Dog trainers may feel apprehensive when first working with people with disabilities. Trainers may worry how to accommodate a client or may fear using the “wrong” words and offending the client. The reality is working with people with disabilities simply requires sensitivity, creativity and flexibility.
- Ask how you can best meet your client’s needs. Remember that disabilities vary and the person who best knows their needs is the client. Do not make assumptions.
- Be flexible! Training techniques may need to be adapted for people with disabilities. Remember that people with disabilities will have different abilities and limitations. Do not assume, for example, that if an accommodation worked well for one client who uses a wheelchair that it will work well for another client who uses a wheelchair (even if they have the same the medical diagnosis).
- Check in. People with disabilities may be hesitant or embarrassed to share that a technique is difficult or impossible for them to do—particularly in a group class setting. Ask periodically, privately, “Will this technique work for you?” Be open to changing strategies and listening to your clients’ ideas.
- Focus on clients’ abilities. When troubleshooting, consider what the client is able to do. Adaptive equipment can be utilized to facilitate training, for instance, attach a target to a walker or cane. If the client has a sensory impairment, consider ways to maximize use of senses that are not impaired in training.
- Use language that reflects respect. Terms like “physically challenged,” “confined to a wheelchair” and “handicapped” are considered inappropriate. “People first” language is usually preferred, for example: person with a disability, a person with diabetes, or person who uses a wheelchair.
- Accommodate training tools and strategies with creativity. There are various styles of clickers and leashes that may be easier for clients with disabilities to utilize. Consider strategies that are doable for the client, for instance, free-shaping and targeting can reduce the physical demands of training.
- Keep safety in mind. Stay alert, inform a client with a vision impairment if there is training equipment on the floor. Rambunctious dogs may injure clients with disabilities. Remember that even small dogs can move manual wheelchairs.
- Experience the challenge yourself! Try clicker training a novice dog a new behavior while your fingers are taped. Train from a seated position, or train while wearing earplugs or a blindfold. Now imagine that you are beginning learning new dog training techniques.
- Some people with disabilities may respond more slowly to a dog’s behavior and have difficulty delivering treats in a timely manner. It may be more challenging for the handler to get a young dog’s attention in a group training class. Fatigue issues, and periods of exacerbated disability may result in delays in training. Teach the client techniques that they can work on in short training sessions, in less distracting environments to maximize their successes.
Just as for clients without disabilities, break large training goals down to small, achievable objectives. Remember that your positive, encouraging attitude will go a long way to making your client feel comfortable. People with various kinds of disabilities have successfully trained dogs in sports including competition obedience, agility, freestyle as well as trained their own dogs as service dogs.