Service dogs often need to work with items of unusual shapes and materials to perform their tasks. They need to retrieve cell phones and remote controls, and pick up small items like medication bottles and pens. They also sometimes need to access small, hard-to-reach items like light switches. Fortunately, there are a variety of gadgets that can make some challenging tasks easier for the dog to perform. Here are four of my favorites:
Cell phone bags
Service dogs often need to retrieve cell phones for their handlers. Cell phones are awkward items for the dog to hold; it’s common for dogs to fumble with phones, drop them or sometimes even chew them while retrieving. If the dog had a drink of water right before the retrieve was needed, the phone could get wet, making it difficult to use or even potentially causing damage. Additionally, cell phones are expensive to replace if the dog drops the phone.
For these reasons I usually prefer having service dogs retrieve the phone in a cell phone bag rather than pick up the phone directly. Cell phone bags can address all these issues and are available in an assortment of materials, and some even have plastic windows allowing the phone to be used while in the bag. I begin training with an empty cell phone bag, then I fill it with an old cell phone or items that weigh the same as a cell phone. I introduce a real working cell phone when I know the dog is performing the retrieve reliably.
Remote control covers
A challenge when working with remote controls is that, as with a cell phone, the dog can press the buttons and get them slobbery while retrieving. I recently discovered that there are various types of remote control covers made of silicone with attached lanyards. Some are made for specific brands, but there are universal types as well. The dog can be trained to pick up the remote using the lanyard, preventing the dog from getting the remote wet or accidentally hitting buttons. As an added bonus, the silicone cover is designed to provide protection if the remote is dropped.
Light switch extenders
While dogs can be trained to press a switch directly on the wall, this can be physically demanding and difficult, especially as the dog ages. If the dog wets the light switch while nudging it with their nose or paw, they could get a shock. Additionally, for some small-sized service dogs, it may be impossible for the dog to reach the switch. In some cases, moving a bench or furniture that the dog can jump on can address the challenge. However, this is not always practical. Light switch extenders come in a variety of shapes and are designed to fit different kinds of switches. I prefer the ones that are shaped like a moon so the dog can be taught to nudge them up and down. You can attach two extenders together so the dog can easily move the light switch.
Foam tubing is often sold by medical supply stores for people who have arthritis or another condition that makes it difficult for them to grip items. Fortunately, it makes things easier for a service dog to hold as well. Foam tubing is inexpensive and comes in a variety of sizes. It is a material most dogs are comfortable grabbing and can easily be wrapped around various items to make it easier for trainers to generalize retrieve skills. Small items like pencils and pens can be wrapped in foam tubing to make them easier for a service dog to retrieve. Additionally, foam tubing is easy to cut and can be wrapped around items that tend to get slippery or may roll when the dog is trying to pick them up, like medication bottles.
A service dog’s job is hard, but with a bit of creativity, gadgets can be found that can make some tasks easier for the dog to perform. As an added bonus, in many cases, these simple tools can make things easier for the client too!