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Cooperative Care for Dogs: Building Trust and Reducing Stress

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Have you ever had to put eye drops in your dog's eye and needed to restrain your dog in order to do so? Or have a dog with an ear infection needing daily cleaning and ear medication, who ran as soon as you brought their medication out? A more common scenario is the dog who doesn't want to have nail trims, and not only runs from the sight of the nail clippers, but maybe growls or snaps when you try to trim their nails.


Cooperative care is a great way to resolve these problems. Cooperative care is a training method that teaches dogs to be willing participants in handling and husbandry procedures. This can include things like grooming, nail trimming, ear cleaning, and veterinary exams. The goal of cooperative care is to build trust and a positive association with these experiences, so that dogs are comfortable and relaxed, even when they are being handled in a way that they might not find enjoyable.


Zoos have been doing cooperative care with their animals for a very long time. Google cooperative care in zoo animals, and you'll find some really amazing videos. From hyenas who have been taught to approach the fence and lift their head up to expose their neck for a blood draw, to rhinoceros who are trained to open their mouth for a tooth check. If wild animals can be trained to assist in their own care, there isn't any reason dog owners can't do the same with their own dogs!


dog getting nails filed with a Dremel


The Benefits of Cooperative Care


Reduces Stress and Anxiety: I know firsthand how stressful it can be to try and brush a dog that doesn’t want to be brushed, or trim a dog’s nails when they jerk their foot away in discomfort. I used to dread having to do these tasks because neither the dogs nor I wanted to do them. But one of the most significant advantages of cooperative care is its ability to reduce stress and anxiety for both dogs and their owners. When dogs are comfortable with being handled, they are less likely to become fearful or aggressive, making vet visits and grooming sessions much smoother and more enjoyable for everyone involved.


Improves Communication: Cooperative care enhances communication between dogs and their owners. When dogs learn to "speak up" and let their owners know when they are uncomfortable, it is easier to avoid situations that could lead to fear or aggression. This open dialogue creates a stronger bond with your dog, because trust is an important part of any relationship.


Additionally, there is a lot of research that giving animals as much control in their lives as possible increases their ability to cope with stress and reduces overall anxiety. Cooperative care is a great way to give our dogs a measure of control in their lives.


Prevents Injuries: A dog who jerks their foot away may result in the owner trying to clip the nail faster, resulting in cutting the quick and causing the dog even more reason to hate that procedure. A cooperative dog is going to be a participant in nail care, and will tell you if they’re ready for the nail clippers or not.


Dogs trained in other cooperative care procedures are less likely to bite or scratch or struggle, which can protect both the dog and the owner from injuries. Your vet and their staff will also thank you for making their jobs so much easier!


Dog being brushed


What cooperative care looks like


The important part of cooperative care is the cooperative part. Typically, when dog owners do things to care for their dogs either with grooming or medical care, it's a situation where the dog doesn't really want to have the procedure done, and the treatment is forced on them, usually by restraint. With cooperative care, through training, the dog is trained to not only accept the care taking, but is allowed to say no.


As an example, my dogs have been trained that with nail trims they are to lay on their sides. Head resting on the floor is a signal to me that they are ready to proceed. Head lifted up off the floor is a signal that they need a break. So, when the head is lifted up off the floor I remove my hands from their feet, and wait for the head to go back down, signaling the dog is ready for me to continue.


This is not about enduring an unpleasant procedure. This is about letting the dog tell you when they need a little bit of time to collect themselves before you proceed. If my dog continuously lifted their head up, it would be a signal to me that the procedure had become so uncomfortable that they did not want to continue. At that point I would get the message and end the procedure, and then we would need to go back to some training to help them feel more comfortable with it.


Another part of cooperative care is predictability and routine. The training includes cues that tell the dog what is going to happen, and what position you want the dog to be in for that procedure. For nail trims I choose to have my dogs lay down on their side, although that is not the only way you can trim a dog's nails. For eye drops you could teach your dog to rest their chin on a pillow or on your lap.


Sometimes people hear about cooperative care and think it's unreasonable, because life is about things that you have to do. And this is true, there are going to be things that you cannot, or don't have time to train for that your dog will have to put up with. If you haven't had time to work with your dog on accepting shots, and then your dog is diagnosed with something like diabetes where they need regular shots, that might be a situation where you do have to restrain your dog in order to make sure they're getting the medical care they need.


That being said, at the same time, knowing that this will likely be a long-term or even lifelong treatment, you can start working on cooperative care to make the procedure go easier for yourself, and less stressful for your dog. There would be the procedures that your dog has to put up with because it needs to be done, and then you would have separate training sessions and try to provide a different setup to indicate to the dog that you weren't going to push them over the threshold and that they had an opportunity to cooperate. At some point the real life and the training would merge and you'd be able to use your cooperative care for their real-life treatment.


dog resting chin on owner's lap


Training Cooperative Care


The key to successfully training a cooperative care behavior is taking it very slow, listening to what the dog is telling you, and providing a lot of reinforcement. The time frame for being able to start using trained skills in real life will depend entirely on the dog. When I introduced the Dremel to file the nails of my dogs I had very different training experiences with each.


Whimsy is sensitive about having her feet handled and it took six weeks to get her conditioned to being comfortable with the Dremel to file her nails. Quinn has always been great about having his nails trimmed, and it took less than a week until I could use the Dremel on his nails.


It’s very important that you start super easy and go at your dog’s pace. You never want to proceed to the next step until your dog is 100% comfortable with the step you’re currently at.

As an example, when I started working with Whimsy to get her conditioned to the Dremel I started without the tool in the training session. It was all about getting her feeling comfortable with me handling her feet, and specifically her toes. And I made sure that she was comfortable with each and every toe before I moved on.


The next step was merely presenting the Dremel without it being on, giving her a treat, and then putting it behind my back. You can see the whole process in the video below.


The important part is to follow your dog’s lead, and not go off of your own timeline. Remember this is supposed to be cooperative care, which means the dog’s buy in is extremely important and requires that you respect the dog’s feelings about what’s going on.


Training for cooperative care is not difficult, but knowing the training steps involved for different procedures is important for successful implementation. YouTubers have some great cooperative care videos, but you may want to consider working with a trainer to get started on the right paw.




Conclusion


Cooperative care is a valuable skill for all dogs to learn. It can help to make vet visits and grooming sessions less stressful, improve communication between dogs and their owners, and prevent injuries. If you are looking for a way to improve your dog's overall well-being, cooperative care is a great place to start.


With a little patience and consistency, you can teach your dog to be a willing participant in handling and husbandry procedures. This will make life easier for both of you and help to ensure that your dog receives the care they need.


 

Do you need help training your dog? I offer virtual consultations for separation anxiety resolution, as well as for other behavioral issues or training needs.


I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.


I would love to work with you and your dog!

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