This year has been a huge adjustment for me. Mid last year my amazing service dog Riddick passed away due to heart issues. This year has had me moving into a wheelchair almost full time, as well as getting an amazing border collie puppy to train as my future service dog. One thing that I had never thought about was learning to train a service dog from a wheelchair. Sure, on the outside it sounds pretty easy, not a huge adjustment, but in practice, I’ve learned that it's a very different process, requiring dexterity that I didn’t initially have! So while I’m far from a professional trainer, I wanted to share the tools, tricks, and tips that I’ve found useful while training my service dog in training, and some of the challenges I’ve faced along the way, in the hopes that it might be helpful for another handler in a similar place!
The first thing that was, and still is to an extent, a challenge for me was working on heelwork in a chair. I found I was getting tangled up even with an excellent over the shoulder leash. I have a custom convertible leash made by What The Fluff that has a wheelchair lead incorporated into it with a ring to attach to a hook on the chair, which is excellent once you have a good wheelchair heel, and a good attachment point on the chair. There are many pricey purpose-built wheelchair dog lead attachment doodads, but due to budgetary issues, I made my own, attaching a carabiner to my armrest (it puts Spoony in the best position for his heel) with zip ties and clipping them down. With the carabiner and zip ties under the armrest, it doesn’t interfere with propelling the chair and puts Spoony in an excellent position to heel. When looking at a wheelchair leash or a convertible leash with a wheelchair lead attachment, pay attention to the length and the size of your dog. If you want your dog to be able to do a down with the length or if you want the dog closer to your chair. I prefer a shorter length to keep Spoony close, but there are many options on the market, and I suggest going custom because it’s highly cost-effective and allows you to get the absolute best fit for you and your dog and your chair. I get all of my custom work through What The Fluff (link above), but there are many amazing companies on Facebook, Instagram, and available through Google searches. I suggest when looking at gear to search Facebook service dog gear groups to make sure they are reputable as there are unfortunately many disreputable sellers out there, just as in any cottage craft industry.
The second thing that I struggle with is feeling highly conspicuous. Handling a service dog without a wheelchair is already conspicuous and attention-drawing, and I feel like, at least in my own mind, that handling in a chair seems even more attention-drawing. We take up more space, we stand out more, and draw more attention and stares. I’ve struggled mentally adjusting to being in a chair due to my medical conditions, and even though I’ve handled service dogs for years, and am about immune to the fuss that seems to follow handling, especially if you have a particularly “cute dog” (my corgi service dog was the WORST for that!), suddenly it is like being a new handler again. I’d love to hear from you readers if this is something that you’ve experienced as well, especially if you’re a newer chair user or new/newer service dog handler! I know this will go away in time, especially the more I get out. One thing that we’ve been doing that has been helping this hang-up is getting out and socializing with other handlers. When you’re not the only one handling, even if you’re the only one in a chair, it, at least for me, makes the standout factor go away, because I’m in a group, so no one person stands out anymore. It has been building my confidence so that going out alone is less stressful, and I highly recommend it. If you don’t know any teams near you, I recommend checking Facebook for any groups in your state or the local area, and see if they have any meetups that you can check out! Community is huge and is also an amazing resource for when you run into training blips or need a second opinion on anything going on. While they may not be trainers, other handlers have often dealt with what you may be dealing with, and may have suggestions.
These are the two things that have been the most difficult for me to deal with while transitioning to a chair full time and handling my service dog in training. I’m sure Spoony would have a few other things to add about adjusting to a chair as well, but thankfully, he doesn’t speak English...yet. He is a Border Collie, so I’m not ruling it out yet! Thanks for taking the time to read this blog, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about handling a service dog, or service dog in training in a chair, especially if you’re a newer chair user. Or if you’re more experienced, I’d love to know your tips and tricks!
Image credit: Author