A chin rest (as the name implies!) is when we teach our dogs to rest their chin either on a target, in our hand, or both!
It seems like a really simple behaviour to teach, but for some dogs it can be very tricky to learn. It also seems like a bit of an odd behaviour to teach your dog. What good does a chin rest do? How is it useful?
Well, first, it’s quite a cute trick that will keep you both amused while teaching it which is always a good thing. However, it’s also a really useful functional behaviour that allows you to groom and handle your dog(s) with a built in system of consent…cooperative care in other words.
Cooperative care is a concept widely and successfully applied by animal trainers and zookeepers across all species. Think about a tiger undergoing a voluntary dental check and blood draw, a orang-utan having his heart murmur monitored, a giraffe being prepared for a foot X-ray – you get the idea.
As humans, we understand the value of a blood draw or the importance of a nail trim. Our dogs however don’t! We know that bathing our dogs, brushing their teeth, administering medication or taking them to the vet is in the best interest of their health. Our dogs on the other hand can simply see these things as scary events that happen suddenly and unpredictably.
If you have a sensitive dog, no matter how rarely these events occur, the stress, fear, and anxiety associated with them can have real and long-lasting effects.
So…if we can teach an orang-utan to press his chest up against the side of the enclosure so that his keeper can listen to his heart or a tiger to stay still for a blood draw, surely we don’t need to force, coerce, or otherwise manhandle our dogs? Sadly, we often do though don’t we…
Cooperative care is about empowering animals to be willing participants in their own care. This means providing animals with choices of whether and when to participate, helping them feel better about the procedures, and equipping them with the skills and behaviours that make participation easier through the use of positive reinforcement training techniques.
Of course, there are always exceptions but as much as we possibly shouldn’t we avoid forcing our dogs to do things that they don’t want to do?
I was reminded of this on a recent trip to the dentist where I was subject to an annual blast clean and polish – I’m sure you’re familiar with it too. The hygienists tool blasts high pressure water and sea salt (supposedly lemon flavoured – ha! my foot!!) to clean the surface of your teeth. It’s a simple and standard procedure, I find the salty sensation fairly unpleasant and I know that at any time I can raise a hand to let her know I’d like a few seconds break. If I didn’t have that option as a mutually understood way to communicate and wanted her to stop I may well wriggle or fidget and if that was ignored and I was just restrained very firmly where I was I suspect I would not be keen to have the procedure next time around…!
Meanwhile, back at the zoo…most of the cooperative care that keepers perform with their animals is based on targeting behaviours. They will either teach their charges to target something with their nose and maintain that target while they do what they need, or teach multiple types of targets specific to what procedure they need to perform. Even if the procedure is something that they need to sedate the animal for, they will have them opt in to the sedation injection.
For cooperative care with our dogs this is where the Chin Rest comes into our everyday handling for grooming, nail trims, and any veterinary procedures that may be needed to help your dog feel as positive as possible about these things.
If you have a complicated pup prone to anxiety or behavioural issues this is a must but I recommend this to everyone even if you don’t have handling issues.
Why do I need to teach this to dogs who are going to be fine no matter what we do? It rolls back to consent and respect doesn’t it. There’s no reason for me to force my dog to sit through a brushing that he will tolerate but isn’t comfortable with, when I can just as easily teach him to consent to it. When he’s able to back away and say no, it may take a little longer to get him brushed out but he stays much happier.
It’s easiest I think to start with asking your dog to rest his chin in your hand.
Once you feel your dog understands you can teach him to rest his chin on a target. A flannel / small towel placed on the front of a chair which is around chin height is ideal and nicely portable so you can take it to the vets with you.
With a good chin rest behaviour you’ll know when grooming and handling that anytime your dog backs away you’ve gone too far too soon so take a step back and give your dog a few seconds.
Our dogs have control over so few things in their life, it’s nice to give it back to them where we can and most of the time handling is an area where we can do exactly this.