As we discussed in our Introduction to Cooperative Care, this training concept involves training your dog not to just tolerate handling, grooming, and other husbandry procedures, but to empower them to be an active and willing participant in these experiences.
The concept of cooperative care has become commonplace in large animal practices such as zoos and rescue facilities where an uncooperative large animal could be potentially dangerous. By training these animals to “opt-in” to care procedures, they can be safely treated without the need for physical or chemical restraint.
The same concept applies to our pets. If we train them to become willing participants in their care, and empower them to “say no” when needed, we can help them become an active part of their care and reduce the need for force in husbandry procedures.
Foundation Behaviors for Cooperative Care
One of the foundations of Cooperative Care is teaching a duration target behavior. This behavior helps to keep the dog still and in place, but it also empowers them to opt-out of the process if they break that position. To achieve this, we can begin by teaching a Chin Rest. When we teach the dog to rest their chin on a target, it can be the dog’s way of communicating that they are ready to go ahead with the procedure.
While training the chin rest, we can begin to mimic husbandry procedures such as eye drops, ear cleaning, or dental cleaning. To begin, use only gentle touches to simulate the behavior. For example, lift the ear gently and then alternate sides and reward your dog along the way. As the dog grows more comfortable, add in a tool such as a Q-Tip. Touch the ear with the swab, give a treat. Then lift the ear, gently touch with the swab, and reward your dog. Your goal is to gradually build up to an ear cleaning. If at any point your dog feels uncomfortable, allow them to lift their chin and take a break. The video below illustrates the start of training a chin rest.
Every time you practice this training, be it an ear cleaning, eye exam, or oral exam, you are building your dog’s trust in their ability to opt-in or opt-out of procedures. Think of these practices as making a deposit into your dog’s “trust account”. The more deposits that you make through regular practice, the easier it will be to make a withdraw when the time comes to put practice into play.