Wipe Your Chin! How My Dog Cleans Up Her Own Drool

Clara and Zani sharing the prime part of the couch. Note Zani’s droopy mouth on one side.

Training husbandry behaviors with positive reinforcement is one of the kindest things we can do for our dogs. We have to do stuff to them; why not take it out of the battleground, past neutral, and into the “fun” territory?

One of the things I’ve trained of which I’m inordinately proud is Clara’s pill-taking behavior. I always have to credit Laura Baugh here, because her blog and video were what introduced me to pill-taking as a behavior, rather than as an event centered on “how well can I hide this pill from my dog?”. I was blown away. We’re talking about a dog voluntarily swallowing medicine, then, of course, getting a grand treat if possible. I say “if possible” because this behavior can also help when a dog has to take a pill without food. But in training, the great treat always followed.

Enough resting on past laurels. Here’s the newest helpful little behavior I’ve trained, and this time it is for Zani.

Zani Drools

Zani is 12 years old now and has facial nerve paralysis on the right side. It is likely the cause of both her dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca) on that side and her dry nose, a related condition in which the nasal gland is also impaired.

As if to make up for it, she drools out of that side of her mouth. But the drool is also a result of the nerve paralysis. You can see in the photo above (she is the black dog) the part of her flew that is hanging down on her right side. She can’t control that area of her lip.

OK, drool is gross, but manageable. But her drool is super gross because it often includes pieces of what she recently ate. Her loose flew hangs in a kind of U-shape, perfect for capturing and holding a lump of her latest snack. So my beautiful, charming Zani often walks around with a large brown or gray or green or black globule hanging from her mouth. And guess what? She doesn’t enjoy having her mouth wiped.

I don’t blame her. This little girl has her face handled all the time. Eyedrops, nose drops, eye cleaning, nose cleaning (she gets dirt stuck in her nostril), tooth brushing. I’ve conditioned them all, but some eyedrops are painful. I have lost ground in my attempts to keep things pleasant. I fought the Matching Law and the Matching Law won.

Wait, the Matching Law?

The short version of that sad story is that we started out with eyedrops as a very positive thing. Zani was taking four different kinds of eyedrops for a total of six applications a day, and she was all in. She came running and hopped up on the couch for her treatment and her piece of lunch meat ham. Only one set of the many drops stung a little; the rest were neutral or even soothing.

Then later, the eyedrops reduced in number to two different kinds, both twice a day. Two sounds like an improvement, right? Fewer drops! But one of the drops left was the stinging one. Then the ophthalmologist raised the concentration of it and made it worse. So guess what? Now she had only two kinds of eyedrops, but one of them really hurt. She noticed that change in ratio before I did and decided eyedrops suck. One painful drop in six was OK; one painful drop in two was not. She started showing mild avoidance behaviors and unhappy body language.

I probably could have prevented the whole thing if I had noticed in time and had continued to do multiple applications of saline during the day. Even better, I could have thrown in some face approaches with no eyedrops (all magnificently paired with good stuff). That would have kept the ratio in our favor. But I didn’t notice my mistake, so instead I’ve been clambering back up Matching Law Mountain ever since. I’m building a reinforcement history to overtake the punishment and discomfort history and get the numbers back on the plus side.

But building a reinforcement history takes time, and she still must take the eyedrops and nose drops. We get through it as gently as I know how, and she is stellar about it. But her current attitude is that she would really rather I not grab her face for the 30th time in a day to wipe off drool. This is even though she always gets a treat after any face handling, without fail.

Chin Targeting

Zani targeting a tissue

Lots of people use a duration chin target for husbandry work. The dog plants their chin in your hand or on a surface, holds the position, and you do hygiene or medical stuff to their eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. Or even their rear end; it’s a very handy stationing behavior.

I have never trained a general-purpose chin rest. I’ll probably include it as a foundation behavior for future dogs, but I never did it with Clara or Zani. By this time, we’ve done so much other work that they hold still if I ask them to.

But it occurred to me I could teach Zani to perform a chin target to wipe her own drool onto a tissue in my hand. I shaped the behavior with the tissue present from the beginning. Remember? Yucky drool! Why would I do it with my bare hand? So the tissue was the target. The shaping took a few sessions because she has a very strong nose target and also a “take it” behavior that includes paper and tissues. So she did, adorably, grab the tissue at times. We’ve mostly gotten over the hump. Now she thwacks her chin down onto the tissue, even a little bit to the right side, just where I need it.

And the coolest thing is that the tissue has become the salient part of the cue. If I hold my open palm with a tissue on it at chest level, she’s going to slap her little chin down.

Zani learning to chin target a tissue (and as a side effect wipe up drool)


We first worked on this behavior on our handy Klimb platform. At the end of the movie, you see the first time we tried it on the floor. (I love watching Zani think! You can see her figure it out.) But we aren’t to the last step, which is to take it on the road to the kitchen/den. Most people seem to have a part of their house where they hang out 90% of the time, and that’s ours. And it’s where most eyedrops and nose-wiping take place.

Generalization will be a bit more of a challenge than usual. Walking toward Zani with a tissue or eye wipe in my hand in that environment predicts something else. To her it means, “She’s going to wipe some part of my face! Argh!”

But by moving gradually to the new environment, using great treats, keeping my body movements predictable and distinct for the chin target, and generalizing other minor details along the way, I bet I can get a strong, happy chin target anywhere in the house.

Some of you may wonder why I don’t distinguish the “wipe your chin” behavior with a verbal cue. It’s because Zani takes a long time to learn verbals. But she is an expert at reading environmental and body language cues. So I’ll concentrate on keeping my body language clean, and we’ll stick with that.

I do not currently plan to use the chin rest for other husbandry tasks. I may change my mind, but I’d rather keep things separate for now and use it only for drool. We’ll have at least one cue that involves her head that has never been associated with discomfort.

And in the meantime, we’ll continue to climb Matching Law Mountain. We’ll work on rehabbing the bad feelings that have gotten associated with other types of face handling.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

2 thoughts on “Wipe Your Chin! How My Dog Cleans Up Her Own Drool

  1. Eileen – again, you are a genius and an inspiration. Thanks for explaining how the eyedrops became aversive and what you could have done to head off that problem. I am taking that to heart as we’re climbing the same mountain re Rowan’s ear-handling issues.

    Cooperative care is SO much better than wrestling matches. The chin rest is such a simple and brilliant solution to make drool removal a happy event for Zani. Even slightly lopsided, she’s still the dear Zani we’ve fallen in love with through your stories, lessons and demos.

    1. Thank you so much, Chris. You are so kind.

      I may challenge myself track progress as we try to get in the green zone with eyedrops again! Good luck with Rowan!


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