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Freewheeling With Southeastern Guide Dogs

What's even more talented than a guide dog? A wheelchair guide dog! Here’s a look at how they're selected and trained at Southeastern Guide Dogs.

Certified trainer Michael Mancini is one of just a handful of people in the world who has the skills required to take a dog and not only teach it to guide a visually impaired person, but to guide someone who is visually impaired AND in a wheelchair.

Mancini has been training wheelchair guide dogs for for the past three years and says it takes a very special dog to work with a wheelchair. In fact, only one dog in 300 has the right balance of aptitude and fortitude required for wheelchair work.

There are a few ways that wheelchair guides work that is different than other guide dogs. First, the dog is selected for training with the person already in mind.  Mancini will make a home visit to the prospective student so he can determine the person’s handling abilities and overall mobility capabilities because that will play a key part in matching them with the correct dog. For instance, the dogs are taught to “harness up” — where they will bring their front paws up onto the person’s legs so they can be reached to put on the guiding harness. If someone has limited movement, the dog will have to get much closer than if the person has a fair amount of dexterity.

Another key component in the matching process is pace. All the wheelchair dogs are taught to work with a motorized wheelchair, but knowing what pace the handler is comfortable with makes a big difference in selecting the dog that will work best for them. While Mancini is visiting the prospective student he will take them on a Juno walk (just like all of Southeastern’s students) where he will hold the harness and walk as if he were the dog to get an idea of the pace and pull on the harness that is best for the student.

Once Mancini has all the crucial information, he returns to campus and looks for the perfect dog. Since he has an idea of the person’s pace and capabilities, he can narrow down the field of candidates rather quickly. Some of the other qualities that make a good wheelchair dog are soundness (not easily scared), strong minded, response to soft correction, being a problem-solver and having a very strong work ethic. 

Surprisingly, the best wheelchair dogs are sometimes the ones who seem to be a bit on the naughty side. Much like the kid in class who cuts up because he or she is not challenged by school, these dogs are active thinkers and require extra stimulation.

It takes approximately six months to train a wheelchair dog, and their training is more intense. Mancini will focus training attention on the wheelchair dog, so they actually get more hours of training than the rest of the dogs in his string of guide dog trainees. Repetition is key — true of all guide dogs — and they start off slowly, with the first couple weeks done on campus and getting them used to the chair.  They gradually work up to taking on more and more responsibility until they are ready to be matched.

There are a couple things that are different about how a wheelchair dog works versus a guide dog. Wheelchair guide dogs are responsible for a wider area, and it is very important that they stay all the way on the left side of a walkway so that the wheelchair doesn’t fall off the curb. While that’s also very important for guide dogs, there is a bit more wiggle room for them.

Wheelchair guide dogs go through doorways in a unique manner. When the handler reaches a doorway, they will drop the guiding handle and give the command “through” while holding the dog on a bit longer leash. The dog will move through the doorway, turn around and then back up as the handler and their chair move through the doorway.  Once the handler is through the door, the dog will move back into the heel position, the handler will pick up the handle, and the pair will be on their way.

They also “find the door” in a different manner. Typical guide dogs are taught to “find the door” and they will guide their handler to the handle of the door. But wheelchair guide dogs have a different target — the button that opens the automatic door. “Finding the curb” is a bit different also because a wheelchair guide dog’s curb is the ramp instead of the typical drop curb.

Entering and exiting elevators is different too. Handlers are taught to move forward into the door opening and block the doors from closing before giving their guide the command to move into the elevator. This keeps the team safely together on the same side of the elevator doors.

As you can see it takes a very special dog to guide a wheelchair, and Southeastern Guide Dogs is lucky to be able to match at least two wheelchair guide dog teams per year. If you get the opportunity to see a working wheelchair guide dog team rolling down the path, you’ll understand that all the additional training and time is well spent — it’s pretty amazing to see the handler with the wind in their hair and their guide happily leading the way.

Leslie Rowe June 24, 2011 at 02:22 PM
Amazing and so informative!

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