This past summer, I had the privilege of getting to be part of an exciting new project by dog trainer Dr. Deb Jones. She created a virtual titling program all about the skills needed for cooperative care between dogs and their guardians. That project just recently launched, so I thought it was a perfect opportunity to share my thoughts and tips for working on cooperative care!
What Is It?
Cooperative care is all about teaching our dogs to be comfortable and compliant with all kinds of husbandry procedures - those are all the veterinary care and physical maintenance things that all dogs will need at some point in their lives. Traditionally, a lot of this is done through force. Pin the dog down and do the thing as quickly as possible. That approach leads to a lot of traumatized dogs who panic in the vet’s office and scream like a banshee when you try to trim their nails or brush them. There’s a better way.
Desensitization and Counterconditioning
If you’ve done much reading or listening about positive dog training, you’ve probably heard these terms. As a rough definition, desensitization is decreasing a dog’s response to something through gradual exposure. Counterconditioning is changing a dog’s emotional association with something from negative to positive. These two concepts are key when approaching cooperative care. You’re very unlikely to make much progress in getting your dog to be better for nail trims, for example, if you just go straight to clipping a nail while he’s distracted or sleeping. You could actually cause bigger problems and break your dog’s trust. Rather, break the skill down into its component parts, start at the level where your dog isn’t stressed, pair the procedure with tasty food, and gradually move to the next step.
Start Button Behaviors
Something that has transformed my cooperative care training is the use of start button behaviors. Start button behaviors allow a dog to clearly opt in to an exercise. They put the dog in the driver’s seat by giving them a definitive way to say either, “I’m okay with this, you may proceed,” or, “This is too much at the moment, let’s try that later.” Allowing our dogs to consent to procedures greatly increases their comfort level and therefore cooperation!
In the video below, I’m trying to work on counterconditioning paw handling with Edgar. He has a very negative association with anyone trying to do anything to his feet - so common. This is what it looked like before I used a start button. I could make some slow progress, but he very quickly reverted to his old behavior of snarling/snapping at the hand that reached toward him. He was not comfortable with the procedure, even though I was “doing it right.”
Now, in this video, I give Edgar a start button. He offers eye contact, I touch his leg/foot, I mark and reinforce him for allowing me to do that. I don’t move on to the next step until Edgar gives me that start button again. Giving him choice and control in the process did wonders for his comfort level, and I no longer saw any of the old behavior.
Start Button + Consent = Chin Rest
One of the exercises included in the Cooperative Care Certification is a chin rest: the dog places his chin either in the handler’s palm or on a flat surface and holds it there. A chin rest can also function as a start button and/or consent behavior. You can see in this example, Jack offers the chin rest, and I run my hands over his head/neck as if I were examining them. Placing his chin on the towel gives me the green light to start the “exam” - start button. If he were to lift up his head, I would stop the procedure - consent.
Here are the steps I used to teach the chin rest in hand to Jack. The video was originally created in my Instagram stories, so it's not the best quality but it gets the job done!
If you’re struggling through husbandry procedures with your dog, if your dog freaks out at the vet, or if you just want to strengthen your relationship with your dog, then here are some resources to get started on your journey:
Cooperative Care Certification website - ten exercises to start with, along with explanations of each exercise, example videos (a few of which star the beautiful Mr. Jack), and an opportunity to earn a title with your dog!
Cooperative Care: 7 Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry by Deb Jones
I also offer coaching for making your dog’s care routines less stressful, via Zoom or in person. Give me a shout - I’d love to help!