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Training a dog to use a wheelchair

One of the most common questions we’re asked is, “how long will it take for my dog to learn to  use a wheelchair?”

It’s our experience that for most dogs who are frustrated in their ability to walk, it takes only a few seconds to get used to walking in one on our carts.  We are privileged in the fact that we have lots of hands-on experience in fitting dogs in their carts, and witnessing their first steps in their wheelchairs. In an average week, we’ll meet, measure and fit a dozen dogs – ranging in size and age from puppies to senior dogs, and from 3 lbs to 130 lbs.  We see dogs who  are merely wobbly and others who are dragging themselves.

It’s actually harder to “teach” a dog who is only mildly impaired than one who is truly paralyzed.  Since most  dogs we see are experiencing neurological deficits that are not painful,  those dogs who are managing their disabilities by “bunny-hopping” and hugging the wall are more likely to experience the cart as an unnecessary encumbrance.  If a pet is managing to get where he wants to go without any help, he doesn’t necessarily perceive a dog wheelchair as a necessary accessory.  For these pets, such as corgis in the early stages of DM , it may be necessary to try some different techniques to get the dog to use the cart.

Whatever it takes to distract the dog from the cart is the place to start…..just find the right motivation, such as rare roast beef or some other high quality treat for dogs who are food motivated.   If it’s a corgi – and a herding one – it might be other dogs,  the cat, or going out to the barn.  Sometimes, if a dog is walking fairly well on his own,  just take the dog for a walk, rolling the cart behind you and then put the dog in the wheelchair for the return trip home.  A tired dog motivated to return home usually will see the value of a little help getting there.

Pay attention to your pet’s body language.  Is he trying to use his legs and you’ve got them hiked up in stirrups?  Dogs with some sense of weightbearing in their legs, even if their toes knuckle, will feel hobbled if you take their feet off the ground.  Always start out with the dogs’ legs down and observe what they do – many dogs use their carts as walkers.   If your dog is one of these, make sure that the cart is set at a weight-bearing stance, so they can feel their feet touching the ground and use them for traction.

Look at the shape of your dog’s top line.  Is the pet’s back level or roached?  If it’s roached, is the chest strap loose enough so that the dog can stretch out as he’s walking?  Is the back sagging in the middle?  If so, your pet’s core muscles are not as strong as they might be, and you might need a belly strap.  As a general rule, NEVER hike up the back of a cart to prevent damage to your dog’s feet – doing so only compresses the spine and adds more load to the front legs.

Tika's neutral balanced Eddie's Wheels cart is perfectly adjusted to allow her to use her legs as much as she is able.

Does your dog flop down on his front legs, go into “downward dog”?  If so, then perhaps the yoke is in the wrong place, pushing down on his neck .  It’s also possible that your pet is not as strong or comfortable in the front legs as you thought – and may need a neutral-balanced cart that adds no load to the forelimbs.  Take a look at the dog’s front ankles…. are they collapsing and hyper-extended?  If so, then a counterbalanced cart might be necessary to make it easy for your dog to use a wheelchair.  A counterbalanced cart will take up to 35% of the dog’s own weight off his front legs.

When a pet is in a properly fitted and balanced cart, then it’s the ten-second learning curve.   Watch Kasha, a 13 year old border collie,  who dragged herself into our shop for a measuring, walking in her wheels  only seconds after she was put in a used cart we had on hand for her to try out.

Kasha tries a wheelchair and tries to roll in the grass  

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