How a little bucket can improve a dog’s quality of life – and your

  relationship with that dog.

My wonderful Dogue De Bordeaux Cadbury, suddenly did not like her nails trimmed. She was relatively tolerant of my insistence on trimming her nails, except when it came to her hindquarters. When I would try to trim her back feet, she tensed up and sometimes even growled.

Then she learned the Bucket Game, and as a result of her learning a new way to communicate her feelings to me about being groomed – one that didn’t require the escalation of aggressive behaviors – her attitude during grooming went from tolerance to complete relaxation and enjoyment. She was a classic study in the behavioral value of giving our dogs choice and control in their world through cooperative care.

Cooperative care involves training an animal to not only tolerate handling and husbandry procedures, but also to be an active, willing participant in these experiences.

Photo by Zen Chung on Pexels.com

All dog owners need to perform basic husbandry tasks on their dogs at some point – pull burrs out of the dog’s coat, examine and clean a wound, administer eye drops, clean ears, brush teeth, and so on. To gain their dogs’ willing participation in these tasks, first, dog owners teach their dogs some basic behaviors for cooperative care – skills that will ease your way through almost any dog-care procedures that owners are likely to face. Teachs these essential skills in a specific order, so the dog learns them in a systematic and progressive way.  “10 Essentials” for cooperative care are: 

1) Chin Rest (or Bucket Game) 

2) Lie on Side 

3) Restraint 

4) Wear a Muzzle 

5) Foot Handling 

6) Mouth Handling 

7) Taking Medication 

8) Injection or Blood Draw 

9) Eye Exam 

10) Ear Exam

THE BUCKET GAME – A GAME OF CHOICE

There are a variety of protocols that can help your dog learn to enjoy these procedures. The Bucket Game is one of the most inventive and versatile. The Bucket Game was developed and introduced to the dog training world by trainer Chirag Patel, owner of Domesticated Manners, a training business in London. Once taught, the Bucket Game can be used for several of the 10 essential behaviors, as well as for everyday husbandry procedures such as grooming and nail trimming.

This fun and easy dog-training protocol empowers the learner, by creating an environment where your dog has choice and can communicate her willingness to participate. Using the Bucket Game, your dog can tell you:

• When she is ready to start

• When she needs to take a break

• When she wants to stop

• When you need to slow down

All you need to play the Bucket Game is a little bucket or some other container to hold treats and a lot of small, high-value treats. 

STEP 1:  TEACHING IMPULSE CONTROL IN THE PRESENCE OF THE BUCKET

1. Start by holding the bucket out to your side. Reward your dog (feed a treat from the bucket) for looking at the bucket but maintaining some distance from it (two to four feet). 

Usually, once your dog has seen you reach into the bucket, take out a yummy treat, and feed it to her, she’ll look at the bucket again, wondering what it’s all about. Be ready! When you see her glance at it, take a treat out of it and give her one. You’re on your way. Repeat a number of times.

If your dog tries to jump up or dive into the bucket, don’t admonish her; just hold it higher. It shouldn’t take long for her to realize that the best way to get more treats is to keep returning her gaze to the bucket without trying to jump up and help herself to them.

2. Put the bucket on the ground, a chair, or a table, and reward the dog (feed a treat from the bucket) for looking at it but not trying to get it. Your dog can be in any position; you are simply rewarding her for looking at the bucket. Repeat several times.

3. Gradually begin increasing the duration of her gaze, by rewarding her with treats from the bucket for looking at it for longer and longer periods. Don’t wait too long, increasing the duration too much, too quickly, as this may cause the behavior to extinguish.

Remember, this is a game of choice; your dog is allowed to look around between focusing on the bucket. Don’t call her, tap on the bucket, or do anything else to draw her attention to it. Let your dog choose to engage to participate.

STEP 2:  INTRODUCING THE CONCEPT OF CHOICE

1. Practice until your dog is able to focus on the bucket for a duration of at least 10 seconds. Remember that it doesn’t matter what position she’s in; it could be a sit, down, or stand.

2. Choose what procedure you want to introduce to your dog as part of the Bucket Game, such as being groomed or looking in her ears. I’ll describe the steps as if we were working on brushing the dog.

3. When she is focused on the bucket and able to hold her focus for at least 10 seconds, start moving your hand toward her side (not touching her). If she continues to look at the bucket, stop moving your hand toward her and feed her a treat from the bucket. If she looks away from the bucket, probably to look at your hand or face (“What are you doing?”), just draw your hand back. 

Remember, this is a game of choice. She may not yet understand that she can communicate to you that she is uncomfortable – she may have just been curious, but she will come to understand as you continue the process.

4. When she re-engages with the bucket, the game begins again. This time, don’t move your hand so fast or far. If she is able to maintain focus on the bucket, reward her with a treat from the bucket.

Repeat this process with your hand moving toward her, closer and closer, giving her a treat every so often as long as she continues to gaze at the bucket, and withdrawing your hand if she looks away from the bucket. 

5. Eventually, you should be able to touch her as she gazes at the bucket. The first time you make contact with her, she will likely look at you. Just withdraw your hand, and try again after she gazes at the bucket again. She should be starting to figure out that the only way to get treats is to keep gazing at the bucket, no matter what you do with your hand. Touch her with increasing pressure at various locations on her body where you will be grooming her, rewarding her every so often. Again, don’t wait so long that she starts to think it’s not worth playing the game, but she should be able to hold her gaze on the bucket for at least 10 or 15 seconds while you touch her. 

6. Now pick up her brush and repeat Step 3, this time with the brush in your hand. After several repetitions with the brush held near her, start touching her with the brush. This continues until you are able to groom your dog with her looking at the bucket. 

THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF THE GAME

When your dog has learned the game for one procedure, you can easily generalize it to others, including ear and mouth exams, foot handling, nail trimming, etc. 

However, this game of choice will only work if you allow your dog to communicate that she wishes to begin, take a break, and stop the game. If your dog looks away from the bucket, stop the game. When she re-engages with the bucket, the game continues. It’s imperative that you honor her request to stop and only use the procedure when you are able to honor her request to stop. 

If you use the Bucket Game while working with other animal-care professionals, they also must be willing to stop any procedure when your dog looks away from the bucket. If they are not willing to do so, don’t use the Bucket Game with them. If they are doing a procedure that cannot be stopped once it has started, don’t use the Bucket Game with that procedure. 

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