Getting Dogs Comfortable Around Wheelchairs

wheelchairs and dogs
The author getting comfortable around some new canine friends.

Dogs are our best friends. They’re companions, buddies, one of the family. But when you’re in a wheelchair or use a mobility device, dogs can be downright terrifying. It’s not that we don’t like dogs. In fact, many wheelchair users depend on dogs for therapy or service. But many of our best friends aren’t used to folks in wheelchairs, and depending on their reaction, it can be an intimidating experience.

My friend’s parents own three dogs, and I went to visit them recently. The dogs like to jump and bite (luckily just at the air). I have a form of Muscular Dystrophy, FSHD, and this would be the first time I would visit using a wheelchair. The thought of being mauled where I sat frankly scared the heck out oIt’se! Its like bumping into a grizzly bear in the woods while tied to a tree stump.

So how can dog owners make the experience a little less nerve-wracking for wheelchair users? Here are some tips:

  • Make sure your dog is always leashed around unfamiliar people or in new places until they are properly adapted. Dogs may growl or nip or jump onto someone in greeting; others may snarl or bark at someone or something (a wheelchair) unfamiliar. People with physical disabilities have legitimate fears of being bitten or knocked over or just not being able to defend themselves. Ease those fears by keeping your dog leashed until he’s used to the extra set of wheels.
  • Don’t be too quick to blame the dog for his bad behavior. Even the most well-mannered, well-trained dog can freak out around someone in a wheelchair. Most dogs lack exposure to wheelchairs, and they just don’t see things how we do. What they see is some kind of weird robotic-human hybrid, at least at first. He’s probably asking himself some pretty good questions: What is this and what does it want? Is this a threat? Do I need to protect myself and my humans? Additionally, dogs can sense fear, and if the environment is tense, he will follow his natural instincts.
  • The dog is likely more terrified of the person in the wheelchair than the human is of the dog. With that in mind, allow plenty of time for the dog to get used to having a wheelchair in its presence. Let the dog watch how the wheelchair moves and interacts in the setting. Go slow and don’t make any sudden or jerking movements. Stay still and let the dog smell you. If the dog doesn’t get upset then you can calmly offer your hand to be sniffed before trying to pet the dog. This allows the dog to evaluate the wheelchair as non-threatening, as well as to learn how to maneuver about the wheelchair without the worry of running over its paws.
  • Consider getting your dog used to a wheelchair without a person in it. This sort of thorough training could be very beneficial if a dog is going to regularly encounter a wheelchair or scooter user. Let him inspect the chair, smell it, get used to the wheels. Then when he sees a person sitting in this strange contraption, it will seem a little less out-of-the-ordinary.
  • Think about professional training if the dog is still resistant. Most training schools just cover the basics: sit, stay, fetch and maybe a couple of tricks, but there are more advanced options. Contact your veterinarian for advice on training courses that help dogs become service companions. Therapy dogs have been trained to work in places like hospitals, retirement communities, or pediatric units. They are used to wheelchairs, and more importantly, helping their human friends.
  • Segregation may be best. Sometimes it’s best to keep a dog separate from wheelchair users if he can’t get used to it. Simply place the dog in a separate room or a kennel while the company is visiting. Keep in mind that separating a dog from a wheelchair only continues to shelter the dog from exposure. It can’t gain familiarity with a person in a wheelchair, so try the above methods first if possible.
  • Be patient. Training a dog can be difficult no matter what the lesson. Some breeds are more adaptable than others, and of course each dog has their own temperament. If you commit to this training, take your time and don’t expect an anxious dog to change overnight.

Training your dog to be comfortable around wheelchairs is hugely beneficial for the beloved family pet and the family, and it should be a priority. Studies show that spending just ten minutes a day with a dog lowers blood pressure and anxiety for anyone, wheelchair user or not. Removing tensions that both dogs and wheelchair users share opens the door to the therapeutic benefits of our four-legged friends.