “good” times
If you tend to be at your best at certain times of the day, budget some time in your schedule at those times for training. If possible, have treats, pouches, and other gear ready to use at times when you tend to be at your best. If you know some medications make you more or less able to train, try to have your training sessions ready for when the impact of the drugs is most supportive.
At the same time, don’t be afraid to train on a whim, when you unexpectedly have some extra functionality (“spoons”). As long as your dog is able to wake up and work for a treat or a game, you can potentially train at any time, even if it seems like a strange time or place to other people. (Who cares what they think? Your dog doesn’t care about social niceties!)
While you may be training your dog because you want to be more independent, the fact remains that dog ownership, and dog training in particular, is very physically demanding. There may be times it makes sense to get some help with physically exercising or managing your dog.
This is particularly true when your pup is an adolescent and young adult, between the ages of about six months and two years old. Dogs of this age are the perfect storm in terms of challenge level: they have adult bodies, higher energy levels, but they have little reliable training. Add to that that their energy and hormone levels are peaking, their ability to listen and remember what you’ve trained them is, um, highly variable, and the impacts of developmental stages like jaw hardening or sexual maturity leading to being extra mouthy, jumpy, or humpy.
Help can take many forms, depending on your needs:
- Hire a professional dog walker
- Hire a trainer to do day training or board-and-train (make sure they are using only rewards, no choke, shock, or prong collars!)
- Ask a family member, friend, or neighbor to play fetch with your dog or bring the dog with them when they go jogging
- See if there’s a young person in your neighborhood (teen or child) who is yearning for a dog, but can’t have one. Sometimes a parent is happy to “borrow” your dog for walks with their child a few times a week if it will scratch the “dog itch” for that child.
- Do you have a personal assistant, PCA, family member or friend who can accompany you on walks, holding the leash while you train?
Introduce Mobility Devices as Early as Possible
Puppies Don’t Understand Wheelchairs (or Scooters). When possible, introducing the mobility device early reduces the likelihood of a dog being afraid of the equipment’s sound, movement, or size. But be aware that dogs – especially puppies – don’t understand the danger and importance of getting out of the way. If you use a wheelchair or any type of power mobility (scooter, powerchair) ALWAYS LOOK for the dog BEFORE you move. This prevents accidents. In the case of a puppy or small breed dog and power mobility, it can prevent tragedy and save the dog’s life.
When working around mobility devices, especially something like leash walking with a wheelchair, it’s very helpful if a dog already has these skills:
- Following a food lure
- Understanding an event marker (such as a click or the word “YES”). The event marker should mean, “That was the right thing to do; now you get a treat; try it again.
- Hand targeting (touching your hand with its nose on a cue, such as “touch”)
- Backup (if your dog doesn’t know backup yet, that’s OK, you can train it once they’ve learned heel position, below)
Position, Position, Position
Positioning with a mobility device or a person with balance problems is much more important than for a handler who is ambulatory. The dog should NOT switch sides or cross in front or behind unless cued. Otherwise the leash is very likely to get caught in the wheels of the wheelchair or wrapped around the walker or legs. In the case of a scooter or chair, the dog is also likely to get hit or have its paws run over.
- HEEL WIDE for people with unstable/unsteady gait or for mobility devices. The distance from chair should be about a foot (or a little more of less, depending on a variety of factors). Train the dog to heel wide to prevent paws getting run over or knocking into a handler with unsteady gait.
- One side only (pick the side and stick to it). For the sake of this post, we’ll say that we’re training the dog to walk on the handler’s left side, but it’s just as “correct” to train the dog to walk on the handler’s right side. You can eventually train the dog to switch sides and walk on either side on cue, but that is an advanced skill that should be trained only when the dog and handler are reliable with one side only.
- This is best trained with a wall or other barrier on the dog’s left side to prevent the dog from swinging their butt out and ending up perpendicular to you (facing you)
- Train off-leash first (if possible/safe). Note: If there is no safe off-leash place to train, all of this can be trained with the leash on, too. It’s easier not to have to hold and keep track of the leash when both dog and owner are in the early stages of training. But it’s not wrong if you need to have the dog on leash.
- Mark and reward (click and feed) the dog when parallel, never perpendicular (not turning toward/into you). Deliver the treat in front of the dog, not close to you. If you deliver the treat with the dog turning toward you, you’re luring the dog to cross into the mobility device or handler’s legs.
- Nose even with knee/thigh (generally speaking – this may vary depending on the size of dog and the mobility equipment, etc.)
- Add the leash to training periodically – when the dog has learned a component of the process, add the leash so handler and dog can train it with the leash mechanics, too. Then go back to training without the leash for the next set of instructions.
Train Control Skills Before Training with Movement
Dogs think better and learn faster when we start with easy, foundation skills first. The key to training for reliable, safe work when you have a mobility impairment is to train when YOU (the handler) are at your best as the trainer/teacher AND your dog can also learn the best. As you are both succeeding, start to add in a little more challenge. When we try to train for “real life” (college level difficulty) with only kindergarten skills, we get frustrated (and possibly injured) and our dogs don’t learn well.
Train “Heel” standing still first
Train your dog to find heel position and stay in it before you take any steps! Once your dog can reliably get in heel position, take just one step, mark (say YES or click) and feed. Then take one step and mark and feed again. Do this indoors, in a non-distracting environment first. Once your dog is completely reliable taking one step in low-distraction settings, reward for taking two steps, then three steps, etc.
Train “Attention” early & often (before everything else)!
Can your dog easily respond to their name around distractions? Does your pup turn and look at you frequently? If not, this is where you should start! You need your dog to be able to follow your cues to keep you both safe and coordinated. If your pup can’t do that when you’re standing still or in a low-distraction setting, she certainly won’t be able to do it when you’re speeding down the sidewalk in your powerchair or trying to negotiate stairs on your crutches with a squirrel in the yard.
Train a hand target (nose touch) to easily maneuver your dog into position
Because it is often harder for a disabled person to move into position, it is particularly important for our dogs to be able to easily and eagerly get into position around us. Train your dog to follow your hand target to get into position around you, your mobility devices, your bed or recliner.
Train a “Woah”
In some cases, it may be best to train your dog to STOP before you start training on moving with you. This may be especially helpful for high-energy, large, or strong dogs and for owners/handlers who use a manual wheelchair, have unstable gait, use crutches, or are otherwise unsteady on their feet. Train your dog to stop on a verbal cue (such as “Woah” or “Wait”) before you start walking with them. This can keep everyone safe!
Tips, Tricks, and Equipment
It’s very helpful for a dog to learn to back up when their handler uses power mobility. For example, if the dog moves forward out of position a bit, you can simply cue a backup rather than needing to do a complex swing-into-place maneuver. Please get in touch with us to help, or consult our video on training backup from a powerchair.
Locate or Station Your Dog Before You Move
People who are new to power mobility, new dog owners, or those who have not had a puppy or new dog in several years may easily forget to always, always, always locate the puppy (or new dog) before they move. A savvy adult dog can learn “the dance” to move with and stay out of the way of a powerchair or scooter, but puppies and new dogs (or dogs new to mobility equipment) are at risk for injury or developing a fear of the equipment. (Please see our video, “Dog Training from a Wheelchair – Safety Tip: Go Settle” for more information.)
Some helpful options may be one or all of these:
- Train the dog to jump up out of the way when it hears the motor engage
- Send the dog to a mat or other station before moving
- Get in the habit of locating your dog before you move
Leash, Treat, and Clicker Options
An excellent treat option for training a dog to walk with a mobility scooter is an extendable fly swatter smeared with peanut butter, spray cheese, or canned dog food. (See Alternate Treat Delivery Ideas video.)
For treat pouch suggestions, please refer to our video on Treat Pouch Options for Training from a Wheelchair.
A mouth click or verbal marker is usually easiest. The new Clicino clicker ring from Karen Pryor Clicker Training is also excellent. For more clicker suggestions, try the new clicker ring or please refer to our video on Clicker Options for Training from a Wheelchair.
For wheelchair users, the best leash option is usually something that is small and lightweight (you do not want a heavy, braided leash that is taking up room in your hand when you’re also trying to hold onto the scooter handles), and not too long. The more leash, the easier it will be for the dog to get tangled in the wheels. A fixed-length leash that can be shortened or lengthened, depending on the situation, is usually the best. There are a number of these now available from different sellers on Etsy. In some cases, a leash that the handler can wear around their hips works well. Beware of attaching a leash to a mobility scooter. If a large dog pulls hard, suddenly, to the side (e.g., a dog on the left suddenly bolts to its left), it can easily pull the scooter over onto the handler. (I learned this from first-hand experience over years ago. It’s a lesson I never forgot!) Because needs vary so much based on your disability and your dog, there are too many potential options. For disabilities affecting hands, there are leashes with handles that are easier to hold or cuffs that go over your hand. For those who want a shoulder leash, there are many excellent options. For clients who work with us, we often suggest a particular type of leash based on what works best for them.
For Power Mobility Users (Scooters and Electric Wheelchairs) — Condition to the Motor Engaging
Dogs who are used to living with or walking with someone who uses power mobility quickly learn to associate the sound of the device turning on OR the sound of the motor engaging with movement. This may be a benefit in some cases and a downside in others.
The benefit is if the dog learns to jump up and get out of the way when the scooter or chair turns on or is about to move. This can be wonderful for safety. If safety is your primary concern (the dog not getting hit by the chair/scooter), you can skip these steps. This is more likely for adult dogs who live with a handler who uses power mobility in the home.
For dogs who learn that the motor engaging or power going on means, “charge ahead,” this can be a problem. It trains the dog to leap up and run (pull), which can be difficult for training loose leash manners. In this case, use desensitization and counterconditioning to break this association. Turn on the chair or press the lever just enough to make the sound, but don’t move. Mark and reward for staying still. Repeat many times. (See our video “Desensitize Dog to Power Wheelchair Sounds (Train Dog NOT to Jump Up When the Powerchair Turns On)” for a demonstration.
If the dog is leaping up and you can’t mark stillness, try having the dog behind a gate, tethered, or crated, and then make the sound of the chair going on or the motor engaging, and toss treats to them from a distance. You can also give the dog a bone or food-stuffed toy to help them keep still in early stages.
Some dogs have learned to fear the sound of the scooter or chair going on or about to move. In this case, too, you can mark and reward the dog at a distance. Repeat until the dog shows happy, relaxed body language when it hears the machine turn on or motor engage. Then move slightly closer and repeat the process until eventually the dog is happy and relaxed at that sound.
For a dog with no previous experience with power mobility, but who is happy, relaxed, and calm around the scooter, you can skip these concerns and move directly into training next to your scooter or powerchair.
We’re Here to Help
There’s so much more to say on this topic, and having lived with chronic pain and mobility conditions ourselves, as well as working with hundreds of dog owners over the years, we could write a book on this topic! But we hope these few tips have given you some useful ideas.
If you’d like personalized support with training your pet or service dog, or if you’re a professional trainer working with a client with a mobility impairment, we’re happy to help. We provide consulting and mentoring for pet professionals throughout the US.
For those training their own service dog, we offer live, hands-on online classes as well as private online lessons for people anywhere in the USA. For those in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, we also offer day training and private lessons.
No matter where you’re located, our trainers can help you achieve better success. Get in touch if we can help.