Cooperative care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but to be an active, willing participant in these experiences.
Cooperative care is quite common in zoos, where large or potentially dangerous animals cannot otherwise be safely handled without physical or chemical restraint. For example, hippos can be taught to hold their mouths open for dental treatments, lions can be taught to offer their tails for a blood draw, and gorillas can be taught to sit still for cardiac ultrasounds.
One of the most important aspects of teaching cooperative care is that the animal is allowed to “say no.” They can indicate using a non-aggressive, safe behavior that they want the procedure to stop. Teaching a duration target behavior is a vital foundation in cooperative care – not only does it help to keep the animal still, but we teach the animal through the process that if at any time they break the target position (lift their head, etc.), then the handling procedure will stop.
Why train for cooperative care?
Many of us have anxiety over going to the dentist; imagine how much more stressful it would be if you lacked the ability to ask the dentist to stop, and instead you were forced to endure whatever happened. Having such a sense of control can make necessary but unpleasant dental work more tolerable. Research has shown that the benefit of having a sense of control over unpleasant events applies not only to humans, but to all animals. Teaching an animal that they can have some control in such situations can reduce their stress and fear, and increase their confidence and tolerance for handling during veterinary exams or procedures, grooming, or handling they might otherwise find unpleasant. Additionally, while it may seem counterintuitive to allow this kind of agency—many people assume that giving an animal a sense of control would just result in the animal refusing to participate in the unpleasant experience—the opposite is true when cooperative care is properly trained: Animals taught using cooperative care training willingly participate in unpleasant events.
Cooperative care training applications
In recent years, cooperative care training has become more popular with our companion animals. Horses can be taught to stand unrestrained for injections, dogs can be taught to trim their own toenails, cats can be taught to volunteer for ear exams, or parrots can be taught to volunteer for blood draws. In addition to improving the welfare of animals, cooperative care training makes animals safer to handle, reducing the risk of injury for both the animals and the caregivers.
While cooperative care training should be a goal for all animal trainers, if an animal’s health or welfare is immediately compromised, low-stress handling procedures and/or sedation by a veterinarian should instead be utilized. Once the animal has been treated, cooperative care training can be implemented for future procedures.
Cooperative care in action
Dusty and his owner have been working with me for a few sessions. He has a negative history with veterinary exams resulting in a bite to a vet. We taught him a chin rest on the owner’s lap, and here are working on proofing some handling with cooperative care concepts. He can stop the exercises at any time if he breaks his position. I am working on handling his body as a practice veterinary exam. We also used the chin rest to work on cleaning his ears (particularly tricky for him) and it was successful. He has since been to the vet several times, wearing a muzzle, and the training has allowed him to have positive and productive vet visits
Courtesy of Sarah Dixon
The chin rest behavior is a very useful and flexible behavior for cooperative care exercises. We can teach the dog a chin rest into their handler’s hand, which can be used to help the dog remain still for short periods in a stand, sit, or down position. The in-hand chin rest may also be more useful for smaller dogs, or if the dog is placed on a high surface (like an exam table).
For longer durations I’d recommend teaching a chin rest on the handler’s lap, which will help the dog to hold still in a standing position. For situations where the dog needs to remain in a down position, teach a chin rest on a pillow (or stuffed toy).
True is an 11-year-old Arabian gelding. A total of five short training sessions occurred prior to this video being taken. My goal was to have True, unrestrained, keep his nose facing forward while a jugular venipuncture occurred.
Courtesy of Lauren Fraser
True was generally calm and unconcerned about the stick, and his response was good when I did a sham stick after the real stick. There is room for improvement here, however—in previous sessions, I’ve been removing my hands if his nose leaves the towel at any point in the process, but I reverted back to an old habit of just moving with him when his nose left the towel in this clip. I think it was hard for me here to separate out an old habit of just calmly staying with the horse—which comes from years of doing real-life, on-the-job blood draws—from remembering that this training is more about allowing him to signal when he’s not ready for me to proceed (by moving his head away), and allowing him to signal when he is ready (by bringing his nose back to the towel).
Courtesy of Stephanie Edlund
This is Echo, a Grey Parrot. The behaviors in the video are a sustained hand target, a “chin rest” (or lower mandible rest in this case), as well as an open mouth behavior.
The hand target is used for behaviors where I or someone else needs to touch or manipulate his keel or chest. We have generalized that behavior so that anyone can use it, including our veterinarian or the animal care students I work with, and so that he is comfortable being touched with a lot of different objects. That way they can practice touching the keel of a live bird stress free. The vet can also do things like auscultate heart and lungs, and we are using it for injection training.
The lower mandible target is used in the same way, but for procedures where we need to look at/manipulate his face. This way I can manipulate his eyelids, beak, nares, and ears, and administer eye drops or intra-nasal medication.
The open mouth behavior is used for doing voluntary mouth checks, which are very important with birds, as well as doing voluntary choanal swabs for disease testing.
In the next issue, we will share more videos illustrating high-quality cooperative care in a variety of species. If you would like to share video of training or demonstrating behaviors for cooperative care in any species or setting, please send video and a description to IAABC Journal Editor Jesse Miller at email@example.com—he will collect them and send them to me.