When we think about injuries caused by dogs, bites get all the attention. However, I have received many requests for help addressing dog behavior that caused the owner to fall. Injuries caused by a fall can be serious too.
Although anyone can be injured by an exuberant dog that pulls them off balance, when the person has a health limitation, the risks of an injury are higher. A senior citizen who has balance issues, a person with a neurological disorder or person with a vision impairment can have a serious fall by merely tripping on a dog. Sometimes a medical condition indirectly increases the risk of a fall. For instance, prescribed medication could cause fatigue or dizziness. Dog trainers working with people with disabilities who are training their own dogs for service work need to incorporate strategies that reduce the likelihood of a fall during the training process.
Dog Training Strategies to Prevent Falls
- Prioritize training dogs behaviors that can prevent falls. Behaviors like go to your place and stay can be used to keep the dog out of the owner’s way.
- Manners on stairs. Different techniques may be needed when the owner walks the dog on leash versus off leash on stairs inside the home. On leash the dog needs to be trained to walk on a loose leash and adjust pace to the owner’s pace when walking on stairs. Inside the home, with the dog off leash, it is sometimes preferable to teach the dog to stay at the landing and wait for the owner to climb a flight first.
- Use tools and techniques that reduce the need to bend and reach. Target sticks, tossing to deliver treats can reduce the need to bend and move when training. Bending and kneeling is hard for many people with health issues that cause them to feel dizzy or have difficulty moving.
- Create routines in transitions that are safe. Train controlled, calm behavior in doorways, thresh holds, entering and exiting vehicles. Be aware of situations that put owners at higher risk such as when the owner has his/her hands full, is negotiating an uneven surface or is changing from a sitting to a standing position (or visa versa).
- Clients need to wear appropriate shoes when training the dog. Ditch the flip flops and the heels.
- Use training equipment that gives the owner control humanely. Pet dog trainers often overestimate the ability of a person with a disability to safely hold onto a dog. A person with a disability may need a no-pull harness even if the dog does not pull very much.
- Adapt the environment. Scan for trip hazards. Make sure lighting is sufficient. Teach owners about deicers that are safe for dog paws.
- Have clients who have balance or walking issues train their dog while remaining seated if possible. If clients have mobility equipment like walkers, crutches or canes prescribed by a healthcare provider, they should use it, even when working with the dog. Sometimes people will put adaptive equipment to the side when working with the dog, putting themselves even more at risk of a fall.
- Sometimes the client needs extra help. Sometimes the best option is a family helper, apprentice trainer, board and train or day training to firm up the training.
A dog pulling on leash is a common cause of a fall. If a client has a significant mobility impairment, it may be more effective for the trainer to train the dog to walk on a loose leash via board and train or day training first, and then work with the dog and owner together to transfer the training. However, trainers must remember to adjust their pace when working with the dog on leash walking to facilitate transitioning this behavior to the owner. It is much easier for dogs to walk on a loose leash with someone who walks quickly. The trainer will not have adequately trained this behavior if he or she has not practiced with the dog extensively at the owner’s slower walking pace.
When delivering instruction, trainers need to be aware that people with disabilities may need to concentrate on the act of walking in order to walk safely. Distractions and having to “multi-task” can increase the risk of a fall in a group class or private lesson. Instructional strategies that break the training process itself down and into smaller, simpler steps and working in a quiet, less distracting setting first to build fluency can help.
Last but not least, consider, how would the dog would respond if the owner fell? An adolescent or puppy service dog in training may get so excited by the owner’s fall that they prevent the owner from getting help or getting up safely. Firm up responses to verbal cues such as sit, down, and stay so the dog will respond regardless of the owner’s position.
People at high risk for falls should consult with a qualified healthcare provider such as an occupational therapist or physical therapist to learn how to safely get up from a fall and prevent a fall. Some community Fire Departments and Health Departments offer fall prevention programs. For more information on fall prevention: