One of my all time favorite behaviors to teach is a Chin Rest. A chin rest is when we teach our dogs to rest their chin either on a target, in our hand, or both! It seems like a really simple behavior to teach, but for some dogs it can be very tricky to learn. It also seems like an odd behavior to teach your dog. What good does a chin rest do? How is it useful?
Well, first, it can be a super cute trick. If you teach your dog a reliable chin rest it is really easy to translate that into tricks like “flat dog” or teaching your dog to “beg” on cue. I am always all for cute tricks.
However, usually when I am teaching my dogs a chin rest it is more focused on a functional behavior that allows me to groom and handle my dogs with a built in system of consent. [Fair warning, things are about to get nerdy.] Consent in working with our dogs is something I am a huge believer in, and is a core aspect of my philosophy of how I live with and train dogs. It is woven into everything I do with dogs. If my dog doesn’t want to do something, we don’t do it. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but as much as I possibly can I avoid forcing my dogs to do things that they don’t want to do. If it isn’t life or death, there’s no point in the added stress. Things I do with my dogs are rarely a life or death situation.
This was first sparked in me in 2014 when I went to the Houston Zoo for a weekend seminar with Kathy Sdao. It was eye opening. During the seminar we got to watch some of the zookeepers training sessions with the animals and it blew my mind so thoroughly. See, you can't just sit on a lion and make it cooperate while you give it vaccines. Zookeepers have to teach their charges to cooperate with their care, and to opt in to a large amount of medical procedures. Teaching this cooperation helps to keep stress levels down in the animals they are in charge of, and makes their jobs much easier in the long run.
I will never forget the experience of watching the keepers work with the orangutans. We got to go behind the scenes in their exhibit, under protected contact, and watch the keepers work with the big male. Orangutans are much bigger than you think they are. It was almost terrifying to see them so close, but fascinating, and they were so calm about our presence. They took us through a few of their routines with the big male. They asked him “arm” and he stuck his arm up to the bars of the enclosure. They stuck a needle in his arm, marked as it came out, and handed over some food. Then they asked him “chest” and he shoved his big chest right up against the bars. He held his position while they performed an ultrasound on his heart (they were monitoring a heart murmur), then they marked and he pulled away to accept his reward. It was astounding.
Most of the cooperative care that keepers perform with their animals is based on targeting behaviors. They will either teach their charges to target something with their nose and maintain that target while they do what they need, or teach multiple types of targets specific to what procedure they need to perform. It depends on the animal and the needs of the keeper really. Even if the procedure is something that they need to sedate the animal for, they will have them opt in to the sedation injection.
The following year, in 2015, I was able to go to a conference held by a dog professional association. At this conference I got to see an incredible trainer named Chirag Patel speak. One of his presentations was about “The Bucket Game”. The whole premise of the bucket game was teaching dogs this chin rest behavior to opt in to medical procedures. Chirag Patel is a trainer whose career began working with marine life, and he was working to bring this idea of cooperative handling into the world of domesticated animals.
Since then the idea of cooperative care has exploded within the professional animal care world. Classes are taught on this subject, the Fear Free movement has veterinarians working hard to keep things as cooperative as possible on their end, and more and more clients are working hard to help their pets feel as positive as possible about this.
This whole idea was absolutely life changing for me with my dog Oliver (pictured below showing off his skills at the vet). He was a complicated pup with a lot of anxiety and behavioral issues. One of our major hurdles for his entire life was handling. I was the only person who could successfully brush, bathe, and restrain him. Even I was only able to do a lot of it after teaching him this consent procedure. We relied on his chin rest a lot for medical procedures and things always went much more smoothly when we used it. I also teach this to all of my dogs who do not have handling issues.
Why? Why do I need to teach this to dogs who are going to be fine no matter what we do? For me it rolls back to consent and respect. There is no reason for me to force my Border Collie to sit through a brushing that she will tolerate but isn’t comfortable with, when I can just as easily teach her to consent to it. When she is able to back away and say no, it may take a little longer to get her fully brushed but she stays much happier for the procedure, and it gets faster each time. Our dogs have control over so few things in their life, it is nice to give it back to them where we can and most of the time handling is an area where we can.
After living with a dog who needed this level of consideration to just live his life, it has really made me believe that it is something that even our “normal” dogs deserve. I see it as part of the legacy he left behind with me. Yes, this may make certain things take a little longer to do with your dog, but in the long run you will find the experience of doing them much more enjoyable for everyone involved. Plus, it’s super cute, so that’s a bonus!
Want to teach your dog a chin rest? Check out our instructional video and contact us to set up a Virtual Lesson if you need extra help!