As a person with a disability, I’m the first person to say that most of the time, a limitation can be “worked around” with a good training technique, tool or strategy. A lot can be accomplished with really great timing with a clicker or verbal marker. I’ve competed in Rally with my service dog, Sulu and we’ve done really well, with only a few exercise modifications. You can see one of our runs below.
However, there are times when we need to be realistic and help is needed.
This is even true for me. I have been training my own dogs since I was a teenager, and over 20 years professionally. I’ve owned dogs that anyone would say “are not for novice owners” such as huskies, a German Shepherd mix, and trained them to high levels. In short, my training skill set and timing is very advanced. Unfortunately, my medical problems are advanced as well. Over the years my ability to meet my own dog’s energy needs and to handle them when they are adolescents has declined. While I still train my dog’s new behaviors entirely on my own, and I work with them regularly, I have help meeting their exercise needs. I have help handling my dogs when they are adolescents in exciting settings. Thanks to my wonderful husband, colleagues and friends and our terrific pet sitter, I am able to meet their needs without much of a personal hardship.
Before selecting a dog as a service dog candidate, owners should ask themselves, “can I handle this dog in my worst day?” And if the answer to that question is no, then ask “what support systems do I have that could help me?” Owner-trainers need to keep in mind that adolescent dogs do not behave like adults. Most adolescent dogs are very energetic and some dogs that make terrific service dog candidates, like Labradors, can be bulls in a china shop when they are teenagers.
Sensory limitations make it difficult for handlers to evaluate stress in the dog. Handlers may not be able to see a tucked tail or a yawn, or hear the cause of a fearful behavior. A helper may be needed in these cases as well as creative strategies to help compensate for the limitation – for instance checking in with the dog by touching the dog more frequently to feel for muscle tension or trembling.
Finding a helper can be challenging in some situations. Trainers may be able to recruit extra training support from a training intern or apprentice instructor. Owners may reach out to members of the community or church groups. Some pet sitters offer exercise services as well. Think outside of the box, perhaps a friend can stuff KONGs or enrichment toys even if he or she cannot directly exercise or help with training. In some cases, board and train or day training services may be needed or beneficial to help speed up the training process.
Careful selection can help in preventing some of these challenges. While a large breed may be ideal for a person with a disability selecting a service dog candidate from a program, a person with a disability who is owner-training might need to choose a smaller dog – even if the dog cannot perform every task the person desires. People with mobility impairments and disabilities normally do best with very low-key dogs. I’ve literally never had anyone call me to complain that their dog was “too mellow.” “My dog is a spazz” on the other hand is a daily complaint. Always consider long term prognosis of the medical diagnosis when selecting a service dog candidate.