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Service dogs can provide wheelchair users greater independence. From picking up dropped items to opening doors, the tasks these canines perform can be life changing. However, the logistics of maneuvering a wheelchair and a handling a service dog can seem intimidating. It’s not impossible though, read on to learn how to manage a wheelchair and a Service Dog at the same time.

How do I hold on to the leash and propel a manual chair? How will we go through doors? How do we get on an elevator? How will we manage crowds and other kinds of tight places?

Although it can be overwhelming to think of these things, after you and your partner have worked together for a little while, it will become second nature.

Because each person, disability, dog , and equipment set up is different; each individual team will find their own system of doing things that works for them. There is no right or wrong way, just the way that works for YOU.

Hopefully though, by explaining what works for me, I can give you a solid starting point to begin developing your own system to manage a wheelchair and a service dog simultaneously.

Although manual wheelchairs, power chairs, and scooters are very similar overall, there are some differences.

The most obvious difference being that in a manual chair, you need to hold the push rims in your hands and move your arms to maneuver yourself. With a service dog, you now have a leash to tangle with to. (Pun intended.)

20151011_160711-1Holding the leash in my hand turned out to be a lot easier than I had feared. In fact, leather leashes actually improve my grip on the push rims. I also tend to wrap the leash around my wrist because I am prone to dropping things.

There are attachments that allow you to attach the leash directly to the wheelchair, but in a manual chair this can be dangerous since the dog could potentially cause the chair to flip. For this reason you should be very careful if you decide to go this route.

A better hands free option is to attach the leash directly to your body rather than to the chair. At times, I have wrapped the leash around my leg or waist. Without fail though, I have been unable to keep the leash from getting caught in my wheels.

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Going through doors can be a little tricky at times. Usually, the best plan is to have your dog walk behind you through the door. As a rule of thumb, I like to know exactly what is on the other side of the door before my dog walks through it.

GIF_20151022_011623However, it is not always physically possible to do this without the door slamming shut on your dog. In this case, hold the door open, send your dog through, and then go through yourself.

Elevators have the potential to be very dangerous for a service dog. In fact, if you have your service dog tethered to you or your chair, and your dog were to become trapped on the elevator with you outside of the elevator, it will be deadly if you don’t cut the leash in time. For this reason you should always carry a sharp knife that you can reach quickly and easily if you decide to tether your dog rather than holding the leash in your hand, just in case.

GIF_20151022_012256Another concern with elevators is to make sure that the doors don’t slam shut, hitting your partner. Even if your dog isn’t injured, you may find that the next time you come to an elevator, your dog is hesitant. The safest way is to go partway through, use your wheelchair to block the door to keep it from closing, send your dog through, and then follow the rest of the way in yourself.

Crowds and tight places can be a challenge with just a wheelchair, so concerns over adding a service dog to the mix are not at all surprising. Once again though, it wasn’t nearly as difficult as it seemed once I was actually doing it.

Basically, it is the same as going through a doorway. When the area you are navigating becomes too narrow, simply have your dog walk single file behind you.

GIF_20151022_011446Those are the big concerns I had about using a wheelchair and a service dog at the same when I was first matched with my partner, and they were also the things I had to develop specific systems for. After two and a half years together, I no longer have to think about these things though; we just do them as a team automatically.

The most important thing to remember, is that you and your service dog are able to do this, and you will gain the reward of greater independence in the process…you just have to work together as a team to find the methods and equipment that work for you.