Pet InfoRx®
Cooperative Care for Dogs

If your dog gets frightened or stressed at the vet or groomer, or if you find it impossible to trim their nails at home, cooperative care training can make these experiences better for everyone! Being handled can be overwhelming for many dogs, and they might shut down or exhibit aggressive behavior. To keep everyone safe, there are a variety of training skills that can make handling a more positive experience.


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Topic Highlights

  • Cooperative care training is a great way to introduce young puppies to being handled and is also an option for helping dogs who suffer from handling sensitivity or fear.

  • Dogs who are trained for cooperative care have a high quality of life because of the decrease in stress and often earlier detection of health issues leading to prompt treatment.

  • It is safer for you, groomers, veterinarians, and veterinary staff to handle and examine dogs trained in cooperative care.

  • Cooperative care training can help reduce stress and anxiety for dogs during veterinary visits or other procedures because they know what to expect.

Why is Cooperative Care So Important?

small white dog on vet exam table 279 canva

  • Training your dog for cooperative care builds trust because your dog learns that you are listening to them when they are saying they are uncomfortable.
  • When your dog learns to participate in their own care, they become more comfortable with handling and are less likely to become fearful or aggressive during procedures.
  • Regular handling and examination during cooperative care training can help detect potential health issues early on. This can lead to prompt treatment, which can improve outcomes and reduce the need for more invasive procedures later on.

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What Is Cooperative Care?

Cooperative care is a type of training that involves teaching dogs to actively participate in their own care, such as grooming, handling, and veterinary procedures. Rather than simply tolerating these procedures, dogs who are trained for cooperative care learn to happily participate in them.

A core aspect of cooperative care training is listening to the dog and giving them choice. Having the ability to opt in and out of something increases a dog's confidence and increases their trust in their handler. This leads to faster training and easier handling in the long run.

There are different cooperative care skills you can train with your dog, such as standing still for grooming or examination, offering paws for nail trimming, laying on their side or back for xrays, stationing for blood draws, taking medication, opening mouth for examination, tooth brushing, ear cleaning, and more. 


How to Start Training Your Dog for Cooperative Care

There are things you can easily start right away at home to start cooperative care training, such as the Bucket Game and the Chin Rest, explained in detail below. However, it is very helpful to have the guidance of a certified training professional to start on the right paw with cooperative care. A certified dog trainer will be able to identify priorities for cooperative care skills and break down the steps based on your dog's particular needs and responses.

Cooperative Care Skill #1: The Bucket Game

The Bucket Game is a popular cooperative care training technique that helps dogs develop a positive association with handling and procedures. Created by Chirag Patel, this game gives the dog a way to say, "You can start now," "Okay, continue," or "Wait, stop" – simply by whether they are looking at the bucket or not.

Here's how to get started:

  1. You will need a small bucket or container, high-value treats or food, and a clicker or a verbal marker (e.g., saying "yes").

  2. Place some high-value treats or food in the bucket. Present the bucket to your dog by holding it out to the side. As soon as they look at the bucket, mark the behavior with a click or verbal marker and immediately give them a treat. Your dog can be in a sit, down, or stand position; it does not matter.

  3. As your dog practices, start reinforcing longer looks at the bucket. Your dog is allowed to look away from the bucket, don't shake the bucket or try to entice them to look back at it. The feedback you're giving is simply clicking (or verbally marking) the behavior of focusing on the bucket. It's all about choice!

  4. When your dog is able to maintain focus on the bucket for longer durations, you can start incorporating basic handling. As they are looking at the bucket, slowly reach towards their body but don't touch them just yet. If they maintain focus on the bucket, click/verbally mark and treat. If they look away from the bucket, remove your hand. This is reinforcing both staying focused on the bucket (with a food treat) and reinforcing looking away with stopping. Your dog is learning they have a choice!

  5. As you practice, go slow. Don't move your hand too fast or introduce actual touching of paws, ears, muzzle, etc., until your dog is doing well with just a hand reaching towards those body parts. As you practice, you'll be able to gently touch different parts of their body while they look at the bucket. If they look away from the bucket, immediately stop the touching or handling to respect their communication. You can start again when they look back at the bucket. 

Here's a video of the Bucket Game creator Chirag Patel explaining this method:

Cooperative Care Skill #2: The Chin Rest

A chin rest is where your dog rests their chin in the palm of your hand and is useful for positioning during exams or handling, such as when receiving vaccinations. The chin rest is another option that you can use similarly to the Bucket Game, where as long as they keep their chin in your hand, the handling can continue. If your dog pulls their hand out of your chin, then the handling stops.

Here's how to train a chin rest for your dog:chin rest corgi dog and trainer

  1. You will need some high-value treats or food and a clicker or marker word (e.g., saying "yes").

  2. Present your hand palm up and cupped underneath your dog's chin but don't touch them.

  3. When you feel your dog's chin make contact with your palm, click or say "yes," and then give them a treat. Repeat.

  4. When your dog is reliably dropping their chin into your hand when you present your palm, start adding in duration. Wait for one second of chin contact before clicking/verbally marking and treating. Then two seconds, five seconds, etc.

  5. When your dog is able to hold their chin rest position for longer durations, introduce distractions. When your dog is holding their chin in your hand, slowly reach your other hand towards them, but not touching them yet. If they hold the chin rest position, click/verbally mark and treat. If they move their head out of position, that's okay. Just stop your hand reach so they learn they have a choice.

  6. As you practice, you'll be able to get further along in different handling experiences, such as touching ears, muzzle, or paws. Respect your dog's choices – if they move their chin out of your palm, stop the touching. When they offer another chin rest, resume handling. Move at your dog's pace!

Here's a video showing the first steps of this process:

More Ways to Help Your Dog Feel Better About Vet or Groomer Visits

Happy Visits

Stop at your vet clinic or groomer with your dog for quick “happy visits." Bring your dog in for some snuggles and treats. If they're up for it, practice having your dog get on the scale and have a treat party when they do! If your dog struggles with getting on the scale, bring along a mat or towel to place on top before encouraging your dog to sniff it and perhaps put a paw or two on it. A non-slip soft surface can make the scale surface less intimidating.

Doing these happy visits can help prevent or break the association of the location with stressful events like getting vaccinations or baths. Call your vet office and groomer prior to dropping in to find out what days and times work best for these happy visits.

If your dog doesn't even want to go into the lobby, you can still do a quick stop in the parking lot to eat some treats or do a quick trick training session. If available, perhaps a staff member can come out to say hi to your dog and give them a treat. The idea is to create more positive associations when showing up at the vet clinic or grooming salon. You don't have to go in the first few times – go at your dog's pace!

dog chin rest while having ear examined


If your dog gets stressed, fearful, or overwhelmed with a particular part of handling, such as nail trims, you can focus specifically on changing their emotional association with that experience. This is done through a process called counterconditioning. By pairing small steps of the entire process with high-value food, with repetition and patience, your dog begins to be able to cope with having their nails trimmed.

Counterconditioning is also a part of overall cooperative care training and is very systematic. Here's an overview of what counterconditioning would look like to help a dog feel better about getting their nails trimmed:

  1. Start with the clippers tucked away in a pocket or held out of your dog's sight, such as behind your back. Show your dog the clippers and then grab a treat and reward them. Hide the clippers from sight. Repeat.

    Don't push the clippers too close to your dog; simply let them look at them from afar at first. The timing is important here! The clippers must predict the treat happening, not the other way around. Be sure your dog sees the clippers before reaching for the treat.

  2. Now, you're going to add reaching for and holding your dog's paw to the process. Show your dog the clippers, reach for and gently lift and hold your dog's paw, then treat. Hide the clippers and repeat!

    If your dog is pulling their foot away from your hand or trying to avoid having their paw touched and held, you can separate paw handling as its own exercise until they are more comfortable.

  3. As long as your dog isn't showing signs of wanting to avoid the clippers, you're ready to add another layer to this process. You'll still start with the clippers behind your back or out of sight. Bring the clippers out so your dog can see them and reach them closer to your dog's paw. You don't have to touch the clippers to their nail quite yet! Reward with a treat, then hide the clippers out of sight again. Repeat.

  4. Add in another layer of the process. Bring the clippers out from behind your back, and reach to touch them to one of your dog's nails. Just lightly rest it on the tip of the nail for a second so your dog can get familiar with what it feels like. Give them a treat, and then hide the clippers. Repeat!

    As long as your dog is relaxed and not trying to pull their toes away, you can start lightly touching more than one nail at a time before giving them a treat. For example, you may touch all four nails on a paw before the reward.

  5. When your dog is comfortable with the first three steps, it's time to add actual trimming of a nail. When first starting this step, don't try to trim a lot off of a nail on the first try. Just trim the very tip of the nail and then give your dog a treat. There is no rush to get all the nails done in one sitting. Trim only one nail, have a treat party, and then give your dog a break (or even wait until the next day) before doing another nail.

Here's a video example of counterconditioning nail trims:

Over time, you'll work through the entire nail trimming process, and your dog will feel more comfortable with getting their nails trimmed. They associate the not-so-fun nail trim with a yummy treat happening, making it easier to cope with the not-so-fun part.

The steps above can be applied to any experience that a dog finds overwhelming, such as hair clippers, nail grinders, and tooth brushing. You just need to break down the entire process into small steps. The counterconditioning process takes time and patience, always moving at your dog's pace. If your dog is struggling with a particular handling experience, connect with a certified dog trainer for help.

Calming Supplements or Pre-Visit Pharmaceuticals (PVPs)

Consider whether your dog may benefit from calming supplements or anti-anxiety medication prior to visits to the vet or groomer. Every dog responds to various calming options differently. Your dog may respond well to calming pheromones spritzed on a bandana that they wear, while others may benefit from supplements.

For dogs that get especially stressed or difficult to handle during trips to the vet, talk to your veterinarian about pre-visit medication options you can administer at home, and also check to see if your vet or groomer offers house calls. Either or both of those may help diffuse the situation enough to allow even the most stressed pup to get the care they need and deserve.

More Resources

Dog Anxiety Treatment, Medication, and Supplements

Removing the Fear and Stress from Your Dog's Vet Visits

How to Help Your Dog Love the Groomer

Help Your Dog Feel Better About Baths


More Cooperative Care Skills

There are lots of cooperative care skills you can work on with your dog. Here is a list to get you started:


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