Cooperative Care: How to Get a Willing Participant

Stephanie Wan Editorial Date:

In cooperative care, we ask for our dogs’ consent before beginning handling procedures such as vet examinations, baths, nail trims, eye care and ear care. Giving dogs the choice to opt in or out of handling procedures reduces the fear and stress associated with them, and gives dogs more confidence. With cooperative care training, dogs become willing participants in handling procedures.

How do we encourage dogs to opt in to handling procedures?

You may question, “If I ask for my dog’s permission before handling them, won’t they just say ‘no’ all the time?” The answer is that we need to slowly introduce our dogs to the handling procedures, so that it is easy for them to say yes. Break down the procedure into small, simple steps that your dog is able to accept, and work on each step individually. It may take multiple lessons before you are able to actually perform the full handling procedure, and that is ok!

Remember that no one masters a skill overnight, and it would be unfair to expect our dogs to learn how to accept any handling procedure after one lesson. Cooperative care needs to be practiced in advance, before the actual handling procedure needs to be done. By gaining lots of practice, when it is time for the real procedure, your dog will be ready to perform their best.

Not just a silly trick: Teaching dogs to give consent improves their well-being

A “start button” behaviour is used for dogs to give consent. The handling procedure begins ONLY when your dog performs the start button behaviour, and stops any time they break from the behaviour. Common start buttons are chin rests, playing dead, or standing on a mat or platform. These cute tricks are great for cooperative care, because they keep your dog still and allow you to access different parts of their body. Before they can be used as a start button, your dog needs to know how to hold the position for at least 10 seconds.

Remember that if you offer your dog a choice to opt in or out of a handling procedure, it is important to always honour their choice. This is how your dog learns that the start button allows them to give or withdraw consent. Giving dogs this control greatly reduces their stress, and increases their willingness to participate in the procedure.

This dog is choosing to perform a chin rest to get eye drops.
This dog is choosing to perform a chin rest to get eye drops.
Photo credit: Lincoln Park Zoo.  

Using cooperative care for giving eye drops

As an example, a chin rest behaviour can be used as a start button for giving your dog eye drops. The process of giving eye drops can then be broken down into many small steps, such as, your hand coming close to their head, touching their head, moving close to their eye, touching their eye lid, the presence of the eye dropper, bringing the eye dropper close to their eye, and finally the actual eye drop. Instead of expecting our dogs to suddenly tolerate an eye drop, practice the easy steps first. Ask for a chin rest (which your dog already knows) and then bring your hand close to their head slowly. If they remain in position, end the chin rest by rewarding them with a treat! If they move away from your hand, just put your hand down and ask for the chin rest again. Sometimes they’re just curious about your hand and don’t understand that you want them to stay still. Lift your hand again but don’t bring it as close to their head.

By asking for a chin rest before each time you lift your hand, you are waiting for your dog’s consent. If they perform the chin rest, they are giving consent. If they stop the chin rest, they are withdrawing consent. Breaking down the procedure into small steps helps your dog get used to what is about to happen, and makes it easy for them to choose to participate. Remember to reward your dog each time to let them know they’re doing a great job!

Once your dog is ok with you lifting your hand and moving close to their head, you can increase the difficulty. Ask for a chin rest and touch their head gently. Now your dog is able to consent to a new step! The end goal is to increase the difficulty step by step until your dog is able to consent to you giving them an eye drop, without needing any force or restraint. You simply need to ask for a chin rest!

This dog is choosing to perform a chin rest to get eye drops
A chin rest is a common start button in cooperative care.
Photo credit: Sarah Dixon.  

What happens if our dog says “No”?

If we increase the difficulty too fast, our dog may choose not to give consent. Whenever your dog moves away from the chin rest, respect their answer and stop what you were doing. This is their way of telling you that they are uncomfortable. In fact, you should still reward your dog with a treat for moving away. Rewarding your dog for saying “yes” and also rewarding for saying “no” is what truly gives your dog a choice, because it makes both answers acceptable. It also teaches our dogs that calmly moving away is a great way to say “no”, instead of using stronger actions such as growling or snapping. They learn that all they need to do is move away, and the scary procedure will stop.

There can be many reasons why your dog is saying “no” and not giving consent. It could be that the task is too difficult, and your dog is not ready yet. Continue practicing an easier step, and think about what you can do to help your dog be more comfortable with the more difficult steps. A lack of consent offers information about how our dogs are feeling, and gives us the chance to adjust our training plan to help our dog succeed. If your dog has consented to a procedure before but is suddenly saying “no”, it may be that the environment is too distracting, your dog needs a break, or they’re just having a bad day. Give them a treat, end the training session, and practice again another time. Never punish your dog for not wanting to participate in a handling procedure. 

Respecting our dogs when they say “no” is the most important part of cooperative care, since the whole point is to give dogs control. In emergency situations where we cannot accept no as an answer, do not offer the choice at all. If we ask for our dog’s consent, then we must honour their answer.  

Cooperative care takes a lot of work and practice, but we owe it to our dogs to acknowledge and respect their feelings. In the long run it makes things safer for both the dog and the human. Vet visits, grooming and bath time become a much less stressful event, improving our dog’s quality of life! Instead of forcing our dogs to do something they are scared of, we can help them feel confident enough to choose to do it. Will you start adding cooperative care to your daily training routine to reduce stress in your dog’s life?