Dog trainers are often asked to train service dogs to help a person balance when walking or getting up from a fall. The person may hold a harness the dog is wearing or directly place their hand on the dog’s shoulder for sensory feedback or additional support. These important tasks can be very helpful for people with impaired mobility. However, these tasks are also controversial, because they pose safety risks to both the person and the dog. If the dog does not perform these tasks appropriately, the person could fall and get seriously injured. On the other hand, a dog can also be injured when performing brace or balance tasks if a person puts too much physical pressure on the dog. Before training brace or balance work, trainers need to determine if the task is safe for both members of the team by consulting with a veterinarian and the owner’s healthcare provider.
Is the Task Safe for the Dog?
Before training a service dog to perform these tasks, trainers need to make sure that the dog chosen is structurally sound. The dog should be screened for issues by a veterinarian who specializes in orthopedics. The desired tasks need to be discussed with the veterinarian to ensure the dog is able to do the work comfortably and safely. The veterinarian can also provide guidance on what age the dog should be to begin this work, as well as helping to identify any needed harnesses.
Is the Task Safe for the Person?
Owners often talk to their healthcare providers about their desire to use a service dog; however, they rarely discuss exactly how they want the dog to help them. For this reason, trainers need to work in communication with the owner’s healthcare provider regarding selecting appropriate service dog tasks. Rehabilitation experts, like physical therapists or occupational therapists, who are knowledgeable about the owner’s specific disability needs are wonderful resources to help owners and trainers make sure they are selecting and training tasks appropriately. For instance, if the person needs the dog to help them get up from a fall, exactly how should they get up? Every individual’s disability needs are different, and the technique that is right for one person may be ineffective or unsafe for another.
When collaborating with healthcare providers, trainers must keep their clients’ confidentiality in mind. An attorney can assist with creating release forms that will ensure trainers have the proper permission to discuss the details of their clients’ cases with medical providers.
Are There Alternatives to Consider?
Sometimes, even if a service dog can safely perform a particular task, an alternative accommodation is a safer or more effective solution. Adaptive equipment – like walkers, crutches or canes – selected with guidance from a qualified rehabilitation professional may be more effective and safer than having the dog provide direct support. Additionally, home modifications like grab bars and lift chairs, and strategies taught by a rehabilitation professional may reduce the likelihood of a fall. This is not an either/or situation, and an owner may need all of these supports. For instance, an owner may need home modifications, adaptive equipment, and some balance or brace help from the service dog.
If the dog cannot or should not help the owner by providing direct physical support with brace or balance, there may still be an alternative task that can be very useful. For instance, perhaps the dog can retrieve a cane or an emergency phone, or alert a caregiver that help is needed. Other commonly trained tasks for mobility service dogs, like picking up dropped objects, opening doors and assisting with dressing, may also be helpful.
While tasks like brace and balance can be physically demanding for the dog and risky for the owner, this is not always the case. For some individuals with disabilities, simply resting a hand on the dog’s harness, without putting any pressure on it, gives enough sensory feedback to facilitate their mobility. In other cases, the support needed may be limited to emergency or very rare situations. For instance, it is not uncommon for people with disabilities to want the dog to assist with falls as a back-up to other measures to prevent falls. By proceeding carefully and consulting veterinarians and healthcare professionals, trainers can make sure that they are working ethically, safely and appropriately when training service dogs for people with mobility impairments.
Learn more about how to train balance and brace safely and other helpful tasks in our online course, Mobility Service Dog Tasks