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Loving Sascha: Clicker Training and a Canine Wheelchair

A day at the shelter

There can be many reasons people find themselves in an animal shelter, prepared to surrender a dog. Life-changing events occur, homes or jobs are lost, unrealistic expectations come home to roost (yes, dogs do poop in real life!), and on it goes. Animal control officers and animal rescues have heard all the stories. This story begins at a busy county animal shelter in southern California.

Sascha in wheelchair

A man carried in a cardboard box, which he placed on the desk of the animal control officer on duty that day in early March. He said flatly, "I found this dog in my yard—it wouldn't leave." The animal control officer peered into the box. Peering back at her was a pair of startlingly blue eyes. The officer reached into the box and lifted out a very young, very fluffy, red and white Siberian husky puppy. The reason the red and white pup "wouldn't leave" was sadly apparent. She couldn't leave—her back legs were paralyzed. The cause of her injury remains a mystery. Blunt force trauma to the base of her spine was the end result of some unknown traumatic event.

A decision had to be made that day about what to do with the dog. This puppy was lucky. Despite her injury, she good-naturedly squirmed to lick the face of anyone who held her—and the shelter staff united to help her in any way they could.

Sascha, as she was named later, was x-rayed, prodded, and probed by the veterinary staff. They discovered that her rear legs sometimes "bicycled" of their own accord when she was placed in certain positions. Was this retained nerve response? Maybe with therapy she could recover some use of those legs and one day walk again. (This was not to be, however.)

She couldn't leave—her back legs were paralyzed.

First home

After being featured on a local television show for adoptable pets, Sascha found a loving home, complete with promises from the public to help pay for therapy. Unfortunately those promises were not kept, and pledged donations failed to arrive. A wheelchair was obtained on loan from the shelter, but wheelchairs are not one-size-fits-all. Sascha was unable to use the donated wheels and, in fact, grew fearful of them.

When Sascha's family fell on hard financial times and could not afford the time or expense of therapy, existing troubles were magnified. Eventually, the family made the very difficult decision to give up Sascha, hoping she could get the care she needed some other way.

Could you care for a paralyzed pet? Our pets are living longer thanks to new advances in veterinary medicine. One day you may be faced with this question.

Caring for a paralyzed animal requires strong commitment. It can be very time-consuming and expensive. Some disabled pets have limited bladder and bowel control, and others are completely incontinent. You may have to either stimulate or manually express bladder and bowel movements and/or your pet may need to wear diapers.

Food intake must be carefully considered to compensate for a slower digestive process and so that bowel movements can be somewhat predictable. Pressure sores must be prevented at all costs, requiring therapeutic beds and padding. Keeping your pet clean is a priority. Be preparedbathing presents its own challenges. Finally, it is sometimes difficult to find someone to care for your disabled pet should you travel. The commitment is great, but so are the rewards. It has been a learning experience I do not regret.

The following sites proved invaluable to me during this ongoing learning process:
Eddie's Wheels For Pets
Gimpydogs Blog
Handicapped Pets
Pet Peepers! Pet Diapers
Walkabout Harnesses

Enter... me!

I came to know about Sascha and her history through a circulated e-mail. Reading her history and looking at the photo of this puppy, so young and with so much life in her, made me consider responding. At this point Sascha was nine months old.

But, I already had a house full of Siberian huskies. Not to mention a very patient husband who loves me dearly and shares my love of the breed, but had told me in no uncertain terms, "No more dogs in this house!"

I thought about how much care Sascha would require (oh boy, did I have a lot to learn—see "Could you care for a paralyzed pet?" sidebar to the right). I also wondered if it was fair to devote so much time to one dog while there were so many healthy dogs in shelters on any given day.

In the end, I was left with two thoughts:

  • As humans, in general we are often too quick to label something as impossible.
  • But, as clicker trainers, we focus on the possible every time we take a clicker in hand.

With those thoughts in mind, I decided to meet Sascha and try to see her strengths, not her weaknesses.

What's one more?

I like to think of myself as pragmatic, ruled by logic rather than by my emotions (all evidence is to the contrary, I'm afraid). Knowing the truth about myself, I brought my husband with me, whose firm belief is that "logic really does prevail."

My husband drove us both to meet Sascha, far away from the beach city we call home and into the desert. The grey marine layer and cool fog gave way to cloudless blue skies and desert heat. We pulled into the driveway of the well-cared-for, modest home. The couple that had adopted Sascha was waiting outside to greet us as we got out of the car. The California sun felt hot on the back of my neck as the couple led us into the small backyard where a gnarled old apple tree spread its branches and provided some welcome shade. This is where I saw Sascha for the first time.

She was very small. As I walked toward her, her ears went up in interest, then went flat as she tipped her head back to give us a proper husky "woo" in welcome. I knelt down and Sascha joyfully bounced forward to lick my outstretched fingers. She could not stand and bow in invitation to play, but she managed to communicate her intentions very clearly by bouncing and wooing.

That was it for me; I could not leave her behind. I looked up and met my husband's eyes. The next words he spoke summed up exactly why I married him and continue to adore him after seventeen years of marriage. He sighed and said simply, "I'll go get the crate."

She could not stand and bow in invitation to play, but she managed to communicate her intentions very clearly.

Let's go already!

My kind husband is the son of an engineer. As such, he cannot perform even the simplest of tasks without two things: a plan and as many tools as possible. He carefully measured Sascha and ordered her custom-fitted wheelchair using a very detailed online form. Equally as important as precise measurements in ordering a wheelchair is the dog's lifestyle.

  • What type of surfaces would Sascha encounter most often: pavement? dirt? snow?
  • Had Sascha reached her full growth? Not every part of the wheelchair is adjustable, so this was critical information. X-rays can determine if the growth plates have closed, indicating full skeletal growth, but they cannot predict future weight gain.
  • Did Sascha have any use of her rear legs at all? If so, we wanted to allow her to use them while being supported by the wheelchair. If not, we would choose stirrups to protect those legs.

All of these issues had to be taken into consideration. The company we chose to make Sascha's wheelchair went over each of these questions with us. By the time we had answered all of their questions, I was confident that the wheelchair would be a perfect fit for Sascha.

It takes about ten days for the wheelchair to be built and then shipped. Almost exactly that number of days later, I heard the unmistakable rumble of the UPS truck. My doorbell rang and when I opened the door, Sascha's wheelchair was finally a reality.

Sascha as a puppy

I placed the chair near Sascha so she could examine it with her nose. Sascha sniffed every inch of the wheelchair, and then turned away. Good! I wanted her to start with a clean slate so that I could begin conditioning her response to the chair by treating her anytime we were near it. Chair = Good Times!

After Sascha was used to seeing and being near the wheelchair, we practiced going into the wheelchair. We did this slowly and over several days until Sascha was fully seated in the chair. At first, Sascha's front legs slowly slid down to the floor, unable to bear her own weight for more than a second or two.

Clicker time

Sascha's food intake must be carefully considered for its potential effect on her digestive system. This is true for many paralyzed dogs. Each morning I placed her daily kibble into a treat pouch. Sascha earned kibble just for standing in the chair. That's all—she'd just stand and I'd click/treat. Within a week, Sascha was able to stand for up to five minutes at a stretch.

Sascha earned kibble just for standing in the chair.

Patiently, so patiently, I waited for Sascha to take her first step, so that I could click and treat that progress. She quickly realized that taking a step toward me resulted in a click and a payment of kibble. I added a cue ("come") and, just like that, Sascha had learned her very first cued behavior! Over time, Sascha's legs grew stronger and she increased the number of steps she could take from one, to two, to twenty, and then, suddenly, we completed our first trip around the block!

The author's very patient husband with the dogs,
including Sascha on the far left.


I wanted so badly to take Sascha to the park to experience the joy of a simple walk. Our local park is a dog lover's dream come to life. A 1.2 mile paved walking trail encircles a library, playground, several duck ponds, and an outdoor restaurant where dogs have their own menu. The restaurant tables are all outdoors, and a bowl of fresh water is brought out with the drink orders. A mat is provided for canines that prefer a cushion to lying on the ground. For pet owners, the house specialty (warm homemade cinnamon rolls, along with a cup of freshly roasted coffee) is a nice accompaniment to watching the world stroll by. Bird-watchers and photographers frequent the park and more than one television commercial has been filmed there. On any given day, you are sure to see knots of people gathered under one of the many large trees, heads tilted upward as they try to spot one of the giant owls that have made this park their home.

When Sascha could walk for more than fifteen minutes without stopping, I decided the time was right to head to the park. I carefully placed her in her crate, loaded up her chair and treats, and off we went.

We pulled into a parking space under a leafy tree near the duck pond. Sascha squirmed impatiently as I buckled her into her wheelchair, excited by the many new sounds and smells. The ducks made alarmed quacks as they glared at Sascha and flapped into the water.

I bent down to tie my shoelace, one hand casually resting on Sascha's chair. "Wow, those ducks are loud," was the last thing I remember thinking as the chair jolted out from under my hand. I lost my balance, falling to one knee. I recovered only to see Sascha race for the duck pond! I took off after her, one half of my brain in panic mode and the other half admiring her speed! I managed to catch Sascha just before she plunged into the duck pond (saving us both an impromptu algae treatment with a side of duck poop).

I took off after her, one half of my brain in panic mode and the other half admiring her speed!

Since then, visiting the duck pond has provided lots of opportunity for us to use the Premack principle (the use of a high value behavior to achieve a lower value behavior, as in: "Eat your spinach and you can have a slice of apple pie afterward"). I encourage walking just a little bit further, or Sascha's favorite, "Let's run to the duck pond!"


Sascha can now do so many of the things that we (and our dogs!) take for granted. She can go outside for a drink of water when she is thirsty, sniff a bush for the latest pee-mail, or engage in a round of husky play. My other huskies accepted Sascha exactly as she was from the very beginning, getting down on the floor to play with her. With her wheelchair, they continue to treat her as any other dog—no better, no worse. I like that attitude.

My other huskies accepted Sascha exactly as she was from the very beginning.

My home was never meant to be Sascha's permanent home, but a place where she could grow and develop until her perfect family finds her (and I know they are out there). Until then, she will have a home with me. Some people ask, "Who would adopt a paralyzed dog?" and that is an understandable question. Not many people would. But I believe in possibilities—I am a clicker trainer, after all! That is what we do and that is who we are.

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