People with disabilities have been especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Services like public transportation, and grocery and medication delivery that people with disabilities often rely on have been disrupted in many areas. Some need daily help from a personal care attendant or family member, making physical distancing impossible. Wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment are difficult to disinfect thoroughly. Also, some people with disabilities may have conditions that put them at higher risk for complications should they get sick. Whether training a new service dog candidate or maintaining the training of a working service dog, access to a qualified trainer for regular guidance is important to clients with disabilities. At this time, however, in-person training sessions can pose risks to the client, the trainer and the entire community.
Trainers can help without putting their clients or themselves at risk by offering virtual consultation services. Skype and Zoom are ways to set up training sessions where you and your client can see each other. Another option is to have clients upload video of their work with their dog to YouTube. They can set the video as “unlisted” and email the video link to the trainer for feedback. Technology does not need to be fancy; in fact, even simple phone appointments can be useful.
The possibilities for supporting service dog clients remotely are endless. Here are a few examples:
- Introduce basic training skills to a service dog in training.
- Help the client train service dog tasks such as retrieves or alerts that are needed.
- Discuss enrichment strategies and puzzle games to help meet a dog’s mental and physical needs at home.
- Proof skills to a higher level by having clients increase distance and mix up cues.
- Practice public access skills like long downs and ignoring distractions. Distractions such as food on a low table or a stuffed animal in an unexpected location can be set up at home.
- Role-play public access interactions and discuss strategies for handling questions from the public.
- Practice known tasks to help a trained service dog maintain their skills.
- Teach your client about canine stress signs and ways to mitigate their dog’s stress.
In addition to helping handlers teach new skills and maintain their dog’s training, service dog trainers are well-positioned to have important conversations with their clients about the logistics of service dog care in times of national crisis. They can help owners plan to make sure they have sufficient food and supplies for their dog. They can talk with clients about the need to have back-up caregivers for their service dog in case their usual person is sick and unavailable. These clients also need to know what their veterinarian’s process is for providing care at this time; the trainer can help their client discern this information if needed.
Caring for Everyone
Service dog trainers play an important role in supporting service dog teams through these difficult times. You can stay abreast of the latest guidelines for your own safety and that of your client by visiting the CDC or World Health Organization’s websites. Remember, as important as your clients’ well-being is, it’s critical that you’re taking care of yourself too. Call on your support network – friends, family, colleagues – when you need guidance or comfort. Staying well is the first step toward helping your clients and their dogs be successful.