Teaching Your Therapy Dog to Pull a Wheelchair

| Sunday, February 13, 2011
By Paulette Bethel

One of the things a patient who has to be in a wheelchair might enjoy is having your therapy dog pull him around the hospital or rehab center. It is vital, of course, that you can trust your dog in harness and connected to a wheelchair.

It's a good idea to have your therapy dog learn to wear a harness at home. Harnesses have straps that go around the barrel and across the back and chest and can feel very strange, at first. Make sure you have a good grip on the leash when you ask your dog to walk wearing the harness for the first time or two. He may be frightened by the feel of the straps on his body. Have the straps a bit loose at first until he is comfortable with the feel of the harness. Be sure to praise your dog as he accepts his new equipment.

Once your dog is comfortable wearing the harness when it is buckled as tightly as necessary, attach a rope about eight to 10 feet long to the harness. Take your dog for a walk and have him drag the rope behind him. Once that doesn't bother him the next step would be to attach some kind of weight to the rope. A plastic jug filled with water is good. The jug isn't heavy but it will bump and bounce so that tugs and jerks are felt and this will help him accept that wearing a harness and pulling feels different but isn't threatening. When your dog has gotten used to the jug of water you can add another one or some other device that is a bit heavier. A second rope is a good idea so there will be a rope on each side of your dog's body at the same time. It is a simple transition from the weight of a couple of gallons of water to a wheelchair.

Safety is always the first order of business. It is safer to practice having the dog pull the wheelchair at home or with a person who isn't dependent on the chair, in the beginning. You don't want the first times actually pulling to be at the expense of a client who isn't able to walk! Always, always, always keep your dog under control with the collar and leash when he is pulling a chair. For everyone's safety this must be a priority.

You can teach your dog to respond to spoken commands to turn right, left, or stop so that when he is being pulled the patient feels more in control.

There are many kinds of harnesses available and the kind you get is really your personal preference. Just be sure that your dog learns not to step over the pulling lines or spin so that he becomes entangled in the lines connected to the chair.

Pulling a wagon is similarly done. I recommend taking a wagon to your local welder and having the tongue removed. Have him build you a pair of arms that will attach to the wagon and the harness and be sure to pad the arms so the dog's sides aren't rubbed. The delight on a child's face as he is pulled along by a dog is a wonderful reward.

Happy Pulling!

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