If you are owner training your service dog or if an organization is training for you and you need mobility cues, it is extremely important to be aware of the following health considerations for mobility dogs.
Consulting a Specialist
For any assistance dogs who will be performing mobility tasks, consider consulting an orthopedic specialist or canine sports medicine physical therapist prior to beginning this work. Discuss the desired tasks with them to be sure the dog can safely perform them. They can also help determine if a mobility harness is needed (such as Bold Lead Designs harnesses) and at what age the dog could safely begin this work.
Most assistance dog organizations require hip and elbow X-rays to be performed to determine if the dog is suitable for the physical demands of assistance dog work. For mobility work, this is critical. These x-rays should be performed under sedation, as positioning is critical. Look for a veterinarian experienced in both taking and interpreting the X-rays, so they are read/graded correctly.
Safety When Training
While the basic assistance dog training can start very early; physical tasks that can affect the dogs joint health, such as bracing and momentum pulling should not be performed until their joint capsules are closed, and their skeletal system is fully developed, which generally is around age two. Applying too much weight or pressure on a growing dog can seriously harm the dog. Some large or giant breed dogs can take even longer than 2 years for the bones to fully develop.
There are also reasonable expectations of size ratios for using Brace: after the above criteria (X-rays and skeletal system fully developed) have been met. Some require 24-25” minimum height of dog at shoulder and minimum 1/3 of partner’s body weight. Others say 40% of your height and 50% of your weight. Most likely due to these variabilities, some organizations are moving away from the Brace cue and are instead opting for momentum pulling and counterbalance. In general, the larger the dog (both in height and weight), the more work the dog can perform. Bracing should only be done with a few pounds of pressure, momentarily and occasionally.
To optimize a long, healthy partnership with your mobility assistance dog, it is important to consider all of the above. Health and safety of your dog is crucial to a long and happy working life!
Mobility Tasks in Action
The below video demonstrates what some mobility tasks may look like. A woman is walking with her large german shepherd who is wearing a mobility harness. The dog is performing proprioception tasks. His pace and positioning allows his person to walk safely without losing balance. He will also lean into her and “block” if she stumbles to prevent any falls. Ensuring this dog has met the proper requirements for this work is absolutely crucial for his as well as his person’s safety.
About Atlas Assistance Dogs
Atlas Assistance Dogs is a non-profit organization that fundamentally expands access to assistance dogs. We support people with disabilities to train and certify their own service dog using positive, ethical training methods. At Atlas, we believe anyone who would benefit from a qualified assistance dog should be able to have one.
We work with people with a wide range of disabilities who wish to train their own service dog as well as offer a comprehensive Academy for professional trainers wanting to become service dog trainers. For more information about Atlas’ Client Certification program or other training services, please visit www.atlasdog.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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About the Authors
Author: Jane Schappell, Atlas Team Facilitator:
“My path to becoming an Atlas Team Facilitator has been a long one: Starting with raising 7 guide dog puppies to learning the benefits of positive reinforcement training and attending many classes led by the legendary Ali Brown. Then on becoming a therapy dog team and raising/training a mobility assistance dog, helping at training classes along with other experiences including litter care for that organization. My most recent endeavor was in whelping and raising a litter of golden pups and donating three to veterans assistance dog organizations. I believe that the health and well-being of the canine partner is critical in a long successful assistance dog partnership.”
Contributor/editor: Katrina Boldry, Owner of Bold Lead Designs