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If you are considering having your dog help you with mobility wheelchair transfers, this article will help you to understand the reasons why not to use your dog as a transfer tool.
Let's look at what mobility transfers are, 5 bio-mechanical reasons not to have your service dog help you with them and how you can learn to do them yourself.
What are Mobility Transfers?
Any movement involving a shift of weight by a person with limited mobility to move them from one surface to another surface.
Typically the person uses their hands and arms to take some pressure while other parts of their body are shifted.
The person needs at least a partial ability to stand. Transfers may be done by the person alone or with assistance from another person or sometimes 2 people.
Transfers can also be done mechanically with a manual or electric lift.
Here are some examples.
- bed to wheelchair https://youtu.be/BWzcIl1SGgw
- wheelchair to toilet
- wheelchair to tub or shower
- wheelchair to couch
- wheelchair to car
- ground to chair (after a fall)
The number of transfers per day adds up quickly.
The Primary Goal of a Successful Transfer
is to prevent falls and avoid injury (shoulders, arms, skin, bruising) of the transferring person.
A secondary goal is for the person to use the wheelchair independently.
Injury Among Human Helpers
Transferring a person from one surface to another is one of the highest causes of long-term injury for human helpers of wheelchair users.
Another is the rotation while pushing the chair (lower back compression).
The Same Can Be Said for Service Dogs
The goal of having a service dog is to help the handler to gain more independence but not by putting the dog at risk,
especially when there are other more effective and less harmful ways for a person to transfer themselves.
Service dogs can easily get injured during transfers and be rendered useless to the handler. The handler potentially loses not just independence, but their partner.
5 Biomechanical Reasons Why Not To Have Your Service Dog Help
1. Dogs are not designed to be weight-bearing, even large dogs.
Dogs don't have a collar bone like humans have, and the muscles do the work of holding the shoulders together. Pressure goes from the muscles to the dog's spine. Muscles, tendons, ligaments and spine can be injured with just a small amount of weight, even in big dogs. Soft tissue injuries take a long time to heal. Spine injuries can be chronic and disabling for a dog.
While some breeds of dogs are bred to pull carts, they can carry only a very small amount of weight. Pulling a maximum of ten percent of their body weight is generally recommended for dogs with a suitable bone structure and are appropriately muscled. This weight is spread over their body with proper harnesses and is a pulling forward motion.
2. Humans have little ability to estimate the amount of actual pressure they put on their hands, especially while in motion.
Typically for transfers, handlers place their hand or hands on the dog’s shoulder. The recommended weight is 10% of the dog’s body weight, the same as for pulling except the pushing pressure is downward.
Say your mobility dog is 45Kg (100 lbs). Do you know how much pressure 4.5 kg (10 lbs) feels like?
Try this: Use a bathroom or kitchen scale and place your hand (fingers or knuckles) on the scale for 5 seconds and try to hold it at 4 Kg. Don’t look at the scale but have a friend or family member watch the scale to tell you the highest amount of weight you put on the scale after each trial. Repeat 10 times and write down each trial result. How accurate are you on average to put a maximum of 4 Kg on the scale?
I bet not very!
Now imagine you are trying to move your body to one side, balance it and estimate and control the amount of weight you put on your dog’s shoulder. Can you do it? Are you willing to risk her health? Using a stabilizing pole or transfer board that can take much more weight than what you can put on it makes more sense than using your dog.
3. There is too high a risk that the weight may be placed in the wrong location.
People with physical disabilities are often told to put the pressure directly over the dog’s shoulders when using the dog for stability, rather than on the back or rear end. The idea is that the weight will get transferred to the ground rather than stressing the dog’s muscles or bone structure.
During transfers, it is not always possible to place your hands exactly where you want them since where the dog can stand may not be ideal for the transfer. The handler’s angle may also put the pressure in the wrong place on the dog.
4. It’s not just simple weight involved.
If your dog moves during the process (accidentally pushed by too much pressure form you, takes a step to the side, gets distracted etc.) she is adding shearing force to the transfer.
Shearing force is unaligned forces pushing one part of a body in one specific direction and another part of the body in the opposite direction. If the forces push together, this results in compression at the centre point (like spine compression). If the forces push away from each other tearing results (like cruciate ligament tears). Neither is what we want for a service dog’s spine, tendons or ligaments.
5. Depending on the handler’s level of disability, there may need to be many transfers each day. The more transfers, the more stress that is put on the dog’s body.
This comes out in the long-term wear of the dog’s skeletal system and the greater probability of injuring your dog.
This can shorten your dog’s working life and result in severe pain even if he never suffers an acute injury.
Learn How to do Transfers Without Your Service Dog’s Help,
Consult your physiotherapist or occupational therapist. He will show you how to use your body and tools in your environment to safely transfer yourself in and out of a wheelchair no matter where you are based on your specific abilities. Have your dog sit or lay down off to the side until you are safely transferred, then put her back to work.
Here is a partial list of tools to use instead of your service dog:
- grip bars
- transfer/sliding board
- swivel cushions (that rotate easily such as for getting in and out of the car)
- metro car handle to push up on-fits on U-bolt of door lock
- raising beds and car seats in low cars or lowering beds and car seats in high vehicles helps to ease transfers from higher to lower
- drive wheelchair directly into the car (including driver seat)
- place leading hand -lower (pushing) or higher (pulling) are better than median such as on the steering wheel, which puts more torque on the shoulder and increases the chance of injury
If you are training a mobility service dog, check out our new class Wheelchair Loose Leash Walking for Service dogs.
Ever wonder how good trainers can teach their dog to walk nicely on leash without any correction tools? No matter if you are teaching your dog to heel or loose leash walk beside you, your wheelchair, walkers or crutches, the basis of the behaviour is the same!
In order to help your dog understand where you want her to be, the key is to heavily reinforce her in that position in many, many situations so she gets a picture in her head of where she is in relation to you. Try These Tips:
Start Off Leash
Surprised? Yes, by training your dog when she is free, she solves the puzzle of finding the desired position herself, with no help from you. This uses her brain rather than teaching her to rely on the leash.The leash should only be used as an emergency connection. The bonus is that you avoid developing bad habits of using the leash to guide your dog. You want her to understand where she needs to be without your help. This avoids having to correct her for positions you don't want.
Have a Clear Picture of Where You Want Your Dog To Be
This is your criterion. You will be rewarding her whenever she stays within that target position. Where is her nose in relation to your leg or the wheelchair? Exactly how far away will she be from your legs or the chair? Or perhaps it's easier to see where her shoulders are in relation to your knee or chair. Whatever way you can make it easy to measure it, use it.
Heavily Reinforce the Desired Position While Stationary
Feed your dog 10 times in a row (one treat at a time) for staying there. Reward her 10 times in a row, being careful of treat placement. Present the treat directly in her mouth so she doesn't have to move to get it.
Change your position by rotating one quarter of a turn (90 degrees) and repeat.
If your dog can't find the position while you are staying still, she won't be able to find it when you are moving!
"Play" With The Position by Rewarding Your Dog for Finding the Position
Take one step to the side and see if she can find the position again. Reward heavily.
Turn left. Reward heavily.
Turn right. Reward heavily.
Keep Sessions Short
Count out 10 treats and dismiss your dog for a one minute break. This gives her time to think about it and build new neutral pathways. This is essential for new learning!
Do a few only a few sessions. Most dogs do well with 3 sessions (3 sets of 10 repetitions). Some can focus for 5 sets. The key is always end the sessions with your dog wanting to do more. If she walks away, you've done too much.
Add The Leash As a Separate Training Criterion
Put on your dog's collar or flat non-restrictive walking harness and attach the leash. This adds difficulty for you, not the dog.
You must figure out how to hold the leash, or where and how to attach it. Perhaps a waist or shoulder attachment might be better for you.
You need to develop the ability to deliver the treat to the same place you did when the dog was not wearing the leash.
Gradually Increase Distraction Levels
This is the most common error people make and then they resort to training collars and harnesses since they don't know what else to do. The sad thing is many people never remove them once they start using them. Training collars and harnesses are supposed to be like training wheels on a bicycle, to help the dog learn the skill, then remove them as quickly as possible.
In order to mimic off leash conditions in areas that are not safe to work your dog off leash, use the professional tip of standing on the end of the leash or attaching the leash to a waist band. This gives your dog freedom to choose to move and be able to find the position without being restricted or tempting you to control her with the leash. At the same time, it gives you the peace of mind knowing she will safe safe if an unexpected distraction comes along.
Each Time You Add or Change Equipment, It Changes The Picture of You To Your Dog
With each new piece of equipment, restart teaching your dog the position.
If you want more details complete with step by step videos, join our foundation skills classes to learn several ways to teach your dog the desired position, and loose leash walking classes to learn how to apply them in motion in different situations like stairs and locations or take our loose leash walking class specifically for wheelchairs. We offer classes for other skills as well!