A Mobility Service Dog helps a handler who is disabled in one or more ways that affects their mobility or locomotion. Mobility dogs are what come to mind for most people when they think of non-Guide Dog assistance dogs. The tasks that a Mobility Service Dog can do varies depending on the dog itself, their handler’s needs, and the organization that trained the dog (when applicable). Most people think of bigger dogs when they think of Mobility Dogs, but they can actually range in size: a small dog is just as capable of picking up dropped items and retrieving identified items if that’s what the handler needs.
Bigger dogs, though, are definitely required for weight-bearing mobility work, which is usually divided into the categories of “light” and heavy” depending on how much weight the dog needs to bear. Different people will argue for different handler-to-dog ratios, but most people will say that a dog doing light mobility needs to be at least 1/3 of their handler’s height and 30% of their handler’s weight. Heavy mobility typically requires a dog that is at least 33.3-40% of their handler’s height and 40-50% of their handler’s weight.** Light mobility work involves guide work, and heavy mobility work involves bracing and wheelchair pulling.*** Other weight-bearing tasks, such as counterbalance and forward momentum pulling, can vary in their categorization of “light” and “heavy” depending on the frequency of their use. The bigger your dog is compared to you, generally the safer it’ll be to do weight-bearing mobility with that dog, but please note that these numbers are by no means the absolute standard for any given dog. Structure also plays a critically important role in how pressure is distributed across the dog’s skeleton and can determine whether a dog can do weight-bearing mobility work safely. Choice of mobility harness also critically affects the safety of mobility work for a dog (e.g. a fixed, rigid bracing handle typically shouldn’t be more than about 6″ in height because the downward force can create torque on the dog’s spine; source: my girl’s biomechanics notes, autumn 2017).
The ability to do mobility work depends on the individual dog itself: if you want to do weight-bearing mobility work with your dog, please consult your veterinarian to see if your individual dog is a good candidate for mobility work and that the mobility harness that you choose is appropriate for your individual dog, as well as for the tasks that you want your dog to perform. Your pup shouldn’t be doing weight-bearing mobility work before their growth plates are closed, usually by 18-24 months, since this can have long-term affects on your dog’s musculoskeletal health, and growth plate progress can only be assessed via x-ray, not by a physical exam. X-ray is also the only way to assess whether your dog can comfortably do mobility work (e.g. that your dog does not have hip dysplasia). And remember that your dog needs to be conditioned to the work: weight-bearing mobility work on an unconditioned dog can cause injury even with the correct harness on a well-structured dog. (And, of course, if you’re relying heavily on your dog for heavy weight-bearing mobility work, it may be time to acquire a non-dog mobility aid, such as a walker or wheelchair.)
The type of weight-bearing mobility work that I do would be considered “light,” because I am approximately 1/3 of my girl’s height and about 38% of my girl’s weight. My hips and elbows have been x-rayed multiple times, and I have been cleared by multiple vets at two different vet clinics (one on the West Coast, on on the East Coast) multiple times for every task that I do for my girl, the frequency with which I do my tasks, and every piece of gear in which I perform those tasks. That’s a long checklist, but it’s important for keeping me safe! And I need to be kept safe since my job is keeping my girl safe.
However, I do more than just weight-bearing mobility, of course! I have a wide range of tasks to help my girl. Her mobility issues stem primarily from her migraine disorder and her fibromyalgia, which is a syndrome characterized by pain and fatigue and is most likely caused by overactive pain receptors that interpret normal stimuli as super painful. For my girl, fibromyalgia is associated with autonomic nervous system problems as well, like temperature regulation issues, bladder leakage, and GI issues. As a Mobility Service Dog, I help my girl with her fatigue, pain, and nausea, as well as other symptoms that may impair her ability to move.
Because I love fetch, I easily learned how to pick up items other than toys, and I actually do it with pleasure — it’s like a game to me! It’s just fetch with weirdly-shaped toys, right? My enthusiasm really benefits my girl: I save her the job of bending over to pick up something, which is very helpful for her for a number of reasons. When she has a migraine, for example, or even just the daily headaches caused by her migraine disorder, bending over can dramatically exacerbate the pounding in her head. Her strength and dexterity are affected by the migraines, so it can be helpful to have me pick up items that she continually drops, like her phone. Bending over can also worsen her dizziness and nausea, both of which are caused by her autonomic dysfunction. Picking up items can even be helpful on high pain days when her hips, back, or knees are bothering her. I use this task a lot in cold weather, because the cold limits the mobility in my girl’s hands, so she often drops what she’s holding. When her hands have limited dexterity like this, it can be hard for her to pick up an item, so I can do it for her and then place the item in her hand. Sometimes she drops things multiple times, but that’s okay — I could play fetch all day long, so I could do this all day long, too! (To be fair, sometimes it does elicit a sassy look from me, but would I really be me if I weren’t being sassy?) The items I pick up most frequently are my leash, her phone, or her pill case, but I am so talented that I can even pick up a raw egg without breaking it, as well as a credit card on a flat surface!I can also retrieve items that are at a slight distance when my girl points to what I’m supposed to retrieve. This was also super easy for me to learn because it’s just a mini game of fetch! Retrieving indicated items can be helpful when my girl is “grounded” by a migraine and cannot move around without a lot of pain. I can also retrieve these indicated items when nausea or pain would make moving incredibly unpleasant for my girl, as well as when dizziness or other issues would make moving even a short distance not the best option for her. Retrieving things for my girl can even help during periods of paralyzing anxiety, where my girl is “frozen” and cannot get up to fetch items that would be helpful to her (like her medication).
I can also retrieve a few named items when they’re out of sight or in a different room. My best retrieval is getting my “at home” harness from the spot where it’s always supposed to be. If my girl needs a little extra balance but can’t safely get to where she stores my gear, I can go get this harness for her. During GI flares, for example, any kind of movement can be unpleasant, so I can fetch this harness and give her a little extra support while she’s walking around the house.
When I wear the right harness, I can do forward momentum pulling, where I act like a dog-sized tugboat for my girl by pulling into my harness while I’m walking as a way to save some of my girl’s energy. I pull her along so that she doesn’t have to use as much energy while she’s walking, so she doesn’t get tired as fast as she would on her own. Helping my girl conserve her energy is important because one of the symptoms that impacts her life the most is her chronic fatigue because it disrupts not only big plans, like going to appointments, but also small daily tasks, like brushing her teeth or getting dressed. If I can help her save a spoon while she’s walking, then she can hopefully use that spoon during another part of her day to complete something on her To Do list. Forward momentum pulling can also help keep my girl upright when she has bad nausea and just wants to curl up into a ball on the ground or when she feels dizzy and unstable on her feet — my forward momentum helps her stay balanced, just like a boat pulling a waterskier.
My forward momentum pulling also has a guiding aspect to it. This is helpful when my girl has bad nausea so that she can focus on trying not to feel sick while I handle more complex things like navigating the environment so that my girl has one less thing to think about when she’s feeling sick. The guiding aspect can also help when my girl has a migraine, especially when she becomes sensitive to light because of her migraines — she can just close her eyes against the light, and I’ll make sure I get us where I need to go. I’m not trained to watch for “safe” traffic yet, but I do know how to turn left, turn right, stay straight, and stop. I can also find a few specific locations, as well as some of the important people in her life. I can even find them in unfamiliar places! I love doing this task because my “reward” is getting to say hello to the person I found for my girl (which is usually someone I love, too).
I can also provide counterbalance to help my girl, a task where I lean my weight in the opposite direction she’s leaning in order to steady her, which can help with dizziness and with her migraine-induced balance issues. However, although I still perform this task from time to time, we quickly learned that my counterbalance harnesses help greatly my girl’s proprioception, which is her body’s “awareness” of itself (if you want to learn more about proprioception, click on this link – which I really like because it’ll show you a lot of current research involving proprioception). Just holding onto the handle on my harness can be enough to tell my girl’s body where she is in relation to the world around her and can be a strong enough signal to make her body respond appropriately when her brain is a little “frazzled.” Now, simply wearing a harness is not a trained task (just like wearing a dress or a cute bow wouldn’t be a task either), but it certainly is a benefit of having me as her service dog!
Perhaps my favourite task of all is helping my girl (or her friends, or really anyone who asks me) to take off her socks. I get so excited to take off her socks that sometimes I’m overly enthusiastic and will start offering her shoes and other items! My girl had never before taught a dog to take off socks and decided to teach me how to do so on a whim while waiting to say goodnight to her niece and nephew in December of 2016. I initially learned to take off her socks at the toe, a method that works well enough for ankle socks, but we quickly realized that toe-pulling can rip longer socks because they get stuck on the heel (ah, the challenges of owner-training a service dog!). Nowadays, I aim for my girl’s heel when removing her socks — although sometimes I forget when I become too enthusiastic! Those who know my girl may wonder why I take off her socks since she is physically able to do so herself. Taking off her socks can be helpful when she’s extra tired from fatigue and needs to save her limited energy for getting ready for bed, which can be surprisingly draining if you don’t have much energy to spare. It can also be helpful on days where her pain is really high or when she has a migraine, both of which would make any movement very uncomfortable, so when I take off her socks for her, I save her that discomfort.
I’ve now also extended this task to being able to take off different types of clothes, mainly pants and shirts (jackets and gloves can still be a little tricky!). Because I remove her clothes, I can prevent her from bending over and making her nausea worse when it’s acting up, and, again, it can also be helpful on high pain days and migraine days when movement is painful. Sometimes my girl is even to tired to fully get ready for bed, but wearing the day’s clothes can make my girl feel gross and distract her from falling asleep, even if she’s exhausted (thanks to “racing thoughts” at night, which I touched upon previously), so when I help her undress, it can help her get the sleep her body desperately needs.
One big way I can help my girl in her daily life is by helping her do the laundry. Yes, you read that right: I willingly help my girl with “boring” chores! Except they’re not boring to me, because it’s all just a fun game. Laundry can be an exhausting and potentially pain-inducing task for my girl, but unfortunately, no matter how tired or sick you are, dirty underwear doesn’t spontaneously become clean! So when I step in to help, my girl and I can do what needs to get done even if she isn’t feeling too great.
The strongest part of my laundry routine is helping my girl sort laundry. Usually, my girl will take the whole dirty laundry hamper and empty it on the floor. I help pick up the items and sort them into either the laundry basket, which will then get taken down to the laundry room (at least in this apartment setup), into the dirty laundry hamper to be washed another day, or into my girl’s hands if the item needs to be flipped inside-out. My girl lets me choose the order in which I pick up the clothes, and I have a blast choosing just the right socks and shirts to give her!
I can also put things in the washing machine or take them out of the washing machine (which was slightly more relevant at our last apartment because the machines here are top-loading, but it’s still helpful when I help my girl’s girlfriend do her laundry – because of course I help her friends, too!). I hold items super gently with my mouth, which is great when I’m picking up delicate items that can break easily, but it isn’t quite as great when a little force is needed to get clothes in or out of the washing machine. I can do smaller items, like underwear and socks, with no problem, but bigger items can certainly be a challenge, especially when they have multiple arms and legs! I can also push the washing machine door closed when my girl asks me too.
Back in the winter of early 2016, my girl and I had a few minutes to spare before class, so she decided to teach me how to push the accessibility buttons that open doors. It started as a fun trick to challenge my smart mind, but it’s actually become a helpful task! This was particularly helpful at Dartmouth, which has many buildings with heavy doors (because that was the cool thing to do in the 1800s), and those heavy doors can be hard for anyone to open, especially for my girl on high pain or bad fatigue days. I get very excited when I’m asked to hit an accessibility button with my paw, so it took me a while to learn how to do the job with finesse (instead of flailing excitedly) — but now I do it like a pro. Currently, we don’t live in a town that is excessively accessible, but if we did, there is a very solid chance that my girl would be at least a part-time wheelchair user, in which case this task would be immensely helpful. For now, though, it is still helpful on my girl’s worse health days, and as a perk, it’s also helpful when my girl is carrying a cup of hot tea!
Similarly, I have learned how to pay at register and check out, in case I should ever need to do so (e.g. if my girl and I move somewhere that is more wheelchair user-friendly). Right now, of course, this is just a trick since my girl doesn’t need to use it, but I solidly know how to give a cashier my girl’s credit card, then take it back, and hand it to my girl, as well as removing a credit card from a chip reader. As long as no one is waiting behind us in line at a store, my girl has me do this – partially to keep my skills sharp, but partially to melt hearts!
Although I like playing fetch, I haven’t always been open to the idea of holding something that I didn’t choose to hold, so it took a while for me to learn to hold things in my mouth when my girl asked me to (and not just spit them out!). We’re still working on holding bigger and bigger items, as well as holding items for longer and longer amounts of time, but I can happily carry small things like pastry bags for my girl — and now that I know how to do it, I’m often pretty gosh darn proud of myself when I do!
Now that we’ve moved to a new apartment that has a bit more space, I’m slowly learning some new tasks that will offer some extra help to my girl around the house. More room in an apartment, of course, means more room to spread out all my toys! My girl is teaching me to clean up my toys and put them in their designated basket, a job that would normally require a lot of walking back and forth, bending over, and energy from my girl. This isn’t necessarily restricted to just my toys, though: I can pick up any item that she indicates and then either give those items to her or drop them where she tells me to. For example, I can throw trash away for her if she asks me to (and I actually have a command for that – appropriately named “Trash”).
I’m also working on being able to open and close doors, both of which have been tricky for me. Opening doors has been hard for me to learn because I hold things very gently in my mouth, especially when I know I’m working and not playing so my girl has had to “trick” me into thinking that we’re playing a game of tug! And closing doors has been tricky because I don’t like pressing things with my nose very hard, but I’m now able to close doors in a series of nose-boops. Since my girl and I have our own room, opening and closing her door will be helpful for when she’s having a bad health day that requires rest but isn’t able to get out of bed. Opening and closing doors ties into another task that I’m learning: retrieving a drink from a designated spot in the fridge. This task requires me to open the fridge, grab the drink, hand it to my girl, and then return to close the fridge — and if I’m in my girl’s room with her, it could potentially require me to open and close her bedroom door, too. When I’m able to retrieve a drink for her, she’ll be able to take medication even if she isn’t able to get out of bed (and also just stay hydrated, of course).
And now that my girl and I have our own bedroom, I’m learning how to turn the lights on and off. When my girl gets sensitive to light due to a migraine, I’ll be able to turn off her bedroom light so she can recover in the comfort of a darkened room, and when she’s too tired to finish getting ready for bed, I can turn off the lights so that she can at least sleep in the dark and help her circadian rhythms. And when she wakes up from panic attack-inducing nightmares but cannot get out of bed, I can turn on the lights to soothe her.
As you can see, I do a lot for my girl, and my job is always expanding as my girl and I encounter new environments (like this new apartment) and learn new ways that I can help her. You may have picked up that sometimes the most helpful way I help my girl is doing tasks around the house for her, because her worst health days tend to confine her to the house or to her bed. Most people think that having a Service Dog means “getting to take your dog everywhere with you,” but sometimes the most critical ways I help my girl are done in private, not in public. But whether I’m inside or outside, wearing vest or wearing nothing, I love helping my girl when she asks me to! The tasks I listed above are some of my favourite parts of my job – parts that I get a little too enthusiastic about at times – and I’m always happy to make my girl’s life a little easier.
Tail wags and puppy kisses,
Service Dog team etiquette (particularly apropos after this post!)
Don’t distract Service Dogs
Confused? See my terms and abbreviations
If you missed Part 1 of this series, about how I help my girl as a Psychiatric Service Dog, click here. To read Part 3 of this series, about how I help my girl as a Medical Alert and Response Service Dog, click here (publishing date TBD).
** Note: these numbers (and other numbers, too) are tossed around a lot but do NOT have a scientifically published backing to them. Since I’ve attended all of my girl’s college classes and therefore attended all her lectures on biomechanics, I can attest that there is no “golden number” that ensures safety. Safety for weight-bearing mobility is influenced by the handler’s size, the dog’s size, the dog’s structure, the tasks used, and the equipment used for those tasks. The evaluation of whether an individual dog is suited to do specified weight-bearing mobility tasks in a given harness should be done by a veterinarian, or, at the very least, someone who is formally trained in biomechanics or orthopedics and therefore understands the way weight, height, and pressure affect the body and its joints.
*** Note: with wheelchair pulling, “handler’s weight” includes both your body weight and the weight of your wheelchair. Also of note, some organizations train their autism service dogs in “tethering,” where the dog is trained to act as an anchor for a child that suddenly bolts (“child” since the overwhelming majority of organizations only train autism service dogs for children, despite autism being lifelong). This would theoretically be considered a heavy mobility task since the full weight of the child is being applied to the dog. However, tethering was not included in our list because it is not an acceptable task for a service dog to learn because it is not safe for either the dog or the child.