Cooperative Pet Care

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I had to go to the dentist last week and as I lay in that vulnerable position, mouth open , drill buzzing, I kept thinking how I wish somebody would treat me like I treat my animals when I need them to participate in their own care. In last week’s blog, I encouraged you to be your dog’s advocate and promised to give you specific tips on preparing your pet for veterinary exams. Today  I want to share a few stories to explain why I know these things will work whether your pet is a dog, a horse, a cat, a bird or any small, furry creature and then we’ll get to some specific tips.
My cat, Ella, became mine after a family member died. I know Ella was much loved ,but seldom handled except for petting, which she appreciated only around her neck. She had lived on 30 acres and kept her nails short the old-fashioned way: she worked them off. Now, in the city with me, poor Ella is confined to the house and faithfully uses a scratching post but her nails grow much too long and need to be trimmed. She declined foot handling the first time I reached for her paw, so to training I turned.

Ella learned to enjoy nail trims.
Ella learned to enjoy nail trims.

I started simply, by taking advantage of Ella’s natural cuddle time: evenings. When Ella came to me for her nightly neck rub, I gave it to her and then, ever so gently, reached down one leg for a quick touch, then straight back to neck rubbing. A little while later, I ventured the touch a little further down the leg and straight back to lots of neck scratches. Ella remained relaxed so I tried again…down the leg and I touched her paw. She pulled back. Too fast. I went back to rubbing her neck and petting down her leg, easy, until she relaxed again and then quit. The next night was a repeat of the first. The third night, Ella seemed more mentally prepared. When I worked up to touching her foot, she stayed. I quickly left her foot and commenced with a long neck rub and didn’t push any more. I repeated this, giving her plenty of opportunity to leave and with several breaks. I worked slowly, step by step  to touch all her feet, then worked on extending a nail, then on holding the nail longer and flicking it with my fingernail. Always I returned to her neck which she loved. I casually picked up the nail trimmers I had placed beforehand and soon convinced her that they were all part of the neck-rubbing program. I snipped one nail, gave her a break, then snipped another. By the end of my movie that third night, we had all the nails trimmed. Now I can trim all of Ella’s nails in one quick session and reward her with neck rubbing at the end.
A little clicker training made vet care less scary for Scooter.
A little clicker training made vet care less scary for Scooter.

I have a little Arabian-cross horse named Scooter who was still pretty new to me a few summers ago when I called the vet out to check on his coughing (turned out to be grass allergies). During the initial exam, of course the veterinarian wanted to get Scooter’s temperature. He grabbed the tail and Scooter… scooted away. So the vet torqued the tail, bending it painfully. Scooter tried to bounce away but the look on the vet’s face made me certain no good would follow. “Wait!” I said, “Can I try?”  The vet threw up his hands, gave me a wry smile and said, “Go right ahead.”  Scooter and I had already developed a trusting relationship through clicker training so when I took the thermometer and placed it on his shoulder, clicked and handed him a carrot slice, he was all in. I clicked and treated  for each of these steps: thermometer on back, thermometer on hip, me holding his tail aside, touching thermometer to tail, thermometer to anus, quick insert, longer insert, full insert to time.  Total time lapsed, approximately 3 minutes, including the 1 minute insertion. When I handed the thermometer back to the veterinarian, he was so stunned he forgot to read the result.
Both of these examples illustrate a simple truth: baby steps win the day. Whatever the necessary procedure, and whatever the species, here are some easy steps to successful training for cooperative health care:

  1. Decide which procedure you will work on and envision the perfect behavior the animal can give.
  2. Define the procedure and the needed behavior specifically: How long will it take? How will the animal need to be restrained? Who will be present? These are your variables.
  3. Work on one variable at a time. If it is touch, work just on the touch. If it is noise (like a dremel for a dog’s nails) work on just the sound as one variable, etc.
  4. After one variable is in pretty good shape, pick another and train it separately before combining them.
  5. Use rewards that are valuable to the learner. Carrots worked great for Scooter but no treat would have worked well for Ella because she’s really picky about food. Neck rubs were her reward.
  6. Go slow. Go slow. Go even slower. Seriously. Let go of the goal and go at your learner’s pace. If you don’t have time to train it, have the procedure done anyway and start training now for the next time.
  7. Let your learner leave. If you go too fast and the animal wants to go, let her go. That control is really, really powerful and leads to more trust. And, next time, don’t go so fast.
  8. Pay well. Don’t be stingy. Pay for every little try and end while the learner wants more.


Getting your dog used to heights works wonders when he needs to be on a vet table.
Getting your dog used to heights works wonders when he needs to be on a vet table.

Now let’s take these steps and talk through some specifics. Let’s say you want your dog to feel comfortable on a slippery, shiny hydraulic exam table. But you don’t happen to have one at home, probably, right? Well, what do you have?  I can think of several starting points for training this:

  1. You could train your dog to lie on a rug which you then could take to different places and ask him to get onto it.
  2. You could train your dog to put two feet on, then four feet on, a variety of surfaces.
  3. You could train your dog to follow your hand target onto, around, between and through all sorts of obstacles.
  4. You could ask your veterinarian if you can come in a few times just to give your dog cheese on the exam table. They usually don’t mind this, if it makes a patient more comfortable and easy to handle!

After you choose a starting point, train a nice down and stay… train in the car for motion (someone else should probably drive). Train for heights by using urban features – a park picnic table, a stone wall. You could also train for sustained eye contact with multiple distractions… what’s a little lift when staring into mom’s eyes brings the cheese whiz out?

Training to sit on different surfaces might include a step stool.
Training to sit on different surfaces might include a step stool.

Are you getting the idea, here? Training your pet for cooperative care doesn’t have to be complicated. It does take a little time, especially if the “old way” has broken trust. However, Ella, Scooter and Joy are all in agreement: it’s a LOT easier to hold still for necessary care if you aren’t afraid and if good things can happen to you, too. And now, nail trims are regular and take no time at all. Vet care for my horse is a cinch, and Joy LOVES going to the vet. Now, I just need to get my dentist to start paying me in chocolate….
If I can be of any help to you as you sort through your goals for your pet, let me know. I’ve had the pleasure of training many species of animals (besides dogs, cats and horses, I’ve worked with llamas, donkeys, pigs, goats, rats, and even a vulture)  to participate in their own care and would be happy to help you break down the steps for training. Shoot us an email: