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Cooperative Care Training and How it Can Help Your Pet at the Vet

by Dr. Kelsey Woolsey, DVM


What is cooperative care? Cooperative care is defined as training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but be an active willing participant in those experiences. 


Many routine husbandry procedures such as nail trimming, grooming, ear cleaning, etc. can cause fear and anxiety in our pets. This fear and anxiety stems from the inability to understand what is going to happen, not being able to refuse the care being performed, and in some cases, the anticipation of pain or discomfort. One of the most important aspects of cooperative care is that pets are allowed to “say no”. They can be taught to indicate, using a non-aggressive behavior, that they are no longer comfortable with the procedure being performed.


Why is it important for an animal to be an active willing participant in its care? Pets that are conditioned and trained for handling and medical procedures are less likely to display aggressive behavior. The fear, anxiety, and stress associated with vet visits and care can have long lasting negative behavioral and health effects. 


Forcing animals to tolerate procedures they are uncomfortable with can lead to lasting fear and cause the pet to escalate from just showing signs of fear (panting, shaking, avoidance, escape attempts) to aggression (biting, scratching, thrashing), making the procedure unsafe for the pet, handlers, and medical care team. 


How exactly do you train cooperative care? The foundation of most cooperative care training is a targeting behavior with duration.  A lot of dogs are taught a “touch” or “target” cue where they touch their owners fist or the tip of a target stick with their nose. This is the starting point of cooperative care! The targeting behavior can be transitioned to a “chin rest” where the dog rests its chin on something such as a towel on the trainer's lap, a pillow on a chair, etc. Once the pet is comfortable with this behavior they can be taught to rest their chin for longer and longer periods of time. Training can then include the introduction of touching for examination and tools (stethoscope, ear flush, otoscope, etc.). If at any point the pet becomes uncomfortable with the handling or procedure being performed, they will indicate by breaking the position, for example: a dog becomes uncomfortable when a bottle of ear flush is moved toward its ear, so he lifts his head from the chin rest position he was holding on a towel placed on the trainers lap. When this happens the trainer stops, then training is resumed at a prior step that the dog is comfortable with. In this example perhaps it would be simply picking up the ear flush bottle but not moving it toward the dog’s ear. 


If animals are allowed to “say no”, won’t they just refuse to participate all together? When cooperative care is trained correctly through the use of positive reinforcement, pets willingly participate in procedures, even ones that are considered unpleasant (such as a blood draw or injections).


How will focusing training on cooperative care help my pet during vet visits? Training cooperative care sets your pet up for success by giving her the ability to use learned behaviors at the time of a vet visit or during at home care. Training for a particular procedure reduces anxiety and stress because the pet knows the steps of the procedure and is aware of what is going to happen. Pets that are trained for cooperative care are less likely to develop aggressive behavior making it easier for them to receive appropriate care. 


In the following video, the dog “targets” his paw on the veterinarian's leg to indicate willing participation in a blood draw. Note how the steps leading up to the blood draw (holding off the vein, touching the leg) are practiced and reinforced prior to the actual blood draw. 





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