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"Nailed It" - Cooperative Care and Husbandry

Updated: Apr 26, 2022

I’ll admit it,

I love Cooperative Care, It’s no secret, really I’m a downright hussy for it. Call me a harlot, a hoochie, a floozie, a tramp even….but please, call me these in the name of Cooperative Care!

So what is Cooperative Care? What is it that has me so hot and bothered, sitting in a heightened state of arousal, anticipating my next session? Why am I preparing a relaxing environment while strategically assembling tiny wieners?

Cooperative Care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active and willing participant during these experiences.

- I know, I know, not where you thought I was going with that earlier, huh?

What can I say, we all have our quirks.

In my opinion, this should be a kink…..I mean a quirk for EVERY pet parent.

Let me take you back to the last time you attempted to trim Rover’s nails.

Did it go something like this?

You began to prepare your items, you called Rover over, his facial expression suddenly resembled that of Puss n’ Boots. At this point you noticed he was showing stress signs, maybe even trembling with fear. One nail in and “Puss n’ Boots” suddenly turned into the Tasmanian Devil, frantically defending himself. You tried to wrestle him stagnant but were left covered in scratches while Rover was left terrified and defeated, you both felt generally awful.

You knew you had let him down. Your hands which should only result in pleasant things for Rover have now been the source of discomfort and restraint. The sight of anything clasped in your palm resembling nail clippers has him running for the security of his kennel. Your heart is shattered. Worst of all, Rover STILL needs his nails trimmed. You keep telling yourself “It’s for his own good.”

- But…..let's think about what unfolded here? Was this really “GOOD” for anyone, yourself included? The next week you attempted this again, to your dismay Rover’s behavior had only escalated, things were getting worse, not better, but why?

See that’s the thing about learning through fear, fear is impactful.

When a dog (or person) experiences something frightening their brains will remember every single detail so they may be better apt to identify potential threats and avoid them in the future. This is a normal representation of a necessary adaptation to increase the likelihood for survival, but at what cost? Living in an undeviating state of anticipation, fear and avoidance surely creates tremendous stress and anxiety.

- WHY you ask???? HOW, you ask?? OK, to be fair, maybe you aren’t asking but this is my thing, let me have my fun. OK, fine. Y’all, I’ll talk “nerdy“ to you, no need to beg, geeze.

(Feel free to skip this, it‘ll be your loss!)

Brains are super cool...... I mean REALLY cool. The brain is capable of encoding (encoding is the first step in creating a memory) distinct memories in association for the same event. Example: If a harmful stimulus like a electric shock (which triggers an innate threat responses) were to be paired with a neutral stimulus (this could be a smell, photo or sound) the brain will develop a firm association between the neutral stimulus and the threat response. Why? To better adapt in the future! Physiologically there is a lot going on during a threat response, increased cortisol and norepinephrine, elevated heart rates and breathing rates, all of these play a vital role in the formation of a threat association. These reactions are automatic and cannot be stopped once they’ve been initiated. How? When a harmful stimulus triggers a fear response in the amygdala, the amygdala activates areas in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. This will also trigger a release of stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system. Once the brain has developed an association between the harmful stimulus and the neutral stimulus (photo, smell, sound) the neutral stimulus now has the ability to initiate unconscious threat responses, even without the actual threat being presented! This means the body would also experience a physical reaction to the neutral stimulus, simply because of its previous association to the harmful stimulus. Encoding is neat, huh?

- It gets cooler..... don’t believe me? Memories are a biological phenomena!

”Exposure to stimuli that trigger the recall or retrieval of particularly traumatic memories activate the numeral system that is storing the memories, this includes electrical activation of the neural circuits, as well as underlying intracellular processes.”

“Experts believe that the hippocampus, along with another part of the brain called the frontal cortex, is responsible for analyzing these various sensory inputs and deciding if they're worth remembering. If they are, they may become part of your long-term memory. As indicated earlier, these various bits of information are then stored in different parts of the brain. How these bits and pieces are later identified and retrieved to form a cohesive memory, however, is not yet known.” - Richard C. Mohs

Anyway, Rovers body now responds to every potential indication that a nail trim is in his itinerary, knowing fate is out of his control, choice has been stripped from him and that his attempts at communication have been promptly muffled and ignored.

What if we could give Rover a choice? What if we gave Rover a choice and he used that to VOLUNTARILY participate simply because of his ability to clearly communicate and your ability to respond thoughtfully. What if you just tried it? What if we could change Rover’s life? What if I told you all it would take was clear communication, simple criteria, some very yummy treats and patience? Too good to be true? Take off your rose colored glasses folks, you don't need them. This is REAL.

- Our goal? To use positive reinforcement, counter conditioning, and desensitization in order to help reduce rover’s stress level during the presentation and active application of any given husbandry procedure! How? By creating a new positive emotional response to a variety of grooming and veterinary procedures, but let’s just start with a nail trim for now, OK? Oh and now is the time to get out those “little wieners” I mentioned earlier. (Diced up hot dogs will work nicely, though you can use any treat to your dogs liking!)


Voluntary interaction with equipment and tools.

During this process you’ll gather some yummy treats and present your item (nail trimmer or dremel) to Rover at a distance which he is comfortable with, maybe even set it down. Watch for rover to interact with the item.

Here are some hints:

Looking at it counts, sniffing it counts, staring at it counts, nudging it counts, moving towards it counts (you get the picture.) Each time your dog provides you with one of the behaviors listed above “mark it” with a clear “YES” and deliver a treat! If Rover can’t hardly stand to be in the room with this item, try using a similar item to begin with, or feed Rover treats while simply displaying the item to him.


You’re seated on the floor, nail trimmers tucked into your pocket, Treats clasped tightly into your clenched palm. Rover is positioned in front of you, anxiously awaiting his cookies.

You remove the nail clippers from your pocket and IMMEDIATELY deliver Rover a treat from your clasped palm upon him catching a glimpse. You tuck the nail clippers back into your pocket and clasp the treats firmly into your palm once again. Repeat this several times. Now try keeping the nail clippers exposed for longer, treating for the duration in which you choose to keep them showing, stopping your rewards only when you’ve tucked them back into your pocket and out of sight. Nail clippers = Treats……..get it? Build on this! Attempt this same technique as you extend the clippers towards them, eventually touching their legs and their paws. Try pairing the sound of clippers or a dremel with desirable things! Giving treats after you trim individual raw spaghetti noodles piece by piece with nail clippers can be a useful way to replicate the sound they’ll create during a real trim! Be patient and GO SLOW, you have nothing to gain from rushing this process!

- How will your dog tell you if he’s not ready or if this is too much for him?

You're in luck!

Fear Free trainers Implement “I’m ready stations, also known as permission for care.”

So what do these look like? I’ll provide a link below to Chirag Patel's “Bucket Game.”

Although, there are many different behaviors one could teach in order to acquire clear “Permission for care.” Think of these behaviors as a way for your dog to communicate “No” (redlight) and “Go” (green light.) This of course isn’t a way for your dog to “consent” per say, rather it’s a behavior that has a significant and consistent history of being paired with good things in association with unique handling. Your dog's previous learning history (time spent practicing this cue) would tell your dog that if they participate in this behavior it is very likely that you’ll begin to handle them in some way, granting them a more clear picture of what is about to occur and the consequences of their choice to participate.



Bucket game - The game of choice by Chirag Patel: Clear communication, ability to tell you when they're ready to proceed with an activity or procedure based on their learning history and previous experiences.

Allows your dog to easily correspond with us in a way that humans can feel confident in reading and responding to.


If during this process

  • Your dog's emotional and physical response is not improving (remember this takes time.)

  • Your dog shows signs of extreme stress.

  • Your dog reacts aggressively.

  • You do not feel confident in your ability to maintain your dog's care.

  • You fear for your safety.

  • You do not feel that you can perform the steps above confidently or without aid.

Please reach out to a behavior consultant or a Certified Fear Free trainer, veterinarian or groomer to help you provide the very best care for your dog now and in the future. Fear Free Professionals strive to help you care for your pets while minimizing stress and increasing your pets comfort and confidence. Reach out to me personally, or find a professional near you:

Check out Creek Dog Tails

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