Preparation for Training:
There are several basic skills that are need for an assistance dog that helps the handler when in a wheelchair.
All begin with foundation behaviors of
*loose leash walking and
*30 seconds of eye contact
See Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels for details on how to train these behaviors.
Desensitizing your dog to the sight, sound and proximity of bicycles, scooters, skateboards etc before training with the wheelchair, will help your dog to become comfortable with the wheelchair much more quickly and be able to focus on learning the tasks.
The basic skills and tasks can be taught with the trainer in a standing position. They can also be sitting in a swivel chair. This is the easiest way to train the eye contact-based behaviors such as swinging to right of left side, backing and gets the dog accustomed to working with the person in a seated position and a chair that has movement. This is a very different perspective for many dogs who are accustomed to seeing their trainer stand up.
When the dog is successful training near the swivel chair, transition to a stationary chair with arms (such as an armchair) or actual wheelchair to retrain the behaviors.
Training with the Wheelchair:
Desensitize Your Dog to The Wheelchair
It is important that your dog feel comfortable with the wheelchair as he will come in close contact with it at times and need to know how it moves, the sounds it makes and that it is not something to be fearful of.
Treat the chair as a novel object and spend several sessions playing “101 Things to do with a Wheelchair”. Make sure to lock the brakes so it cannot move. Shape your dog to sniff all parts of it, nose pouch, paw touch, rest chin, place front paws up on it, climb on it, jump off it, retrieve objects from near, then under it etc. until he is very comfortable with it.
Next walk the dog beside the wheelchair over a variety of surfaces with you pushing from behind (or walking behind if it is an electric wheelchair). Pavement, gravel, bark mulch, over small bumps, ramps, up and down inclines etc.
If your dog shows any fearfulness or startles easily, counter condition him by playing with him near it, feeding him near it, using really yummy treats anytime he works near it etc. Progress to calling him past it, doing behaviors near it etc. Always make sure you can control the movement of the chair (by locking or blocking the wheels if necessary) to prevent scaring your dog unexpectedly. When you start training with movement, keep all changes small and build on previous successes. Ensure that the environment you are training in will not have any unexpected noises etc that he may attribute to the chair.
Skills With the Wheelchair
Your Dog needs a variety of skills when working with you near the wheelchair. All of these are helpful to position your dog for the tasks as well as moving around in tight spaces in stores, buses etc. Start by shaping these into the finished behaviors, then adding a cue as in normal training. What will happen with practice is that your dog will start to anticipate your needs and the cue in many situations will not be necessary.
For example, as you start moving forward, your dog will start moving with you uncued, turn uncued, as you start making a turn the dog will watch the front wheels for clues he needs to turn etc. The cues, however, will still be useful when you want to get your dog to move when he is sleeping (Jessie, Let’s Go!) or to prevent him from being startled if you need him to get into or out of a position quickly (for his or your safety etc.). (Jessie, Back!)
*Walking on a loose leash on both sides of the chair
*Following behind you on a loose leash
*Switching from one side to the other
*Moving with the chair around objects
*Passing though doors, gates etc either before or after chair
*Circling around the chair
*Moving to stand in front of the chair facing handler
*Backing up while facing handler
*Walking forward while facing handler
*Backing up at the side of the wheelchair
*Swinging around into heel position to right and left sides
*Getting front paws off your lap (after delivering an object to hand for example)
*Being comfortable being sandwiched between the chair and other objects or people (for tight spaces such as elevators and in corners of stores etc)
See our video Part 1 Wheelchair Skills