Cooperative Care is a Promise I Made to My Dog


It started the way these things often do. At first, my dog seemed to tolerate being bathed. He’d walk into the bathroom willingly, take treats, stay in the tub, and didn’t seem too affected by the ordeal after. 

As time went on and baths increased, I started to notice changes in his demeanor. He’d hesitate near the bathroom, would need to be lured inside, and would look for the first opportunity to get out.

Then after a particularly dirty play session at the park on a morning when I was running late for everything, I rushed him into the bathroom, shut the door and ran the water. When I turned around to place him in the tub, I realized that he was sitting in the corner of the bathroom and shaking.

I wish I could tell you that I aborted mission right then and there. I wish I could say I listened to the very clear and loud way he was telling me “no”. 

But I didn’t. I grabbed some treats, lifted him inside, and washed him anyway. 

I cringe every time I remember this moment because it represents so perfectly the heartbreaking way in which we often handle our dogs’ discomfort in such situations. We believe something needs to be done, and so we do it, no matter the cost. 

Unsurprisingly, in the months that followed, his fear of baths increased tenfold. Any sign that a bath might be coming—the sound of the water running, the shower door sliding, the bathroom door opening, me holding a towel, me walking by the bathroom—would send him into hiding. Soon enough he was in such a constant state of vigilance that he was running to hide dozens of times a day.

See that’s the thing about fear learning—it’s powerful. When we experience something scary or stressful, our brains remember every detail so that we can identify potential threats and avoid them in the future. Although this is normal and necessary for survival, existing in a constant state of anticipation and fear avoidance creates tremendous anxiety and stress. 

Knowing something scary can happen to us at any time, but not knowing how to predict or avoid it, can shatter our sense of safety and security in our environment. 

As humans, we understand the value of a blood draw or the importance of a nail trim. Our dogs don’t. We know that bathing our dogs, brushing their teeth, administering medication or taking them to the vet is in the best interest of their health. Our dogs simply see these things as scary events that happen suddenly and unpredictably. 

No matter how rarely these events occur, the stress, fear, and anxiety associated with them have real and long-lasting effects. 

So what can we do about it? It turns out, quite a bit. Cooperative care is a concept being widely and successfully applied by animal trainers across all species. Here’s a tiger undergoing a voluntary teeth check and blood draw, a stingray cooperating during an ultrasound, and a giraffe being prepared for a foot X-ray. 

If we can teach a tiger to volunteer for a blood draw, surely we don’t need to force, coerce, or otherwise manhandle our dogs.

Cooperative care is about empowering animals to be willing participants in their own care. This means providing animals with choices of whether and when to participate, helping them feel better about the procedures, and equipping them with the skills and behaviors that make participation easier through the use of positive reinforcement training techniques. 

When I first began thinking of how to make baths cooperative for my dog a wonderful trainer and friend said something I’ll never forget. She said, “what you’re doing is going to improve his life and you owe this to him.

I did owe it to him. I owed him the right to have a say in what happens to his body. I owed him the right to have greater control over his environment, and I owed him the right to feel safe in his own home. And so I made him a promise. I promised that I will do whatever I can, whenever I can, to make all handling procedures as cooperative as possible for him by helping him feel better about being handled, giving him choices, and asking for his consent.

This has been a daily process and a work in progress for us, but it’s made an enormous difference in his life. Acclimating him to handling and giving him the option of opting in or out has only made him more willing and more likely to participate in procedures that once seemed impossible.

Example of a cooperative nail trim with my dog, Larkin.

In a world of instant gratification we’re drawn to expediency, quick fixes, and fast everything. It might be appealing to take the same approach with our dogs, but living sentient beings require more of us. They require our time, our commitment, and our compassion. 

For me, cooperative care is about consent and respect for the dignity and agency of another living being. I practice these values in all other areas of my life, why should it be any different with my dog? 

If your dog is struggling with handling, grooming, or vet visits, there are many excellent resources that can help. You can start by looking for a Fear Free Certified Professional in your area at Fear Free Pets Directory, and check out the list of resources below:

Ready…Set…for Groomer and Vet! — Laura Monaco Torelli 

Positive Dog Husbandry

Positive Dog Husbandry Facebook Group

Nail Maintenance for Dogs Facebook Group

The Bucket Game — Chirag Patel

Fear Free Pets

Jenny Efimova