Combining work and play
Elaine Fairhurst is a volunteer for Dog A.I.D. (Assistance In Disability) a national voluntary organisation which provides specialised training for people with physical disabilities and their own pet dog. She was working with a lady in a wheelchair whose dog was ready to complete its registered assistance assessment when the owner mentioned said that she wanted to try something else. They had done some fun training with jumps, hoop and a tunnel so why not agility!
The main difference between Dog A.I.D. and many other assistance groups is that the disabled owner learns how to train their own dog. Generally all the training is carried out by the owner with supervision from a specially trained instructor. I had no experience with agility so at first I thought it could not be done.
All the clubs that we contacted use equestrian centres where the wheelchairs couldn't cope with it. Even on grass, she struggles unless it's completely flat so I suggested we try Rally Obedience. Though the lady has recently qualified in Level ! at her first competition she still wanted to agility, I wanted to see if I could adapt some agility ideas to make the training more interesting for the dogs and handlers.
I had three other clients who had their own transport and wanted to train together, so I rented a hall with a decent sized secure car park where we could set up our own version of of an agility course. We have the hall for three hours a week, allowing us to have tea breaks and do some socialising as well as train. The dogs have some time off lead together. Once a month we all meet up and train to familiarise the dogs with traffic and crowds.
As agility equipment is expensive, we cobbled together what we could. We decided to have trotting poles instead of hurdles so as not to put too much strain on the dogs, and we made a hoop with a hula hoop attached to two PVC pipe poles. My husband made some stuff for us including a mini dog walk and a see saw. I found a children's play tunnel at a car boot sale. We even made a gate out of PVC pipe and I incorporated that into the course and asked the dogs to open it... and so on. It's just a fun thing but both dogs and handlers seemed to enjoy it - and training certainly was not boring. Undoubtedly it was a pleasant change for the dogs from assistance work.
Then I came up with the idea of doing an agility-type obstacle course with the intention of creating calm, confident dogs while, at the same time, adding an element of competition (and fun) to motivate the handlers.It had to be suitable for people in wheelchair, had to help with their training and needed to be fun.
I can't take credit for thinking up the idea. It was cobbled together from agility, Assistance Dog training and Belgian obedience. My goal was to make the course relevant to assistance dog training – push, pull, pick up, go through, recall, stays, food refusal etc. which I scored according to the ability of each dog. For instance, the dog walk is 1ft high and can be raised to 2ft. The criteria for the exercise was to walk the dog quietly along it. Points would be deducted for rushing or off.
This was the first course I did.
Assistance dogs need to be quiet when left so we tied them up inside the hall with my husband in charge whilst we walked the course and I explained the exercises. Each handler then 'walked the course' with their own dog while being marked in their ability to control their dogs without resorting to treats or too much use of the lead. The dogs had to keep their position without pulling, pay attention to the handler, ignore food placed at strategic spots.
During this part of the exercise, the handlers who weren't working their dogs were given noise making items to act as a distraction, They banged tins, honked the horn from a child's bike and squeezed a squeaky toy cheering as they did. All the dogs did well despite the noise although Mac and Roxy were distracted by the squeak.
After the heelwork rounds, we all went inside for a cuppa before starting on the obstacles. I laid food 'traps' but none of the dogs were caught out although a couple came pretty close, especially as they passed Lulu with balloons in one hand and a sausage in the other.
I did a score sheet for each participant, giving an explanation of the exercise with the points available and points scored, which I emailed to them so they could see how can see how they had done.
Judging from the feedback, everybody enjoyed it and we had some good laughs.
For the rest of the month we'll be working with the dogs in public places and teaching each dog the tasks that it’s owner needs it to perform.
I hope to set one up a new course once a month and introduce different obstacles each time.
As Dog Aid is a charity, any donations would help them to increase their help to disabled people. If you require more information about Dog Aid please email Sandra Fraser at firstname.lastname@example.org
She lives in Lancashire.