When I talk to trainers about working with service dogs, they often ask about a specific type of service dog. For instance, dogs for people with PTSD or Parkinsons. And as we talk about selecting tasks, we do tend to think about specific categories of service dogs such as mobility dogs, hearing dogs, guide dogs. In reality however, people don’t fit neatly into boxes. This is especially true of owner-trainers, people training their own dog for service work. It’s not uncommon for owner-trainers to have chosen this path because they could not find a program that would provide a service dog for their highly specialized needs.
Some cases seem more “obviously” to be expected to go together, for instance, a veteran injured in war might have PTSD and also a mobility impairment. A person with a Traumatic Brain Injury may have behavioral and emotional issues as well as physical challenges. Other secondary conditions are more subtle in their association. For instance, someone with paraplegia may develop arthritis in their hands or shoulders from pushing a manual wheelchair for many years. Sometimes people are impacted by two totally unrelated disabling conditions at the same time for no reason at all.
Many health conditions may directly or indirectly lead to depression in some individuals. For example, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder, Parkinsons, Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis. Of course, not everyone who has these conditions is depressed, and many people with disabilities are happy. That said, there can be overlap for some individuals. There is a growing body of research exploring the association of psychological trauma with physical health.
It’s hard to know what comes first here, the chicken or the egg, and probably does not matter too much as far as service dog training is concerned. What does matter is that we need to keep in mind that secondary conditions impact the training of the dog and task selection. Be careful not to make assumptions, the way one person is impacted by a diagnosis can be very different from the way another is by the very same diagnosis.
I’ve already talked about the importance of collaborating with the client’s healthcare professional when it comes to task selection. However, I like to also encourage my clients to look not just at lists of tasks pertaining to their “category” of service dog. There may be tasks trained to other types of service dogs that can be helpful to them. Additionally training accommodations that we think of fitting into one category may well apply to another as well.