What is Cooperative Care?

Jun 08, 2022

Does your dog HATE having their nails clipped?

Do they run away at the sight of their toothbrush no matter the kind of toothpaste you pick?

It can be so frustrating and hard to care for a dog who dislikes care tasks.

And expensive to have the vet or groomer do it for you!

Enter cooperative care.

What is cooperative care?

Cooperative care is working with your dog to complete their care tasks instead of against them.

It is an easy, low conflict way to get them done without stressing your dog and allowing them freedom of choice.


The Basics

The basics of cooperative care are very easy!

The first step is to make the sight of the tool that you use (toothbrush, brush, clippers) a fun and exciting thing!

Simply follow these steps below for a few days to get the excitement and positivity:

  1. Prepare your dog's all time favorite treat (usually something soft and stinky like cheese).
  2. Hold the tool behind your back.
  3. Show the tool to your dog (don't expect them to touch it or do anything specific).
  4. Drop several tasty treats on the ground for them to eat.
  5. Hide the tool behind your back again.
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 many many times over several sessions and days.

You'll know you've been successful when you show your dog the tool and they look expectantly to you for a treat or lick their lips!

Once your dog is familiar with the tool, you need to pick an easy signal for communication to stop and start the task.

Choosing a Start Button Behavior

A start button behavior should ideally be simple, clear, and efficient for the task at hand!

Something like a side lay would work great for nail trimming, and standing on a platform would be a great help for brushing.

Here are a few common start button behaviors you can choose from:

  • Chin rest on an object
  • Chin rest in your hand
  • Sit on platform
  • Stand on platform
  • Side lay on mat
  • Down on mat
  • Licking a lickimat

Once you have chosen your start button, you want to train it!

Start by either shaping or luring the behavior until your dog is fluent with it.

Before you are able to use the behavior as a start button, your dog must be offering it without a cue.

This would look like pulling out the chin rest chair with the brush nearby and your dog automatically resting their chin on the chair for their reward.

Once your start button behavior is offered consistently, you are ready to turn it into a start button!

Using the Start Button

To start teaching your dog what the start button means for the care task, you'll want to choose the smallest part of the care task.

Let's use brushing as our example. Instead of going straight in to brushing your dog with the brush, let's start by just lifting the brush from the table.

This would look like the following steps:

  1. Dog offers chin rest on chair.
  2. Human lifts brush.
  3. Human rewards dog.
  4. Human sets brush down.
  5. Human releases dog with a tossed treat and waits.
  6. Repeat steps 1-5.

If your dog lifts their chin during this process, that means stop please!

Immediately put the brush down and reward your dog.

With cooperative care, the dog is rewarded no matter the status of participation allowing them to freely communicate when they are overwhelmed.

Progressing in Care

When your dog is successfully maintaining their start button while you lift the brush, for example, you are ready to make things a bit more difficult.

After the brush is lifted, what is the next step in the process?

Moving the brush to the dog. Repeat steps 1-6 with the new action of moving the brush towards the dog.

Remember that if they lift their chin, that means you went too fast. Put the brush down and reset with some treats.

You can continue in this way in small small progressions of the brushing until you are able to brush your dog while they hold their chin rest.

What if my dog always opts out?

Sometimes, you might feel like your dog is ALWAYS saying no.

That's very common, and not always a cause for concern!

The first question I like to ask is without any movement, can your dog hold their start button behavior for 10 seconds?

If not, duration is most likely the culprit of the always opting out - not the care task.

Go back to the basics and work on extending the duration of your start button.

If your dog can hold their start button behavior for 10 seconds without the care tool or movement, then you are most likely moving too fast for comfort.

If you need to, go all the way back to desensitizing the tool itself (no start button) like we learned in the beginning of this post.

Then bring back the start button but start even slower. Maybe just touching the brush is enough of a challenge for your dog at first.

What if I need help?

If you struggle with cooperative care and need some support in working with your dog, there are SO many resources available to you!

A few of my favorite YouTube channels teach cooperative care methods here and here.

There are some really incredible books about cooperative care, especially Deb Jones'! **I may receive a small commission if you purchase using these links at no extra cost to you.**

And as always, if you'd like to learn cooperative care from me, I have a class as part of the Pack membership. Learn more about that here.


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