I was just trying to pull into my little corner desk when I lost control of my power wheelchair. It was moving completely unpredictably, hitting my desk repeatedly and I could not figure out what was up. One of the casters was not even touching the floor and my chair was about to tip completely over. Frustrated, I changed speed and slowly changed direction hoping I would not further damage my desk when voila…out rolled out the cause: Nigel’s favorite ball. He was just as thrilled to find it as I was relieved to discover my wheelchair was not broken after all. Here’s a photo, it’s the best I could take when all the collies were in the midst of a happy dance:
The irony is I was about to write about wheelchairs, service dogs and safety right before I lost control of my own wheelchair due to a dog’s toy. Since the universe is always working hard to keep me humble, I am starting this blog post of with an honest reality check. We always take chances, and life with a disability is full of risks. That said, as a professional dog trainer working with people with disabilities, my goal is to try to do things as safely, and appropriately as I can for my clients and their dogs.
It should come as no surprise to professional dog trainers that there are hotly debated service dog tasks. Discussion of these tasks elicits strong feelings and perspectives. I know, dog trainers debating intensely – shocking (side explanation for those who are not dog trainers reading this, dog trainers debate intensely about everything). One of the controversial tasks is wheelchair pulling.
The first time I read a strong position about service dogs pulling wheelchairs it was in the Coppinger’s book Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin Behavior and Evolution. The arguments put forth in the book were focused on the dog’s welfare and the orthopedic and logistical challenges for the dog. Whether for pulling a wheelchair, brace or balance work I recommend that a veterinary orthopedist screen the dog to make sure the work is safe and appropriate for the dog.
As complex as wheelchair pulling is from the perspective of dog safety, it is equally if not more complex from the perspective of safety of the person. Many times people who use manual wheelchairs get overuse injuries in their shoulders and hands so the reason they may want this extra help may be due to these injuries. The reasons people are using a wheelchair vary. Every wheelchair itself is different too. Some wheelchairs are much lighter and can tip over more easily than others. Some wheelchairs have parts that come apart or fold (for portability). The structure, weight and way each chair moves varies as well.
Those who follow this blog also know that I believe all service dog tasks should be run by a healthcare professional who is qualified to make sure the task is appropriate for the individual. Service dog trainers should not work in a vacuum and should make sure the healthcare professional is aware of exactly how the service dog will be helping the client. In the case of wheelchair pulling, the qualified healthcare professional who is an expert in wheelchair use usually is a physical therapist but can also be an occupational therapist. There are even physical therapists who specialize in helping people with disabilities use wheelchairs, those are often called “wheelchair seating clinics” at rehabilitation hospitals.
I personally was interested in having a dog pull a wheelchair for me, so I asked about this task about 15 years ago to one of my treating physical therapists. I have since asked many physical therapists and occupational therapists about this task generally (not specifically relating to myself). To date, every single one of them has expressed concern about safety. They also said that if the individual could not push the wheelchair himself or herself, then that person probably needed a different piece of adaptive equipment.
I can imagine a collective groan among people with disabilities who use wheelchairs because not only are power chairs more expensive, but the logistics of using them are expensive, accommodated vehicles so forth. Insurance might cover the chair but it won’t cover any of the logistics in the United States. There are countless options and alternatives, from power assist technology (which is a hybrid between wheelchair and power chair) to portable scooters and power wheelchairs that break down and fit in cars.
I was disappointed many years ago when my physical therapist told me she did not think having a dog pull my wheelchair was appropriate for me. No dog trainer would know just looking at me that holding onto a harness while a dog pulls would make my medical problems worse. That is simply outside of the field of their expertise. On a happier note, having the conversation with my physical therapist opened the door to real solutions to my own wheelchair pulling dilemma.
Interested in learning more about wheelchairs? Take a few moments to look at Spin Life
11/27/17 Update, in doing some additional research on the hot topic of wheelchair pulling, I came upon a peer reviewed study on the topic in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research and Development. The study specifically pertains to wheelchair pulling for people who have spinal cord injuries, so it may not necessarily apply to other diagnosis. In any case this small study found “Results showed that using a service dog increased the distance covered by the MWC users and also significantly decreased shoulder pain and intensity of effort. Using the service dog also produced slight but significant improvements in MWC user skills and social participation and may indicate a trend for improvement in quality of life.” (MWC means manual wheelchair). It does not change my recommendation that a healthcare professional and veterinarian should be consulted. I’m thrilled to see rehabilitation research on this topic and hope there will be more in the future.