How To Help Dogs Adjust To Handicaps

By Kathy Santo | Updated: Mar 26 2019

Sometimes it’s an event you expected: Your wheelchair-bound father-in-law simply cannot continue to live alone in his home anymore.

Sometimes it’s the last thing you ever imagined: Your spouse had a car accident and is now wearing a large leg brace, and using a cane.

Regardless of the circumstances, it goes without saying that when you’re faced with the challenge of suddenly having someone with a disability or severe injury living in your home, everyone in the family will need to adapt. Especially the dog.

Most people’s top 10 list of things to do in this type of situation doesn’t include “train the dog”, but it really should. Before your loved one moves in, you should start introducing your dog to the unusual things that will now be part of his life.

Whether that means borrowing a walker or setting up the hospital bed in the living room a few days early, getting a jump on familiarizing your dog with these items will make your (and his!) life easier in the days to come.

Every dog is different, so each individual will have unique challenges to overcome. Here’s a short list of some specific types of dogs, and some suggestions to help them cope:

Big Dogs. Big Challenges.

If you have an extra large dog, they’ll have to adapt to having unfamiliar equipment in their living space. Their challenges may include:

How to maneuver around things that move (wheelchairs,walkers, etc.).

With your dog on leash, use the“heel” command to teach him to move calmly around the stationary objects. If needed, use a treat to lure your dog,and as his confidence builds, begin moving the objects slowly to accustom him to that.

How to approach a hospital bed. Calmly.

Start with having your dog on a collar and leash and teach him to walk up to the (unoccupied) hospital bed and sit. Reward him with a high value treat. Once he’s mastered sitting in front of the bed without a command from you, start practicing the same exercise with the patient in the bed. The last thing you want your dog to do is jump on the person in the bed!  And if you DO allow your dog on other beds in the house, it’s critical that you teach your dog that the rules for this bed are different.

Understanding which items are “Do Not Disturb” (oxygen machines, IV poles, or cpap machines).

You can go about this in a few different ways. You could walk the dog up to the machine on leash, and when he gets close you could say “Ah Ah Ah’ and quickly move him away from the item. You could also use a non-toxic scent to deter your dog such as citrus, vinegar, peppermint, or chili pepper. Placed on a cotton ball somewhere on the machine so your dog can’t reach it, the scent alone may be the  “Do Not Disturb” sign that you were looking for.

Curb Their Enthusiasm

A boisterous, exuberant, highly social dog who’s unfazed by new things will most likely find adapting to the equipment easy. But the challenge he’ll ultimately face will be chilling out when he’s near the injured/handicapped person, as well as visitors and nurses. Sitting not jumping, walking not running,  will be the most valuable lessons to teach him.

The Energetic And Untrained Young (Or Not So Young) Puppy Or Dog

A dog who needs lots of supervision and exercise may require you to bring in a support team of people who can meet his needs. While dog daycare and walkers immediately come to mind, not everyone has the extra funds necessary to pay for those services. Put the word out to friends and neighbors and see if they (or their older, responsible teenagers) would be willing to pick up your dog for walks and romps in the park. If possible, let them know the commands that your dog responds to and see if they can make the outing into a “play and train” session.

Nervous And Cautious?

A shy, nervous, and/or fearful dog needs to be convinced that the new “furniture” in the house is nothing to be alarmed by. To help him see the positive side of the massive changes happening in the house, do your best Mary Poppins imitation, and  walk your dog on leash near the equipment. Reward calm and confident response with praise and high value treats. DO NOT drag your dog to a wheelchair, and give him a piece of cheese, because that’s NOT the way to get him through his fear! In a situation where extreme fear is involved, I recommend hiring a qualified trainer to do an in-home lesson to teach you how to desensitize/counter condition your dog’s responses. It’s money well spent, because done incorrectly, there’s a possibility that your dog will always be wary of the equipment in your home.

What About Dog-Patient Interactions?

When one of my students had this situation, one of her first questions was “How do I teach my dog not to jump on my husband while he’s using a walker?” A few things determine that answer:

First:  Is your dog afraid of the walker? If so, you’ll most likely not be dealing with a jumping issue–at least, not initially.

Second: Did your dog’s prior greetings resemble the one Fred Flintstone got from Dino? In that case, retraining is in order. See “How To Approach A Hospital Bed”above.

Nurses. Therapists. Visitors.

It’s likely that your house will have new people coming and going, which can be a source of stress for a Nervous Nellie. This type of dog needs a place to go and unwind (their bed, a crate or a small confined area), and must to be praised and rewarded for calm responses when people arrive.

Notice I said “calm responses” and not “calm interactions”. Forcing a stressed dog into an interaction can make matters worse. They aren’t children. They don’t need to shake hands and make small talk. If someone comes in the house and your nervous dog stands and watches calmly, or lies down on her bed, praise and reward her.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the super enthusiastic greeters. The dogs who believe everyone who’s at the house is there to play with them. While there’s no substitute for solid obedience training,this dog can be kept on leash when visitors arrive so they can at least be controlled to avoid overly excited greetings.

Overwhelmed? Not Your Dog...You!

Understandable. But keeping your dog crated or in the yard for the majority of the day isn’t helping him cope with the new situation. As a matter of fact, it may actually hinder his ability to adapt, especially if the lavish attention he once received is reduced to “Feed the dog” “Walk the dog”. In time, he may resort to attention seeking behaviors such as barking, jumping on people, stealing things and running away – all designed to have someone pay attention to him. Negative attention is still attention, after all.

If you’re truly unable to focus on your dog while you regroup and re-organize  your home, consider asking a nearby friend or relative to keep him for awhile until your life settles down a bit. Make sure that he visits daily, so that he experiences the new sights and smells in the house.

Kathy Santo has spent her entire career as a dog trainer and handler, training dogs and winning over 500 obedience, agility and Canine Good Citizenship titles. Working with her own dogs, she has achieved every competitive obedience title the American Kennel Club (AKC) has offered and earned the prestigious AKC “Obedience Trial Champion” title (OTCh) multiple times.

In Waldwick, Kathy teaches classes, private lessons, and oversees the training of her student’s dogs using her extensive knowledge, experience and intuition to handle problems from the benign to the serious. Her engaging personality has won her the respect and friendship of her many students, who now consider themselves part of her extended family.


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