The Force-Free way of making bath time fun – using Choice

The Force-Free way of making bath time fun – using Choice

By now, you may know that we use force-free training at On Kew Dog. So what do you do when your dog hates doing something but you really need them to do it? How do you train your dog to enjoy bath time?

Does your dog hate bath time?  Ours does – so you might relate to our excitement when I say that today we had a bathing success with Steffi!  How did we achieve this?  By showing her that it was her choice to START or STOP the bathing process at any time.

Dirty Girl (Not what you think!)

Steffi doesn’t like baths or being bathed and never has.  Luckily her coat is smooth and short so she’s rarely dirty enough for a bath and we can get away with a good towel rub after a rainy walk most of the time.  (She loves a towel rub!)

Lately, Steffi has been very ‘dusty’ due to a hot dry summer, and given her love of rolling in deer pee EVERY time we go to Richmond Park… it was time for a bath!

Our Version of ‘The Bucket Game’

We decided this time we would try a modified version of Chirag Patel’s ‘The Bucket Game’.  The goal with ‘The Bucket Game’ is to [create] an environment where our dogs have choice and can tell us:

a. when they are ready to start

b. when they want to take a break

c. when they want to stop 

d. when they want us to slow down

Here’s how we approached bath time today with Steffi:

1. The Prep

  • ‘The Bucket’:  Lickimat (or a textured plastic cutting board will do) smeared with soft cheese
  • A water bottle filled with diluted dog shampoo
  • A garden watering can filled with warm water
  • A fresh towel for drying afterwards
  • A secure garden with no slippery surfaces when wet

2. The Method

  • We presented the lickimat to Steffi for her to approach
  • When she approached and started licking, we applied and lathered the shampoo using the water bottle or rinsed her with the watering can
  • If she stopped licking or moved away, we stopped shampooing or rinsing
  • We would ask her if she was ‘Ready?’ to invite her to return to the lickimat
  • Whenever she returned to the lickimat and resumed licking, we resumed shampooing or rinsing
  • When we finished rinsing her off for the last time, she got her towel rub

3. The Success Factors

  • Steffi is familiar with the cue ‘Ready?’  We use this cue for getting in and out of the car, and putting on her harness, or walking out the front door.
  • We didn’t use corrections if she moved away.
    • Corrections such as verbal (‘ah-ah-ah’ or ‘No’) or physical (moving her back into position) would’ve told her that her choices to move away weren’t ok.  We don’t use them in training or day-to-day interaction anyway, but it’s easy human default behaviour.
  • Our choice of equipment (squeezy water bottle, watering can) was minimally aversive.
    • The use of water hose or shower head, or forcing her into the bathtub would’ve scared her off.  Things in the past she didn’t enjoy.
  • We moved location when we noticed she was uncomfortable in one section of the garden.
    • We started off in one corner of the garden where it was shady but we realised she kept backing off because she was feeling cornered.  Switching to another section of the garden where she had more room to move fixed that problem instantly.
  • The garden is secure and there are no slippery surfaces – Steffi and we were safe if she were to get distressed and panic.

How did we know we were successful in making this a positive experience?

Steffi’s body language told us a lot about how she was feeling.  In the past when we’ve had bath time, she would do this nervous evasive ‘dance’ to keep away from us, she’d do lots of shaking off, and afterwards she’d zoom around the house for 10 minutes or so.  Shaking off and zoomies are two ways for a dog to relieve stress or tension.

This time her ears and tail were relaxed in a neutral position (not pinned back or low) when we were shampooing and rinsing.  She did no shake offs despite being wet, and no zoomies – instead she happily came to me for her towel rub down at the end.  Most importantly, her voluntary participation told us she wanted to be there.

How did we know that it was truly voluntary? 

That she didn’t feel coerced into it because treats (soft cheese on the lickimat) were being offered?

When Steffi is reluctant to do something, she will do what we ask but real S-L-O-W.  For example, when we’re on our return to the car from a lengthy hike in Richmond Park, she will walk at the slowest possible pace she can muster.  BUT she will move along.  (Can you tell how much she loves Richmond Park?)

And when Steffi is SUPER nervous about doing something, she’ll do the evasive nervous ‘dance’ that I mentioned earlier. 

This time there was neither the S-L-O-W behaviour nor the SUPER nervous behaviour.  Just an initial pause when we first started shampooing.  So we paused when she paused.  She quickly caught on that licking the mat was her START/STOP button for bathing. 

Cooperative Care was a Success!

We didn’t expect this go so well for the first time proactively using this consent method.  (Otherwise I might’ve filmed it for uploading to the blog!)  Sometimes these things can take time for both us humans and for the dog to learn.  We’re happy we did this!  In doing so, we created a more positive experience for her and us, making the next bath time easier again.

To find out more about building in consent into dog husbandry using Chirag Patel’s ‘The Bucket Game’

Contact Us at On Kew Dog for Force-Free Solutions

If your dog hates baths, being groomed, or being handled, get in touch with us at On Kew Dog and we can show you the force-free way of getting your pup’s cooperation.

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