Cooperative Care (vet visits, nail trims and brushing, oh my!)

Today we have a guest blog; this one is from Andrew Nelson of The Clever Canine in Baltimore, MD.  Andrew, thank you so much for taking the time to write this up!  Andrew’s topic is near and dear to dog owner’s hearts….

Foundation Behaviors for Cooperative Care by Andrew Nelson

Repeat after me:  vet visits are fun, nail trims aren’t the end of the world, and brushing your dog is easy.

Did you repeat that to yourself?  Try it one more time.  Do you believe yourself?  If you don’t, I can’t say that I blame you.  I’ve lived and worked with my fair share of difficult keepers; dogs who ranged from a little wiggly to down right scary when it came time to do something like a nail trim or get a vaccine.  Those dogs taught me a lot about cooperative care and how to accomplish it.

What is cooperative care?  Simply put, cooperative care is where your dog can choose whether or not you are going to do something to him.  If he cooperates, you give him something he values, like a treat.  If he does not cooperate, you stop – no big deal.

I know the bit about allowing your dog the freedom to walk away may seem counterintuitive, but it will pay off.  Your dog will learn to trust you and being handled; he will feel safe, which makes all husbandry tasks much easier.

You can start increasing your own dog’s cooperation by teaching him a few foundation behaviors.  (Remember, if at any point during the training process your dog does not want to participate, stop.  You want true cooperation.)

Slow Treats

Deb Jones’ Slow Treats game is all about teaching a dog to stay still.  I think the value in that is easy to see; things like brushing, nail trimming, and vet exams all require the dog to be still.  Here is my new dog, Rus, learning the game a few months ago: .

Once your dog has the Slow Treats game, you can start incorporating objects like nail trimmers, a brush, and a pen.  (I like to use the pen as a substitute for a syringe; I place it along areas where a vet would either draw blood or give a vaccine.)  Here is a video of Rus learning to stay still as these objects approach him: .

The video above is our fourth session with the objects.  I started with just barely moving them towards him.  I will work up to brushing him more and in different places on his body as well as cutting his nails.  I will also fade the treat as a focal point.  All of these criteria will be developed individually.  And, if at any point he fails (moves), I either lower my criteria for earning a treat or I stop the session.

You can also play this game with two people.  You could use the nose touch or chin rest (see below) instead of the treat as a focal point, while the other person handles the objects.

Nose Touch and Chin Rest

I can’t tell you how much I love using nose touches and chin rests as a means of communication between me and my dog.  For example, you can ask your dog to maintain a nose touch while being examined by a vet.  If you dog is willing to maintain the nose touch, you know that he is okay with what’s happening to him.  If not, you know that he is uncomfortable and you need to reevaluate.  Nando Brown expertly demonstrates the concept in this video (vet visit starts at 1:4): .

The chin rest is great for checking eyes, teeth, and ears.  Emily Larlham (aka Kikopup) has a great tutorial on teaching the chin rest: .

Paw Targets

Paw targeting has many useful husbandry applications;  you can have your dog target his paw to your hand for either examination or nail trims.

Kikopup gives us a nice example of how to start paw targets here:

Donna Hill goes on to show us how paw targeting is useful for nail trimming: .  In this video, Donna also gives us an example of how you can teach your dog to use a scratch board to file his own nails.


In addition to your standard positions (stand, sit, down), teaching your dog to lie on his side and back are also useful, especially in a grooming context for those dogs who have long fur that needs regular combing.

Kikopup shows us how to teach the upside down settle: .

Brush Those Teeth!

Donna Hill gives us a start to finish tutorial on teaching your dog to be comfortable with teeth brushing: .


I hope all of your dog’s care is wellness care, but there may come a time when your dog is either sick or injured.  Expecting a dog to cooperate in such condition is unreasonable.  In such instances, a dog may have to wear a muzzle so that he can be quickly assessed and treated by the veterinarian and staff.  If your dog already knows how to wear a muzzle, it will be much less likely to add unnecessary stress to an already stressful situation.

Kikopup has a great tutorial:

All of these behaviors above are not only useful, but they are also fun to teach.  I’d say that makes it more than worth your time.

Happy training!


About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.
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One Response to Cooperative Care (vet visits, nail trims and brushing, oh my!)

  1. Pingback: Hillcrest Veterinary Clinic – Cooperative Care Vet Visits

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