Arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury and lupus are very different conditions that have one thing in common: All of these conditions can cause pain. A wide range of diagnoses may cause some amount of discomfort to the individual. When working with owner-trainers training a service dog, professional trainers may find themselves having to strategize to accommodate for the owner’s pain.
Some facts about pain:
- Chronic pain is very common. It impacts about 3 million Americans, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
- People’s experiences of and reactions to pain are very individual.
- Pain and depression can go together in some cases.
You may need to adapt training goals and priorities to minimize the risk of pain for the client. I often tell my colleagues that I start working on loose leash walking the instant I bring my puppies home, because it is painful for me when a dog pulls on the leash. Training leash-walking when the dog is still too little to pull hard makes a big difference for me. On the other hand, if I have a client for whom picking up dropped items is painful, I might prioritize teaching the steps of the Retrieve early in my work with the team.
Because everyone is impacted in different ways, include a space in class enrollment forms for clients to share any additional needs they may have. For some clients, delivering treats with their hands may be painful, or bending over the dog may be difficult. This is important information for you to have. Be sensitive to clients’ needs for privacy. In a group class, a client may be embarrassed or uncomfortable sharing that a training strategy that you demonstrated is not feasible for them. Check in during a private lesson, after class (if other clients are not around) or via email instead.
Sometimes training gadgets can help. Larger-sized treats, treat bags with large openings, or a long wooden spoon dipped in peanut butter may help clients who have difficulty using their hands. Tossing treats, using target sticks and working with a dog on a platform may help clients who have difficulty bending. Sometimes just changing the material or texture of a clicker or leash can make a big difference. Provide seating options, but encourage clients to choose the most comfortable position for themselves so they do not feel that they have to sit if they are more comfortable standing. In many cases, fatigue makes pain worse, and building break time into the training lesson for both the dog and the owner can make a big difference.
Pain can make it impossible for an owner to concentrate on the dog’s training and can make training a chore rather than a joy. Fortunately, with a bit of creativity and open communication, there are often many different ways to accommodate the training needs of clients who are managing pain.