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What is Cooperative Handling

small dog grooming

Throughout their lives with us, our dogs have to be handled a lot. They have to go to the vet and get examined and get vaccines. They have to have collars and harnesses and leashes put on and taken off. They have to withstand weird primate hugs and pets and kisses. They have to get hosed and shampooed and brushed. They may even have to deal with being clipped and blow dried. It’s a lot! And  since our dogs cannot communicate very clearly with us that they are uncomfortable, it can put them in some awkward situations. The way that we need to handle our dogs to maintain their health and safety is not always something that they can understand or will naturally enjoy, but there is a way that we can work with our dogs to help them have a little more control in these situations and make it more pleasant for all of us: Cooperative Handling.

So what exactly is Cooperative Handling? 

Cooperative Handling is all about teaching our dogs to opt in. It’s a mixture of getting them used to the weird handling things we need to do to them and learning to tolerate it, as well as giving them some control over the situation. 

dog getting bathed

Cooperative handling is used often to complete medical care for animals in zoos and aquariums. You can’t really pin down an elephant and make it cooperate with you when you need to do a medical procedure, but you absolutely can teach them to work with you and opt in to a procedure that needs to be done in exchange for payment. 


It can feel very counterintuitive to talk about giving our dogs back control in these situations. Often what happens when our dog is resistant and struggles during a handling situation is we feel the need to increase our control of the situation. We add restraints or hold them tighter and try to muscle through. When it comes to getting things done in a productive way though, less is often more. 

When you give someone the ability to say no to something, and the trust that you will listen when they do say no, they actually become more likely to agree to things. When you combine this trust with the added factor of yummy happy things starting to happen during the less fun thing, it becomes much easier to win over our dogs. 

dog getting vaccine

Okay, but why use it?

Cooperative handling can be helpful for a lot of things. We have especially seen it be very helpful for a lot of dogs for nail trims and brushing. It can be literally life saving for some of our more complicated pups though. As a good example, I’d like to tell you about my boy Oliver. 

If you have been following us for a while, or you’re in Austin and frequent Tomlinsons, there is a good chance you have seen a photo of Ollie. He was a very handsome cattle dog mix who joined our family around the age of 3. We didn’t know a whole lot about him when we brought him home from Gonzales Animal Shelter, but there was clearly a lot that had happened before he came to us. Ollie had a few scars on his head, incredibly yellow teeth and massive skin infections. Once he got healthy and comfortable, behavior issues started to pop up as well. Oliver was my first experience with a reactive dog. Throughout the years we shared together, Ollie was a constant roller coaster of challenges and as soon as we would get one behavior under control a fun new one would pop up. One thing that was consistent pretty much from day one though was that he was not a fan of being handled and he would very likely bite you if you made a misstep. 

dog getting nail trim

A little while into my journey with Oliver I went to a seminar at the Houston Zoo and saw a demonstration on cooperative handling with the orangutans. Safe to say it absolutely blew my mind. Shortly after that I went to a conference and saw a different trainer talking about a cooperative care game they had adapted from the same principles (shout out to Chirag Patel and The Bucket Game). I walked away from that talk inspired to give this a try with Oliver. 

Due to his existing issues, Oliver was already muzzle trained when I decided to try cooperative care training with him, so we were already being somewhat successful at the vet. I was also very fortunate to have a really strong relationship with my vet where they would work slowly with him and let me do a majority of the restraining if it was needed. No matter what happened I remained a trusted person for Ollie and he only ever snapped at me while under the effects of anesthesia. Having a good vet team on board for cooperative care is crucial, and these days even easier to find by looking for vets and clinics that are fear free certified!

Instead of using the bucket part of the bucket game, Ollie and I fell into using a chin rest as his “yes” switch. If his chin was resting on his designated towel then we could move ahead and do what we needed to do. If he lifted his head off the towel, we stopped and waited for him. If we completed something we needed to do while he held the chin rest, cookie! His towel could be on a surface or in my hand or lap. This allowed for me to be able to do things like brushing and trimming his nails, or be moral support while the vet team worked on him. It took time and patience to work with him this way but eventually we were able to do fully voluntary vaccines, jugular blood draws, and regular exams with him. We were even able to do a full dental on him utilizing his cooperative care skills for pre-op and post-op work without food. 

vet looking at dogs teeth

I have absolutely zero doubt that Oliver’s cooperative care skills extended his life and saved us and his vet team from stressful and possibly painful situations with him. Even if it was just for this reason I would work cooperative care with every dog that came into my home. I also think it is just the kind thing to do though. Our dogs have very little control in their lives in general and a lot of the world and what we do is scary and uncertain for them. It feels like the least we can do to let them say no and listen, especially when something isn’t life threatening. 

But what if it is life threatening? What if I can’t take no for an answer?

Obviously life is never perfect and there are going to be situations where you cannot take no for an answer when it comes to handling our dogs. These are the times where we don’t ask the question. If “no” is not an acceptable answer, don’t ask. This allows our dogs to continue to trust that we will take no for an answer if they ever give it. If you are concerned about your dog's reaction to a situation where you cannot ask, this is where your dog having better associations with being handled from your practice with cooperative care will come in handy. It also is a good time for your dog to have a history of being comfortable in a muzzle. But that’s a different blog.

frenchie being lifted into the air

So how do I start?

The first step when working on cooperative handling is to figure out what you want your “yes” switch to be. A lot of people choose a chin rest, but if you are focused on nail trims then a position where your dog is laying down may work better for you. Or both, if you want to be able to work on multiple things! Once you have decided what position you want to work in, we teach it to your dog without any handling involved. As they start to understand the new skill and are able to do that easily, we start adding handling into the equation.

It is not a quick process, and it takes patience as well as time, but it is absolutely worth it. 

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