What is co-operative care and why do we use it?
Co-operative care is a training methodology that we use to help our dogs and handlers cope with everyday and emergency health and welfare procedures. These procedures can include anything from simple grooming practices to something as complicated as putting eye drops in a dog’s eye.
The aim of doing co-operative care exercises is to have our dogs be comfortable being touched and handled. As anyone who has ever had to give a pill to a cat can attest; it is very difficult to do anything with a reluctant participant.
Now, imagine trying to brush your dog, you have limited vision, and your dog isn’t keen on being groomed. They are going to dance around, and you are more likely to miss brushing certain spots, and will very likely get a bit annoyed and impatient. In this case, we would be more successful grooming our dog if we had their consent. With co-operative care, we load a piggy bank of good experiences with a particular exercise, so that we are more likely to gain our dog’s consent to allow us to perform that exercise. We do this by working in small steps, and rewarding for each step along the way, that will eventually result in the final exercise we would like to perform with our dog.
So where do we start with co-operative care? With our puppies, puppy block volunteers and our puppy raisers. Our puppies are taught from a very young age, that being picked up, hugged and cuddled, and being handled is very rewarding. Lots of treats and praise are involved. But the key is that we are rewarding, not bribing! Initially, every touch is rewarded. I touch your paw, you get a treat! I look in your ear, you get a treat! I gently lift your tail, you get a treat! This pattern helps our dogs and puppies learn to be trusting, less fearful, and to be more willing to work with us when we need to perform any health checks and grooming.
One of the ways we incorporate co-operative care concepts is to build foundation behaviours with games. Two of our favourite games are ‘Chin!’ and ‘Mat!’.
‘Chin!’ is a game that gets our dog to place their chin firmly in the outstretched palm of our hand. We initially just lure their nose over our palm with a treat, and then treat them when their muzzle is positioned over our hand. Once we have lured them into position a few times, we then test to see if they will offer the behaviour by themselves if we just present our palm. From there, we start building the length of time they will keep their muzzle on our hand, and deepening the pressure of their chin on our hand. While their chin is placed on our hand, they are standing still, and this will eventually help us perform mouth, eye and ear checks. From there we can work towards more complicated exercises such as ear cleaning or applying eye drops.
‘Mat!’ is a game that teaches our dog to station themselves on a specific surface, such as a rubber mat or a soft towel. We teach this game by showing our dog a treat and then tossing it on their mat that is positioned close by. Doing this repeatedly results in our dog learning that the mat is an awesome place to be, regardless of their body position. This not only helps our dogs settle in unfamiliar places like a café or veterinary practice, but can also be used to help our dogs learn to be comfortable with procedures like nail clippings or tooth brushing. This is because being on the mat results in nice things like treats and praise.