One of the most challenging physical limitations to accommodate for in training dogs is, in my experience, limitation of hand use. Limited leg use may be more visually obvious as we usually notice a very altered gait or adaptive equipment. However, think about the process of training a dog. Holding a leash, holding a clicker, reaching for and delivering treats. All of these things require pretty good coordination, strength and ability to use our hands!
I have a disability that impairs both my hands and my legs. Sometimes I can grab a leash, hold treats and deliver them (although clumsily) other times I have no ability to move or use my hands in a coordinated way. Conditions that cause pain, limited sensation, impair coordination or movement control, and injuries can also limit hand use. Last but not least, using adaptive equipment can functionally result in limited hand use because the person has to use their hands to use the equipment – such as holding a cane or pushing a manual wheelchair.
Regardless of the cause of the limitation, here are some strategies that may help:
- Remember that timing the click is important in helping the dog learn. It’s especially important to have great timing with the marker when the timing of the treat delivery will be slow. The click can be verbal or an actual clicker. I prefer an actual clicker when possible.
- There are many clickers available. For people with limited fine motor (like yours truly) a raised button style clicker can be helpful. For some people a larger size clicker may be better than a smaller one, while for others visa-versa. Some clickers can be adapted to be used by mouth.
- Consider “out of the box” ideas like attaching the clicker to adaptive equipment such as to an armrest of a wheelchair using velcro.
- Look at the many leashes available today. I use one with two clips and wrap it around myself. Of course this would be a bad idea if I had limited balance or if my dog could pull me off my feet. There are jogging leashes and leashes with quick release clips. A leash can be custom made if needed. Consider texture, width and materials that may be easier to hold.
- Teach the dog to pick them up on a cue like “find it” so the dog quickly picks up dropped treats (of course, be considerate, it’s not ok to drop treats when working with service dogs in training in grocery stores or other businesses).
- Use larger size treats. For most people with fine motor control issues a larger treat is often easier to grab. Sometimes just a strategy as simple as cutting treats in advance can make all the difference.
- Food tubes or even some squeezable baby food (look at ingredients first) may be easier to use than handing treats. There are lickable treats on the market as well. I’ve had clients use a spoon or dowel to give the dog a lick of canned dog food or peanut butter. Depending on the individual’s abilities, squeeze cheese may work (or not).
- For people with Raynaud’s, arthritis or other conditions that cause their skin to be sensitive or painful, using gloves while training might help. Take the time to teach the dog to take treats gently.
- Use foam tubing to make it easier to hold a leash or hold a target stick.
- Get a treat bag with a larger pocket so reaching into it becomes easier.
Here’s a short video that shows how I use a clicker with my joystick at the same time.
Do you have other ideas that can help accommodate for limited hand use in training a dog? Please share!