"Head In Cup" Game - Cooperative Care

I can not stress enough how important it is for you to spend the time teaching your puppy cooperative care. Cooperative care is the difference between an okay and a horrible experience. 

The time you take to help your puppy feel happy and relaxed when being groomed or undergoing veterinary care, is time definitely well spent. Rather than forcing your puppy to tolerate it, if you invest in showing them they have the choice, I promise it will pay off for you both in the long run. 

Every dog needs to undergo husbandry behaviour at some stage in their life such as having their nails clipped or filed, brushed, groomed, bathed, things pulled out of their coat like dreaded farmers friends, etc. And every dog will also visit the vet whether they are healthy or sick and they will have to be held, touched, prodded, stuck with a needle, have a thermometer up their butt, mouth open, eyes open, made to take medication, etc. It is a part of life whether they like it or not. Does your puppy struggle, fight, wiggle, react, panic or resist to any of these? Majority will in the initial stages unless the time has been invested to help them cope. Weird things are happening to them and they don't have a choice over what happens to their own body. Imagine if that happened to you and how you would feel. We understand the benefits but your puppy lives in the moment and doesn't have the intelligence to understand short term pain or uncomfortability equals long term gain and will benefit them in the long run. 

Cooperative care is exactly what it sounds like. You are helping your puppy to cooperate to make the situation more pleasant and less stressful. It is when your puppy willingly participates in what is happening to them without being forced to. The most important aspect of cooperative care is that you are giving your puppy a choice.

You will find over time the more you give your puppy a choice and an option over their life, the more you will be able to get through grooming or veterinary care, as your puppy will learn that if at any stage they feel uncomfortable they have an out and will be respected. The more they understand this, the more they will feel okay to move into a situation that does make them feel a little unsure because they always have that "out" no matter what, which as a result will naturally help them to feel more relaxed and comfortable and able to participate in a procedure. 

For example, rather than just pinning your puppy in between your legs so they can't run away and holding their paw up to clip their nails, you would train your puppy to offer their paw and hold still without restraint or hesitation. 

Cooperative care is not something that is established overnight. Trust me it takes a lot of time and energy but if you look at the big picture. One year of consistent cooperative care training, could give you 14 years of a dog that doesn't stress, resist or panic if your puppy lives to 15 years. It turns scary, odd, weird experiences into fun games, team building activities and builds the trust between you and your puppy. The longer you practice cooperative care, the easier and smoother experiences will be in the future. On the contrary if you continue to force your puppy to tolerate husbandry behaviour or vet procedures, through learning history the behaviours that happen as a result are likely to get more difficult over time and will damage not only your relationship with your puppy but also the trust your puppy has for the world in the long run. 

These are some of the key aspects of cooperative care:

  • Your puppy dictates how fast you can advance. You must follow their lead and go at your puppy's pace.

  • If at any stage your puppy reacts, looks anxious or stressed, it means you are doing too much for the level they can handle and they are over threshold. Take a step back. Re-evaluate and reset to a more appropriate level. 

  • At no stage are you using force or restraining your puppy. Your puppy should be free to leave if they want and you must respect if they do. You must not follow or continue. 

  • The puppy CHOOSES to stay because they are enjoying the activity. Which means you have to make it worth their while - lots of fun and highly rewarding. Like food makes us feel good, so does it to your puppy. Use food that is yummy and something that they don't get normally such as cheese, cabanossi, etc. 

  • You must understand in the initial stages that you are not going to get the end result of what you want straight away in one sitting. An example of this, was a lady with a legato who was in my dog's nose work class when I was training with her. The legato walks in with one side of its body completely shaved and the other still full length and mattered. The dog looked like a before an after photo side by side like the face cream ads. Yes it was hilarious to us and we all have a good chuckle but I had a deep respect for the legatos owner because she respected where her dog could cope to at that time and didn't push the dog beyond.   

  • You must have patience and respect for your puppy as the have just as real emotions and feelings that we do. 

The scientific name for the process we use to ensure your puppy enjoys the activity is desensitisation and counter conditioning, these two techniques are used in conjunction with one another. The Desensitisation part means that you always work under your puppy's threshold with a version of the trigger that your puppy is not stressed or anxious about. Slowly and at your puppy's pace you increase the intensity of the trigger. The Counter Conditioning part is where you teach your puppy the trigger leads to amazing, incredible things for them.

E.g. For a dog who is afraid of having their fur brushed, you might start by teaching them that you touching the brush leads to an abundance of yummy treats for them. Slowly increasing the bringing the brush towards them, touching them lightly with the brush and then increasing too slowly and gently brushing them. 

In class you learnt the Head in Container Game to help you with cooperative care and help your puppy start to get used to and like things around their face. It is not normal for a puppy to willingly go up and put their head into something. I refer to the container game as an easy exercise to condition your puppy to tolerate a muzzle. You might have the least reactive, aggressive puppy now but pain creates a monster in a dog and can make any dog do things you couldn't imagine them doing. In this case, your puppy would need to be muzzled for the safety of the veterinary team. I also use the container game at home as a way for my dog to communicate with me when we do husbandry procedures such as brushing. The container gives her a way to control the situation and what happens to her. While ever her head is in the container or interacting with the container that is my cue that I can do the husbandry procedure and she will be generously rewarded. If at any stage she stops, I stop but so do the rewards. The container also gives your puppy a job and something fun and positive to focus on away from what is happening to them. 

How to teach the The Head In Cup Game.

  • Step 1: Hold the container horizontal and at your puppy's head height. To start place treats at the lip of the container for your puppy to eat. Present the container to your puppy (not on your puppy) and hold it as still as you can. Give your puppy verbal praise as they come froward and eat the treats from the container. They may accidentally push the treats to the back of the container trying to get them. If they do, give them 5 seconds to see if they will venture further into the cup to get the treats themselves. If it looks like your puppy is hesitating or losing confidence, reach your hand in and put the treats back on the lip and assist holding them there as your puppy eats them. Repeat multiple times until your puppy is not phased and is relaxed doing this step and will even put their head into the container to get the treat if it is pushed to the back accidentally by their nose. 

  • Step 2: Present the container to your puppy horizontal and at your puppy's head height and hold it still. Have no treats in the container. The moment your puppy puts their head in the container bridge and reward by putting yummy treats in the container for them to eat.  

  • Step 3: Present the container to your puppy horizontal and at your puppy's head height and hold it still. Have no treats in the container. Bridge the moment your dog put their head in the container and continue to feed treats to your dog while their head stays in the container. If they pull their head out, all continuation of treats must stop. This is to slowly increase duration in the container whilst maintaining a high rate of reinforcement. 

  • Step 4: Present the container to your puppy horizontal and at your puppy's head height and hold it still. Have no treats in the container. Slowly work on increasing the duration of how long your dog has to hold their nose/head in the container before you bridge and reward via the container. 

  • Step 5: Now slowly introduce touch and husbandry procedures. The moment your puppy puts their head in the container that is your cue to start what you are wanting to do. In the video our goal was to brush Luna. While ever her head is in the container we brush her and she is rewarded. If at any stage she pulls out of the container, we stop but so does any rewards. We then patiently wait for her to initiate the game again so we can continue. Remember every time you increase criteria you need to decrease another criteria. Meaning if in the previous step your puppy was able to hold a duration of 1 minute, you wouldn't introduce brushing and expect your puppy to still hold 1 minute. To begin with I recommend that you break it back down again and build up the criteria together. E.g. to start with 1 head in equals one brush stroke reward, now it is head in hold duration in there for 2 brush stocks reward. Slowly you are building the duration and intensity of the procedure at a speed your puppy can advance at. It is also important to remember that each different touch or husbandry procedure is a different criteria so it is vital that you start back at the beginning of the criteria and build up.