Ever since I saw a young lady in a wheelchair at the US National Specialty Show in 2003 being pulled all over the site by her Newfoundland dog I have been fascinated by this modern adaptation of canine draft work. This wonderful Newf was a true service dog and I couldn’t have been more proud of our breed.
Giant breed dogs like Newfoundlands are particularly adept at being mobility assistance dogs. In the column in the May/June 2009 issue entitled Walker Dog I discussed one type of mobility assistance, dogs acting as living canes or walkers and alluded to the second form, wheelchair pulling. I have delayed discussing the wheelchair aspect because I lacked the hands-on experience that I like to have before writing on such a subject.
My chance came in early April of this year. Kim from Aurora, Ontario contacted me about training her Newf for carting and to eventually pull her wheelchair. She wanted to start by seeing what dog carting was all about so I invited her to come to the fund raiser for Newf Rescue that would be held on the upcoming Easter Saturday; Gander Bear and I were going to be offering cart rides as our contribution to the cause. During breaks I took the opportunity to have Kim try out Gander Bear pulling her chair since her Newf was not only not trained in draft work but still a puppy and too young to do any such work.
There are actually two types of canine wheelchair pulling: the mobility assistance form and wheelchair mushing. This latter is a recreational activity like bike-joring, ski-joring, canine scootering or cani-cross which I wrote about in an earlier column on Urban Mushing. Like the other mushing sports, a tug line with a bungee section and a quick release is most advisable. Shafts may be employed and this has the advantage of allowing the dog to provide the braking power especially on downgrades. In some setups the person steers by leaning in their wheelchair, some use a team of two dogs, some have special wheels for different terrains and some even attach an after-market third wheel which lifts up the front castors and turns the chair into a three wheeled cart.
Just recently posted on Facebook is a very simple modification which involves two floating shafts that also act as the traces (tug lines). This setup is actually basic enough that the chair bound person could hitch up by themselves, something important from an independence stand point.
However even this simplified system would not be too functional for using a dog as a mobility service animal. Imagine going through an indoor mall, especially with the tiny elevators used as an option to escalators for the mobility challenged. Just going through a doorway would be challenging with the shafts.
Mobility service dogs are normally connected by a leash attached to a harness (never the collar when pulling). There are two variations to this method: the leash can be attached directly to the chair, hopefully equipped with a quick release OR the leash can be hand held.
In the photos below is a wheelchair pulling leash manufactured by Things4YourDog.com. This leash is rather ingenious but the suggested way of using it is downright dangerous. It is made of heavy weight flat bungee material that is used in horse equipment, so it provides the bungee effect.
Unfortunately the company recommends a direct connection to the wheelchair with no quick release as shown in the picture:
A more versatile pulling leash system is made by BoldLeadDesigns. It has three parts: a chair attachment that mounts to the wheelchair, a detachable lead with length made to order and a handle to use with the lead when it is not mounted to the chair. The chair mount attachment has a quick release, so is much safer than the previous product. The handle enables the leash to be used for hand-held connection or just as a regular walking leash. Here is a photo of the three components:
Of course you also need a pulling body harness to complete the picture. When Kim and I were experimenting we used Gander Bear’s carting body harness which has a half saddle on the back over the shoulders fitted with a D-ring. In carting the top D-ring is used for the strap that supports the cart shafts but it also worked nicely as a pulling point for the wheelchair. However there are special harnesses that are designed specifically for this purpose. If I were ordering one I would get the Pulling & Balance Working Dog Harness from Vests For Service Dogs. Besides meeting the needs for wheelchair pulling it also has a stand up handle on top that the person can use for balance when they get in or out of the chair. The same harness can then be used when Rover is employed as a walker dog.
For service dogs it is pretty standard to have “Do Not Pet” on the harness but I think an exception should be made for wheelchair pullers and I’ll tell you why. When I was a kid my Mom would always tell me not to stare at anyone with an obvious disability; it was rude she would say. So I ended up snubbing wheelchair bound persons as if they were convicted child-molesters. However if the physically challenged person had a dog helping them, it would be okay to look at them and even to stop and talk to them, possibly helping them feel they were still part of the human race.
In fact, should I ever become wheelchair bound I would be sure to get a service dog and the top of his harness would read “Please pet me”. Of course no one has ever accused me of being normal.Peter Maniate is a Newfoundland dog breeder and a professional trainer specializing in dog carting. Since 1979 he has been writing a bi-monthly column in the Newf News entitled Carting Corner. The preceding column originally appeared in the May/June, 2012 issue. Permission is granted for re-publication of the preceding article or excerpts from it as long as the author is credited and the name of the original publication and date of first publication is included.