Cooperative Care, Consent, and Prioritizing the Emotional Well Being of Your Dog: Meet Bailey and Kelsey!

This week I was so excited to talk with Kelsey about her life with pup Bailey. Kelsey has been a loyal customer of High Tail Hikes, and over time we have gotten to know each other via Instagram. I'm so impressed with Kelsey's journey as a dog owner, immersing herself in learning about cooperative care and grooming, prioritizing Bailey's emotional wellness, and setting a high bar for the dog-human relationship! Kelsey, her fiancé, and Bailey live in San Francisco, and you can follow along their journey on Instagram. Enjoy! 

Hi Kelsey! Thank you so much for talking with us! Can you share a little bit about your background and your decision to bring Bailey into your life? 

My fiancé and I both grew up with toy breed dogs. My family had a shih tzu mini poodle mix for 16 years, and my fiancé grew up with a shih tzu and two bichon frises.

Bailey is our first dog as adults. We decided we would add a dog to our life once we had the means to appropriately care for one. We were looking for a companion dog - e.g. a cuddly dog that was easy to train. Personally, I fell in love with doodles a long time ago. I love their warm, fun and loving personalities. From ethical breeders, they can be wonderful, purposely bred companion dogs. We were specifically drawn to Bernedoodles after learning about their “goofy” personalities. Bailey did not disappoint on the goofiness front!

Sweet Bailey 

Can you tell us a little bit about Bailey - when you got her and what things were like when you first brought her home? 

We were on a breeder waitlist for 7-8 months before we brought home Bailey in October 2019. She was notably the most timid puppy in her litter and one of the last puppies to be selected. At first, Bailey was overwhelmed by San Francisco, and we were overwhelmed. She didn’t want to walk outside in San Francisco, so we spent a lot of time sitting on the front step watching the world and eating cookies together. Our main focus was making sure Bailey was comfortable at home and outside and just general puppy stuff. We did a lot of outings to the beach, pet friendly stores, skate parks, and college campuses where we knew we would see a lot of things from a safe distance (bikes/skateboards/strollers) and be able to safely observe the world together.

While we were at work back in those office days, Bailey went to puppy dayschool in San Francisco. It was a positive reinforcement program that focused on play skills and other foundational skills. I loved going to Bailey’s weekly parent-teacher conference and learning about R+ dog training. Once she graduated from dayschool, we switched her from a daycare environment to an R+ dog walker who brought Bailey on off leash hikes with four other dogs. As she has gotten older, her needs have changed, so she switched to private decompression walks with a professional R+ dog trainer.

Tell us about Bailey's personality - her likes and dislikes and some of her favorite things. 

Bailey is a very expressive, playful, incredibly loving, goofy, resilient creature. She is sensitive. She is a lover, not a fighter. She is a girl who knows what she wants and what she doesn’t want! Bailey’s favorite things are walks on the beach, eating carbs (pizza crust, sourdough bread, croissants), sharing food (the only acceptable location to eat fruit is on the couch), rolling in gross stuff and mud, and Sunday afternoon neighborhood walks, where she loves to engage with laundry vents. Bailey’s dislikes are veterinary clinics/groomers, fireworks/nail guns/gunshots, strangers petting her head, and multiple unknown dogs running up to her at once. 

Bailey after having a blast digging in the mud

Can you tell us about your journey in the world of R+ training and cooperative care? 

Over the past two years, we have experienced an incredible amount of growth in our relationship with Bailey. I don’t think we fully understood the impact that Bailey would have on our lives and the perspective that R+ training offers.

We have always considered ourselves to be a positive reinforcement family, and that was the only kind of training we wanted to pursue. In the beginning, I thought we knew a lot about dogs, dog behavior, and positive reinforcement training. In reality, we had a lot to learn. We didn’t know how much we didn’t know and how much more there was to learn (hello, Dunning-Kruger effect!) We didn’t fully comprehend what a positive reinforcement philosophy and approach meant beyond giving cookies and store bought enrichment toys. Over time, our highest priority has shifted to meeting Bailey’s emotional and physical needs and prioritizing choice and consent as much as possible in her life. Ultimately, we do not put Bailey in situations where she is uncomfortable.

Tell us more about the process of learning to groom Bailey at home. 

In March of 2020, San Francisco shut down, and of course, all of Bailey's grooming appointments were cancelled. When I heard her nails clicking on the hardwood, we decided we better learn how to maintain her nails. Nail trimming was a big learning curve for me. I had no skills in dog nail trimming and didn’t fully understand why it was important from a physical health perspective. It was a really positive experience for me to learn a new skill, and once I was “successful," it felt really good that I didn’t need to depend on someone else for Bailey’s nail care.

When June 2020 rolled around, and the groomers opened back up with curbside service, Bailey really did not want to go inside alone without us. I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of “This feels so horrible, but she HAS to go inside; there is no other option. I definitely can’t groom her; I have no skills.” In reality, there is almost always another option. Alternative options could have included a mobile groomer, finding someone who grooms dogs in a 1:1 environment, or finding a fear free certified groomer.

Luckily, around the same time, we learned about cooperative care and start buttons from our friend Carolyn. She recommended getting a book called “Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry." It was easy to understand and a practical book that covered a lot of cooperative care foundations. Everything we read and learned made sense, and it felt good. When I tried brushing Bailey’s head using a chin rest as a start button, it was crazy effective.

Eventually, we gained more confidence to do more of her grooming at home and not injure her. It is important to note that grooming dogs can be very dangerous. The tools are quite sharp and dogs can be injured due to poor handling, lack of trust, etc. It is really important to do your research, practice, and work with professionals as needed.

For someone who is just starting to learn about cooperative care, what are some of the basic skills that you would recommend starting with? 

All animals will require veterinary care at some point. Investing small amounts of consistent time into working on husbandry/cooperative care will make everyone’s life easier. In our current era of vet shortages and high rates of burnout, we owe it to our veterinarians (and pets) to support them. This means we work on preparing our pets for veterinarian care. It may look intimidating, but if cooperative care works for lions and tigers and bears, it can work for your companion animal too. 

I believe that cooperative care is essential to being a responsible pet owner. I feel that cooperative care basic skills should be taught in puppy classes. If they were, we would probably have animals less stressed at the vet, more pet parents educated on these skills, and an overall better relationship with our animals.

Working with a R+ trainer can be one of the best ways to get started, even if it is just for a few focused sessions. They can help identify start button behaviors for husbandry related things (paw checks, muzzle training, toothbrushing etc) as well as design an appropriate training plan. If private training is not an option, there are also a number of classes focused from online training schools such as Tromplo and Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Tromplo has a two course series called Empowered Dogs: Cooperative Husbandry Training. Another good resource is the Fenzi Teams Cooperative Care titling program. Cooperative Care titles cover the ten most important husbandry activities (e.g., muzzle training, restraint, medication taking, wearing a cone, etc.) and each level builds upon the skills of the previous level. When you are ready to try for a title, you submit a video and then a certified trainer grades your work and provides you with feedback. We are currently working on our second title.

A few other resources are the Facebook group “Cooperative Care with Deb Jones," and Laura Monaco Torelli's webinar on Cooperative Care available from her websiteFor nail trims specifically, I love the Nail Maintenance for Dogs Facebook group. It is a self-study group run by dog trainers and canine fitness professionals. Some Instagram accounts to check out: Laura Monaco Torelli, Linlin Cao, and Rachel Forday. I also follow the #cooperativecare hashtag to see what folks are doing. 

Something you focus on a lot is consent. Can you talk about how consent plays a role in the cooperative care and training you do with Bailey? 

From our own experiences we have seen that consent is really powerful. It creates room for empowerment and clear communication. Consent is not a “lack of no." Consent is informed. Consent is voluntary. Consent is ongoing. Consent can be revoked. Most dogs live in a world where most things are decided for them, and consent does not always exist. Personally, I feel that living a life without consent, autonomy and choice is not living life to its fullest potential. I want Bailey to feel that she is empowered to make choices and that her decisions are respected. 

At home, we empower Bailey to provide consent by using start button behaviors. Essentially, a start button is a "yes" signal. Here is a scenario for brushing Bailey’s head: 

  1. Bailey's chin rests on a pillow.
  2. I show her the comb (consent is informed).
  3. Bailey continues to chin rest on pillow; she is able to walk away (consent is voluntary).
  4. I comb Bailey’s ears; I give Bailey a cookie.
  5. If at any point, Bailey stops chin resting and raises her head (consent is revoked), I stop brushing.
  6. I give Bailey a cookie when she revokes consent, because receiving a cookie is not contingent on being brushed. 

You live in San Francisco. Urban environments can be challenging for dogs for a lot of reasons. What are some of the ways that you help Bailey succeed in that environment? How do you help her decompress? 

Bailey’s biggest phobia is veterinary clinics. I use the word phobia because she is afraid of all veterinary clinics. She will not walk on the same block if she is aware or believes she will have to enter a veterinary clinic. This is quite challenging in San Francisco, as most veterinary clinics only have street parking and, now since Covid, curbside drop off. Because of her phobia, we have established care with a mobile veterinary clinic who comes to our house/backyard. We communicate with our clinic vet via email to keep clinic veterinary visits to a minimum. If she has to go into a clinic, she takes anti-anxiety medications prior to the visit. Behavioral medications are not a last resort. Entering a veterinary clinic without pharmacologic assistance would be damaging to her emotional wellbeing.

I see a vet visit as a major withdrawal from our trust bank that I need to refill. After any veterinary visit, we stop all training for at least 24 hours and do not do any husbandry training for about a week, sometimes longer. Instead, we focus on decompression and games. We go on decompression walks with our High Tail Hikes Traffic Handle and Long Line and just focus on having fun and letting Bailey do dog things (dig, roll, run, sniff). We do most of our decompression walks outside of San Francisco where it is quieter than the city proper. When we walk in San Francisco parks, it is generally during off peak hours.

Bailey on a long line decompression walk.

One of my favorite things about your relationship with Bailey is that you let her be a dog and an individual with quirks. For example, she loves to rub against dryer vents and roll in mud, and you let her do these things! Did that take some effort to overcome the desire for Bailey to be "obedient"? 

It did take some time for me to put aside society’s expectation of what a “good dog" or an “obedient dog" should look like. At one point, I hoped Bailey could do therapy dog work (go to hospitals, visit nursing homes), especially since volunteering has been a big part of my life. I learned when she was pretty young that asking her to sit for a greeting during a Good Canine Citizen exam would be really tough. She also doesn’t really like strangers touching her. She would be very uncomfortable in a therapy dog setting. 

My job is to do my best to see Bailey for who she is, to respect her needs, and to give her safe outlets to fulfill those needs. My general rule is that if she is safe and others are safe, we are okay with the behavior. If she is going to put herself or others in an unsafe situation, I step in, help her out and giver her something else to do. But most of her favorite things cost me nothing other than time. And her time with us is so short. I want her to be able to spend as much of that time as possible being a dog and doing the things she loves - digging at the beach or in the mud, rolling in smelly stuff, or enjoying a laundry vent. When she gets to engage in these behaviors she is more relaxed, resilient, and happy. When she is happy we are happy - and her happiness is worth more than worrying about how people choose to label behaviors.

More happy Bailey digging in the mud! 

You use a lot of High Tail Hikes gear! What are some of your top gear recommendations and why? 

Our Long Lines (we have the Medium and Large in 15 foot), Traffic Handle and Sport Collar are definitely our favorite items. I will never go back to any other material for dog gear. I have no interest in having smelly leashes in my car, especially after Bailey rolls in something dead. The ease of cleaning biothane is great. 

Longer leashes give Bailey freedom and choice without compromising her safety (see our blog post about why you should consider switching to a longer leash). We always use a 10 or 15 foot leash in San Francisco for neighborhood walks. Bailey enjoys playing “up” on Victorian steps, and the long lines allow her to do that particular game with ease. The Traffic Handle can help us to secure Bailey for safety if needed. 

We previously used nylon and silicone collars before we switched to our HTH biothane Sport Collar. Bailey runs into the ocean at least once or twice a week, and nylon and silicone combined with salt water significantly damaged her coat. Nylon would stay very wet for extended periods of time and smelled horrible. Silicone caused matting. Our biothane Sport Collar dries quickly, and it is easy to clean so I don’t worry about matting as much from her collar anymore.

Happy, goofy Bailey at the beach with her HTH Long Line

Thank you so much Kelsey and Bailey! Follow along their journey on Instagram

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