Typically, when we talk about people with disabilities, we think about the individual’s needs. However, in many cases, a caregiver is an essential part of the picture. For children with disabilities, caregivers may include parents, siblings, or extended family. For adults with disabilities, caregivers may include spouses as well. In the case of an elderly individual, caregivers are often adult children. Some people with disabilities may need to hire caregivers, often referred to as Personal Care Attendants.
Caregiving isn’t easy, and caregivers may experience stress and may themselves become sick. Caregivers for people with dementia or Alzheimers, for example, may need to provide literally round the clock help. Caregiving can be overwhelming.
It is not uncommon for caregivers to look for service dogs to support a loved one with a disability. In some cases, a service dog may be able to reduce the caregiver’s workload and provide added independence to the individual with the disability. Caring for a dog may even fun and benefit the caregiver directly. For instance, caring for a dog may motivate the caregiver to go for walks and exercise. However, other times, dog’s needs can be a burden.
Service dog trainers working with owner-trainers need to make sure caregivers know how to support the training and care of the dog. It may be important for caregivers to participate in some or even all of the training appointments. There are cases where the caregiver will actually be the primary handler of the service dog. For instance, if the service dog is being trained to help a young child or an adult with dementia. Other times, the caregiver may be helping with daily care of the dog. Trainers may need to educate caregivers on how to meet the dog’s exercise and grooming needs.
Service dog trainers working with individuals with caregivers need to consider the caregiver’s needs when developing training plans. If the person with the disability cannot meet the dog’s exercise and daily care needs himself or herself, a pet sitter or dog walker may be able to provide additional support. Caregivers often tell me that they feel strange hiring a petsitter when they are home themselves. However, if the care they provide for the individual with the disability requires their time and attention, it may not be realistic to also meet the dog’s needs.
Trainers can also help by teaching caregivers strategies to make taking care of the dog easier, for example, by stuffing and freezing KONGs in advance. Caregivers may overestimate what they are able to do, or may be hesitant to share that the service dog’s needs are too much for them. Service dog trainers need to be prepared to provide guidance so caregivers can balance meeting the service dog’s needs, the person with the disabilities’ needs and their own.