When we think of a service dog team, we usually think of the individual with the disability and the service dog. However, in some cases, a “team” might be larger. For instance, a team may consist of a dog, a person with a disability, and that person’s caregiver(s). Teams of this sort can consist of a service dog working with a child with the help of their parents, or a service dog trained to support a person with dementia under the direction of a spouse. Caregivers are not always family members; they may be personal care attendants, nurses or others.
The role of the caregiver with the service dog may be extensive or limited, depending on the situation. The caregiver may sometimes need to cue the dog to perform tasks to help the individual with the disability. In other cases, the caregiver may only step in to help with husbandry tasks. The caregiver may control the dog in public, holding the leash or giving the dog cues. In some cases, it may only be possible for the service dog to work in places pets are not permitted when the caregiver is there as well as the individual with the disability. For instance, if the dog is helping a very young child, a parent may handle the dog in public to ensure the team is safe and their behavior is appropriate.
Trainers working with teams that include caregivers need to take steps to make sure everyone is on the same page. If the caregiver will be handling the dog in public, then that caregiver also needs to be involved in the dog’s training and participate in public access assessments. It’s important for caregivers to know exactly what their responsibilities are in regard to maintaining the dog’s training and providing care.
Caregivers themselves are often under stress, so consideration must also be given to their needs. If the caregiver is helping with meeting the dog’s daily exercise and play needs, and then the person with the disability’s needs increase as well, the caregiver could find the dog more of a hindrance than a help. Trainers may recommend that these teams solicit help from pet sitters or dog walkers to ease the caregiver’s load. Ideally service dogs in these situations benefit both the person with the disability and the caregiver!