Opting In For Care

If I can teach an elephant to come park herself by a protected contact wall, and CHOOSE to present her ear for a blood draw, then can I think of how to communicate more with my dog, Boon, to have her opt in (or not) to things like having to get picked up, having her ears cleared, or having her nails trimmed?


Thanks to my friend Chrissy who is the ele pro and let me be her assistant 🙂


Having been injured within maybe a month of her life, Boon is mostly a rear end paraplegic. She has a lot of history early on of not having a lot of control as she tried to survive in a village with no medical care after the accident, then having a lot of stuff being done to her as she was on strict crate rest at a sanctuary, followed by a myriad of procedures when she arrived in the U.S. to figure out the extent of her injuries and subsequent treatments. With all of these medical appointments, Boon figured out pretty darn quickly that, more often than not, when we headed out the door doggie fun wasn’t the top of the agenda for that outing.   

Early on I opted to using a baby carrier to literally haul her around as this was the most efficient method for both of us to get from Point A to Point B. Boon has always been a dog who liked closeness – whether it was making a dog pile with her 4-legged roomie at the sanctuary, having Takeshi (our cat) cozy up to her, or sleeping velcro style with her humans – so the baby carrier fit her style. In hindsight, I wish I had installed a cue right from the start that said “time to be picked up and into the carrier” but, hey, it’s never too late to learn new human behaviors to improve the welfare of our pets, right?

Each time we tried to get out the door, Boon soon started calculating whether it was worth her while to get off her bed or not. At some point, she decided that flopping over on her side and being dead weight would obviously communicate to the silly humans that she didn’t see a need to go out the door. I didn’t want this behavior to escalate and Boon to start communicating with more overt signals like growling or even worse. I could imagine someone thinking, “Oh, she’s just being stubborn,” but that would be anthropomorphizing; instead, I could observe her behaviors and recognize that she is trying to communicate her needs.    

Enter the “ready” cue. If we needed to get out the door to make a hard stop appointment time, then I said “ready” and scooped her up, put her in the baby carrier, she got a high value treat, and off we went. If we weren’t on a time-limited schedule, then she got to choose to come to the station by the door and either go out the door on her own, get into the baby carrier, or choose to hang out cozy on her bed and not go anywhere. Yes, there were days when she missed a fun outing because she made a choice to just chill on her bed, and she’ll never know that’s what she missed. But having choice and agency seemed like a paramount goal–particularly for a dog with a history of a lot of no control situations.   

What I observed was that it didn’t take long for Boon to not do anything when we said “ready”. In other words, she was still and calm as we picked her up. I’m guessing there were times when she’d rather just chill on her bed, but she stopped flopping over and being dead weight when I said “ready”. The contract was understood: “ready” meant, “Sorry kiddo, we gotta go so let’s do it,” and the invitation to come to the station by the door meant, “You get to decide whether you want to leave the house or not.” 

This kind of contract is now part of a lot of other areas of life with Boon. As she has limited mobility with her rear end, Boon’s front legs and paws are her lifeline. For the longest time, she wasn’t keen on having her paws touched, much less having something done like a nail trim. Enter choice. Our contract entails Boon choosing to come to our designated grooming station, presenting me with her paw, cue “toesies”, then having a nail trimmed. At any point in the process, there is an agreed upon exit clause in the contract and my job is to observe if she is making a choice to continue with the process or to opt to exit instead. Reinforcement comes in either case–even with opting out. In other words, she gets paid if/when she comes to the designated station and if/when she communicates, “Thanks, I’m done for now.” If she opts out from coming to the designated station, she still gets an opportunity for reinforcement by way of doing some other activity.  

It’s fascinating to me how much is being done in terms of providing choice in the care of captive animals, like the volunteer blood draw with the rescued elephant at the sanctuary. Don’t get me wrong, not all places opt for this kind of care, but more continue to move in this direction and it seems like our companion animal community is also benefiting from moving more in this direction as well. There are a growing number of veterinary staff and groomers who espouse low stress handling and more pet parents learning about cooperative care or care with consent. I love this!


Now What? 

  • If you live with a smaller sized dog or cat who you pick up, consider how you can increase their choice in the matter by letting them opt in or opt out of being picked up whenever possible, as well as implementing a cue when it’s just gotta happen;
  • Brainstorm other areas of care where you can provide an opportunity for choice; and,   
  • If cooperative care or care with consent sounds like a direction you’d like to go with your pet but are not sure what steps to take, we’re here to assist!


Happy Training!