When trainers tell me that they are interested in training service dogs, they often share that they want to train a specific type of service dog, such as PTSD service dogs or mobility service dogs. We often think about service dogs as fitting into specific disability-related categories. Service dog programs typically specialize in training service dogs that fall into one or two of these categories. Even when we consider task training, we often identify tasks using these same categories, such as “guide tasks” or “hearing tasks.” However, in the real world, people with disabilities often do not fit neatly into discrete categories.
It is not uncommon for people to have more than one disability. For example, up to 40% of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease also have depression. Sometimes it is simply a coincidence, and a person simply develops two unrelated disabling conditions. However, sometimes one disability can predispose a person to an additional disability. For instance, a person with paraplegia may develop arthritis in their hands or shoulders from pushing a manual wheelchair for many years.
In other cases, a diagnosis may cause symptoms that vary widely and fall into more than one area of disability. For example, multiple sclerosis may affect mobility, emotions and even a person’s vision. In the case of a disability caused by an injury, more than one aspect of a person’s functioning may be affected as a result of the same event. For instance, a person may have been in a car accident resulting in both a brain injury and an injury affecting their mobility.
It is especially common for owner-trainers, people training their own dog for service work, to have multiple diagnoses. In fact, owner-trainers may choose to owner-train because they could not find a program that would provide a service dog for their highly specialized needs. That said, service dog programs may also have recipients who have multiple disabilities.
When selecting and training service dog tasks for clients with multiple disabilities, trainers need to consider all aspects of a client’s diagnosis. Here is another place where working in communication with the client’s healthcare provider can be important. Sometimes it is just a matter of incorporating additional tasks in the training plan to meet the client’s needs. Other times, the tasks may need to be adapted. For example, if a client has a mobility impairment affecting their balance and also is blind, any guide dog tasks will need to be adapted to ensure that they are safe and appropriate for the dog and the handler. At times, you may need to work on a smaller number of tasks from each disability “category,” prioritizing the most important ones from each. This will assure that the workload is manageable for the dog, and also that the training process itself does not become too onerous or time consuming.
Working with clients with multiple disabilities is challenging, but it is also rewarding. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the details of your client’s diagnosis or diagnoses and how specifically they are affected by the symptoms of each condition. Adapting tasks for clients with more than one disability can require a trainer to stretch their training skills, be creative and sometimes train unique tasks. The result of that effort is a dog-handler team that thrives in their work together.