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Cooperative Care and The Bucket Game

I belong to several Facebook groups for owners of rescued hounds. Owners often reach out for advice on a variety of issues and this week 2 different people asked about how they could get their dogs to cooperate with nail trims. Nail trimming is so important for dogs because over long nails can cause dogs to slip and fall, can change where they place pressure on their paws leading to tendon and muscle damage, can affect the way they walk. But so many dogs hate having their paws touched, let alone their nails trimmed! What is a responsible pet parent to do?

Other than just having your veterinarian or groomer do it (which may be done forcibly, thereby scaring the dog even more and leading to an even worse scenario the next time) you can teach your dog to actually like having their nails trimmed. Cooperative Care stems from previous work by pioneers in the field like animal trainer Karen Pryor who revolutionized clicker training; veterinarians Sophia Yin and Marty Becker who pioneered "Force Free" methods. Deborah Jones, Ph.D has written a book and offers certification for professionals in Cooperative Care.

The Bucket Game is a way to conceptualize Cooperative Care. You have a container (it doesn't have to be an actual bucket)! with yummy, delicious treats in it. The more desirable, the better! Just place the bucket near your pet and offer them a treat from the bucket. Then, when they look at the bucket, even just a glance, they get another treat. Keep doing that, and gradually increase the amount of time they have to look at the bucket to get a treat. "What an easy, fun game this is"! your pet is thinking. Now, show your dog the nail trimmers, but don't do anything with them. If she looks at the bucket give her a treat. If she doesn't, no treats. Her choice. But don't do anything with the nail trimmers. Just have them where she can see them. When she is comfortable seeing them (you'll know she is because she will be looking at the bucket), move them toward her, but don't touch her with them. At any point if she looks away from the bucket, move the clippers away. If she continues to look at the bucket, she gets a treat.

The game can be played in short increments of time, you don't have to proceed through all of the steps in one session. The goal is for your pet to have fun, enjoy this game and be relaxed. The next step would be to touch her paw with the clippers. If she starts to look at you, pull the clippers away and no treat. But don't force her to be touched with the clippers. The whole idea of this "game" is for her to have the agency to accept the clippers or not. At no point should you proceed without her consent and continuing to look at the bucket is consent. You also continue to provide treats about every 5-10 seconds that she continues looking at the bucket. You would proceed in this fashion all the way to being able to clip her nail. You might only be able to do one nail per session, but that is ok as long as she is consenting and relaxed.

And just for cuteness, here is a picture of my dog Lulu after being slowly habituated to accept wearing a muzzle!

For more information check out Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry by Deborah Jones, Ph.D

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