Empowering Paws: The Power of Cooperative Care

Dog participating willingly in cooperative care.

Cooperative Care: Empowering Dogs in Their Own Care

Welcome to our guide on Cooperative Care for Dogs, where we focus on empowering your canine companion in their own care. Cooperative care involves involving your dog in the decision-making process and allowing them to participate willingly in their own care. Many dogs are subjected to procedures such as grooming, nail trimming, and veterinary examinations, which often involve force and coercion. These experiences can be distressing for dogs, leading to fear, anxiety, and even aggression.

Cooperative care aims to change this narrative by empowering dogs and giving them a sense of control over their own bodies and experiences. Animals are more likely to allow procedures when they feel confident and are able to opt out.

Who Can Benefit from Cooperative Care?

Who can benefit from Cooperative Care?

While cooperative training techniques might be most important for dogs who become panicked or unsafe when being handled, every single dog can benefit from being given control over their handling.

Puppies: Setting the Foundation for Stress-Free Vet Visits

For puppies, introducing this concept can help set them up for stress-free vet visits, nail trims, baths, and more.

For dogs with traumatic handling experiences, it can let them feel safe during vet visits and anything else they need to stay happy and healthy.” -Alyse from Hungry Dog Training


"Image description: Alyse, the owner of Hungry Dog Training, sits comfortably while holding Hunter's leash. Hunter, a content and relaxed dog, lies down beside her with his ears perked up and mouth open, displaying a happy expression."

Alyse owner of Hungry Dog Training with her dog Hunter.

Understanding the “Start Button”

What is a “Start Button”?

A start button is any behavior that the dog can offer that gives a “green light” for a handling procedure to start and/or continue. A simple example is laying down on a special mat. If your dog is laying on the mat, you can begin or continue the handling. If your dog gets up, you stop. The goal is to work up slowly enough that your dog is comfortable opting in.

Respecting Opt-Outs: Giving Dogs Control

“Throughout the entire process, we want to make sure to always respect the “no.”-Alyse

Respect the animal’s decision to opt out by stopping the procedure. Return hands or body parts to a neutral position when the animal withdraws consent.

Training vs. Must-Do: Handling Urgent Procedures

“Cooperative care is not an overnight process. For some dogs and some procedures, you can wait until the process is fully trained before using it in real life. In other cases, something might need to be done urgently before training is completed.” 

Alyse’s Example: Working on Cooperative Ear Cleaning

For example, you begin teaching a station with the goal of a cooperative ear cleaning procedure. The next day, you bring your dog to the vet and discover they have an ear infection and they need ear drops twice a day for 10 days. There’s no way you can get a cooperative procedure trained in a day! So what do you do?”

In this example, Alyse recommends working on stationing and cooperative ear touching/cleaning.

 “This is your training context. Twice a day when your ear drops need to happen no matter what, you set up in a different room and you remain standing, or you sit on the floor. You’ll use whatever restraint is safe and necessary to get the procedure done.”

This is your must-do context:

In your training context, the process is guided by the dog. There is no force, coercion, or pressure to get anything done. All of your cooperative care and opting out rules apply.


In your must-do context, you do what you need to do to get the procedure done.


Both of these contexts should look different to the dog. If your dog is unsure whether or not they have the option to stop, you risk completely ruining their trust in you and in the cooperative care process.”


Training for the vet begins at home


In the weeks and months before your scheduled vet visit, there is plenty you can do to help your dog prepare for the visit itself. Preparing your dog before a vet visit can help reduce stress and improve the overall experience.


Steps to prepare for vet visits


Step 1: Identify High-Value Reinforcers

Identify your dog’s favorite treats and toys for use as high-value reinforcers at the vet.


Step 2: Teach Fun Tricks for Distraction

 Teach your dog fun tricks or behaviors that can distract and relax them during the visit.


Step 3: Ensuring Comfortable Travel

Ensure your dog is comfortable loading into the car if traveling by car.


Step 4: Schedule Happy Visits for Positive Associations

Schedule Happy Visits or informal visits to the vet’s office to create positive associations.


Step 5: Consider Pre-Vet Medications

Consider pre-vet medications to help calm your dog before appointments.


At your appointment


Step 1: Rewarding Connections from the Start:

Reward your dog for any connection with you from the moment you arrive.


Step 2: Allowing Time for Exploration:

Allow time for your dog to sniff and explore the environment, which can be calming.


Step 3: Engaging with Training Games:

Engage your dog with training games or fun tricks in the lobby or exam room.


Step 4: Creating a Comfortable Exam Room:

Set up familiar items like blankets or toys in the exam room to make it feel more comfortable.


Step 5: Rewarding Positive Behaviors During the Procedure:

Reward positive behaviors from your dog during the exam or procedure.


Advocating for Your Dog’s Well-Being


Image description: A black pug wearing a cone sits upright and gazes up at the camera with a curious expression. dogs, fear free



Communicating your dog’s needs and preferences to the vet and any members of your pet’s care team is essential for their well-being. While your vet team has experience handling dogs during vet visits, you know your dog best. Don’t be afraid to let them know any past difficulties in handling and make suggestions on how to make it easier on your pet. 


For more training resources and please visit Hungry Dog Training for an online training course on Cooperative care.



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