The trend that fascinates me in the animal training world the most recently is cooperative husbandry and medical training. When we talk about “cooperative care” we mean training our animals (not necessarily dogs) to be able to make choices whether or not they want to participate in their own care. By “care” I mean all medical and husbandry procedures, including grooming – done both at home and by a professional groomer.
What is cooperative care?
Cooperative care is more than just accustoming your dog with the grooming salon or vet clinic. During an accustomization process we rely on classical conditioning processes – counterconditioning and desensitization – at least when it’s done right and no flooding is taking place. Flooding might be taking place when you present some aversive stimuli to your dog and wait until there’s no negative reaction anymore. For example, you restrain your anxious dog on the grooming table and wait for them to stop trying to escape. This is not what we want our dog training to look like! Cooperative husbandry training adds operant conditioning to the equation. It respects the animal’s operant behaviors with a function to stop the procedure or to have a little break. In other words, it respects the animal’s choice.
Cooperative medical training came to the pet training world from marine mammals centers and zoological gardens. In opposition to our pets, wild animals cannot be easily restrained during medical procedures. On the other hand, anesthesia can have major side effects for the animal’s organism if it’s performed too often.
Strong reinforcement history
That’s why the trainers that work with wild animals teach them behaviors that make performing medical procedures less dangerous and stressful, both for the animal and for the staff. The behaviors might not look like the most impressive tricks, they may be simple yet powerful like presenting a body part for the examination, staying still for the blood draw, or opening the mouth for a dental check-up. If the animal doesn’t want the procedure to continue, they leave the position (withdraw the body part, move away from the target). The animal should have a strong reinforcement history related to medical training and certain tools so they don’t want to stop the procedure too often.
If one can teach a rhino to voluntarily open their mouth for a dental check-up, why don’t we teach it to our dogs? Sadly, most of our pets are physically weaker than us and it’s not so hard to restrain them on the vet or grooming table. Restraining is for most people a lot easier than going through a long training process that requires some teaching skills, consumes time, and takes some effort. Some dogs, when restrained, might actually shut down, freeze and show symptoms of learned helplessness. Some dogs might show aggressive communication which might scare the owner and the vet staff and cause a lot of dogs to be undiagnosed and untreated. Proper grooming is also very important for some breeds and yet it’s impossible to do if the dog behaves aggressively.
Cooperative husbandry training
An ability to make choices is a crucial component of well-being for all individuals and it’s a primary reinforcer. Similarly, not being able to make choices is aversive. When I go to my dentist, I know I can ask for a break if I feel overwhelmed. This possibility alone is reinforcing to me so I’ve been sticking with the same dentist for 15 years.
The same goes for our pets. They are generally very dependent on us and have little choice in their lives. Teaching the dog to say “yes” and “no” by presenting certain behaviors will improve their confidence, bond with their owner, and willingness to take part in medical and grooming procedures. In cooperative husbandry training, we teach positions like chin rest on the chair or the handler’s knees as a “yes” behavior. On the other hand, leaving the position is a clear “no” from the animal. The position as simple as chin rest might be used for a variety of procedures: blood draw, injections, brushing, or other grooming manipulations. For more information and professional courses visit tromplo.com
Although the process of medical training might be long and requires a lot of skill from the trainer, it’s still worth it to introduce it to your pet’s life! It will improve your communication with each other and make vet and groomer appointments less of a stressful experience. It will most definitely prepare you and your dog for their first groomer visit.