When we think of disabilities, we usually think of someone limited in their ability to walk or with altered cognition, or a person who has a sensory limitation. Rarely do people think of disabilities that impact speech. However, there are a wide range of conditions that may limit or impact a person’s ability to communicate verbally.
A person may have difficulty with speech due to a condition that affects the brain, the muscles involved in speaking or the vocal cords. Neurological disorders, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, conditions impacting breathing and any number of other conditions can affect a person’s ability to speak. People may also have communication disorders where they have difficulty understanding other people or putting their own thoughts into words.
These conditions can vary widely. In some cases, speech may be the person’s only limitation; in other cases they may have additional limitations. Additionally, the severity of the impairment varies. In some situations the person may need to use sign language or an augmentative and alternative communication device, so the person can communicate through text or synthesized speech. In other cases, the person may simply need more time to communicate or the speech disability may only occur occasionally.
Dog trainers may find themselves working with a person who has a disability that impacts their speech or communication, whether that person is training a service dog or a pet.
When communicating with someone who has a speech impairment or communication disorder:
- Allow extra time for the person to communicate.
- Do not finish the person’s sentences for them. Wait for the person to finish.
- Communicate in quiet environments; reduce background noise whenever possible.
- If the person’s condition makes their speech softer, provide closer seating or stand closer to them when they are speaking.
- Restate what they said so you are sure you understood.
- Talk to adults like they are adults.
- Facilitate communication if needed by writing on a pad, emailing or texting.
- When gathering information, try to ask questions that require only a short answer or a nod.
In addition to altering how you communicate, it may be necessary to alter your training strategies for clients with speech disabilities.
Possible training modifications:
- Use hand signals instead of verbal cues.
- Use a whistle for a recall.
- Use a sound like clapping or patting on your leg as an attention cue in lieu of a verbal cue if needed.
- Mark and reward the dog for frequently checking in with their owner. For example, reinforce the dog for looking at the owner when seeing another dog on a walk.
- Offer the opportunity for emailed questions if written communication is easier, or allow clients to ask questions individually in case they are not comfortable speaking in front of others.
Communication is an essential aspect of the work of a dog trainer. Working with a client who has a disability affecting their speech can feel daunting at first. By patiently allowing for some extra time, and in some cases implementing a few additional accommodations, trainers can help owners with speech disabilities be successful when working with their dogs.