Cooperative Care: The How and the Why

Cooperative care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active, willing participant in these experiences.

In this column, we highlight some useful behaviors to teach clients to facilitate cooperative care, and share stories of how animals can be transformed by a more mindful, intentional approach to working with them through medical procedures.

This article features instructions on how to teach a chin rest with distractions and duration, training a senior cat to accept regular blood draws, and a story of how consistent and respectful training really mattered for a pony with sarcoids.

The chin rest

Co-operative Care picture of a dog doing a chin rest

A chin rest on a hand

The chin rest behavior is very useful and flexible behavior for cooperative care exercises. We can teach the dog a chin rest into their handler’s hand, which can be used to help the dog remain still for short periods in a stand, sit or down position. The chin rest may also be more useful for smaller dogs, or if the dog is placed on a high surface (like an exam table).

For longer durations I’d recommend teaching a chin rest on the handler’s lap, which will help the dog to hold still in a standing position. For situations where the dog needs to remain in a down position, teach a chin rest on a pillow (or stuffed toy).

A chin rest on a pillow on a chair

A chin rest on a pillow on a chair

A chin rest on the handler’s lap

A chin rest on the handler’s lap

How to teach the chin rest

Beginning the shaping process

Beginning the shaping process

1. Start in a seated position and place a cloth or pillow across your lap.

  • Hold treats in one hand.
  • Lure your dog with a treat to approach you facing your thigh, opposite side to your treat hand.
  • Reward your dog several times for standing still in that position.

2. Direct your gaze to the cloth on your lap and begin shaping the chin rest. Mark and reward for the dog:

  • Looking at the cloth
  • Touching the cloth with their nose
  • Touching the cloth with their chin (reward placement will help a lot to get this position)

Place the food reward on the cloth on the side away from the dog, so the reinforcer is delivered in the chin rest position.

The correct position on a cloth

The correct position on a cloth

3. Begin adding a cue

When your dog begins to move his head down and you’re certain they will offer the chin rest, say “Rest” or other cue just before their head hits your lap. Mark and reward after a few seconds of duration as you have been doing.

4, Build duration: Hold out for slightly longer and longer chin rests

Slowly increase the number of seconds the dog maintains the chin rest position before marking and rewarding. Here’s video of me live coaching one of my clients and their dog Ollie; we’ve already worked through the initial stages of a chin rest, and now we are building some duration.

Ollie is a young dog with serious issues being handled by anyone. His owner cannot trim his nails or brush him if Ollie does not feel comfortable, and Ollie will bite to stop these interactions. He must be muzzled and sedated for veterinary care. In the video above, we are part way into the training process, and we are still working on cleaning up some of her mechanics. At this stage we would fade the lure to initiate the chin rest, and also begin to fade out the visual of the hands in front holding treats which is used as a “reverse lure” to help build duration.

5. Add distractions

Once your dog can hold the position for 10-20 seconds, begin adding some handling to the exercise. Reach down to stroke their back, and mark and reward if they keep position. If they break position, stop touching, ask or wait for another chin rest, and try again. Remember it is key that the dog learns that breaking position will stop the handling! Once your dog is in the game, you can work on touching ears, eyes, lips to check teeth, etc. As long as they stay in position you continue, and they get a mark and reward each time. Here’s Ollie and his owner again, in a video from the next session after the one in the video above.

Ollie can now hold the chin rest position with duration, and we are beginning to add in handling. I started with moving my hand toward him but not touching him—this video is further in the session where I have started to add in occasional touches. You’ll notice the first time I touch him, he lifts his head but puts it right back down, signalling the training can continue.

Saying no

One of the most important aspects of teaching cooperative care is that the dog is allowed to “say no.” This is why teaching a duration target behavior is so useful—not only does it help to keep the dog still, but we teach the dog through the process that if at any time they break the target position (lift their head, etc), then the handling procedure will stop.

For example, if a dog is doing a chin rest in a stand during a veterinary exam, if they feel uncomfortable and move their head, the handling will stop until the dog signals they are ready to resume by returning to their target.

This is during the same session as the previous video. We are continuing to add more handling from me. You’ll see the first time I touch him he lifts his head but replaces it immediately. The second time I touch him he does not break position. However, the third time he sits and refuses to resume the chin rest position even when prompted. He then engages in a possible displacement behavior of licking his leg. I liked this clip because it shows clearly that he does not want to continue with the training, and we honor that. Please note the lip licking is because the food rewards were sticking in his teeth!

Sarcoid treatment for an 11-year-old Welsh cob

Magic arrived at my yard (for training) some seven years ago as a 5-year-old who had been bought from a sales yard by a show jump producer. He had untouched feet, which were horrendously overgrown and misshapen, causing him to be crippled in movement. His new owner tried to start training him using normal forceful methods, but he proved to be impossible to train or handle. He bolted at every opportunity. I inherited him as a training pony not long after that. It was in my early days of learning behavioural science and applying clicker training alongside counter-conditioning and systematic desensitising. Magic was my big experiment.

Magic is now 100% solid with his feet and the farrier. He is an awesome riding pony who loves life with us. Over the years, he has trained so many members of staff and other owners in clicker skills and every aspect of training. What remains and will always remain is his need for control. You can never force anything with him or he simply leaves! Worming, farrier, clipping, tacking up….every single thing has to be in his control, and that is fine by me.

I thought very long and hard before having sarcoid surgery performed on him (at the age of 10) because of the danger of emotional fallout, but the sarcoids were aggressive and in a very bad place right between his hind legs. He was hospitalised and treated with electrochemotherapy, which caused the wounds to become larger and deeper as the cancerous cells were destroyed. I was not able to touch them during the three-week process, Then the wounds became fly blown and I was truly beside myself. After his hospital experience Magic was back to being totally defensive, which I understood, but I needed to start to clean the wounds up. Magic allowed us to cold hose the wounds out with someone holding him and feeding him carrots, but no way could we apply the special creams that had been dispensed by his veterinarian. Once Magic decides he is going, nothing and no one can stop him.

I was so worried that I would destroy that whole history of training because of the severity of the situation. However, I had no options left. I had to trust the training we’d done.

The video shows Magic starting the session on a hand-held target. Thereafter he is quite content to stay while being fed, and can leave at any time. This session our second, one week after our first attempt to flush the wounds. The wounds were clean but very deep, very painful, and altogether nasty. Despite this, Magic was in full control of the proceedings. I clicked each time I moved my hand, getting deeper each time.

I listened to him. There is a place in this video where he lifts his leg to stop me. I believe he was telling me he just needed a minute to cope. I listened and I waited until he gave me permission to carry on—or not—that’s up to him. He signalled that I could carry on when he relaxed that leg back down; he appeared to be finding it really hard and his foot remained on its toe ready to stop me again. He had no intention of kicking me; it was simply communication.

I remain in awe of this pony and what he allowed us to do, day in, day out, over all of those weeks of treatment and healing. I also still feel guilty for putting him through it, but we had no choice. However, the years of training history, and the trust bank account built over time because of the training invested in him, paid dividends when the chips were down. We never know what is around the corner in life but this rescue pony is testament to the power of positive training and the mutual respect that comes from allowing full control. Magic has taught me so very much, and I will never stop being grateful to him for making me listen and trust the trust account.

Blood draw training with Mimi

Mimi came to us as an old lady at the ripe old age of 16 years, and soon after was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, which meant regular blood draws for the rest of her life. My hope was to be able to make vet visits the least stressful they could possibly be for her, making sure they would not have a negative effect on our trust account either, because Mimi was just getting to know us and settling in to her new life.

Before starting the blood draw training seen in the video, Mimi had already learned to station, and we had done tactile training with her as well as a lot of carrier training. Also, I had introduced the needle in the form of target-style training to help create a positive association with it.

This video was taken when I was not yet sure where the blood would be drawn, so my thought was to train both the throat and legs for Mimi. The plan was to start where she would be the most comfortable and already used to me touching her, and carry on from there.

This was our first session with me taking the needle to her, instead of her coming to the needle, and from the video you can see her being a bit skeptical at first when coming on the station. When she tells me she is ready to start training by lying down in a relaxed position on the station, I show her the needle (you can see the targeting needle at 0:44 in the video), and I’ll proceed by touching her with it.

I decided a bit too early to add a small pinch (1:50), and although the first time goes great, Mimi was not okay with it the second time (2:05), so I took few steps back and just showed her my hand and the needle (2:10), and then did few short touches with the needle to leave a positive experience for her.

Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to finish the training before the must-do blood draw, and since then we have had to visit a vet quite frequently to get the medication dosage right.

The good news is that we now have the correct dose of medication, so Mimi only needs 1-2 blood draws a year. This means we can get back on this training.

We do have a long road ahead before we can use this training at the vet’s office, but if nothing more, it is at least a nice, quality time for us two and brings us closer together.