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Medicating dogs with Behaviour problems

Given that the dog world is a highly political place where there seems to be a need for an “us and them”, a need to name and shame trainers and behaviourists that choose different methods and techniques than you, this post has to come with some caveats.

* I would first like to state that I am NOT A VETERINARIAN. So this is solely my opinion based on my experience as a dog trainer, behaviourist and an adult.

** Next, I don’t care if you’re a force free trainer, balanced trainer, energy healer, Cesar Millan fan or other, if what you are doing is REALLY helping dogs, all power to you.

*** This article is here to inspire reasonable thought amongst those that read it, perhaps not even share my views but perhaps rest happy that what you are doing, is still ok.


Around 15 or so years ago, it started to become a concern that children were being given medications such as Ritalin to help, cure, sooth children and their parents when the child was displaying undesirable (emotional at times) behaviours.

Medicating dogsFor some time it seemed that the magic cure had been found for all children that did not seem to “fit in” to the measurement that people would call “normal“.

After a few years, the percentage of children that were taking these medications was reaching an alarming level, and investigations were carried out and it was felt that many of the children that had been prescribed these medications did not in fact need them.

Some were displaying anything from minor to severe side effects and indeed were behaving worse on the medication than before the medication, but most had the worst outcome, no improvement.

Many Doctors were “tweaking dosages” and some were adding second and third tier medications to support the first and second tiers.

If you now speak to a lot of those parents who back then tried the medications on their children, many will say it was the wrong choice and once off the medication, their child was much better.

This information is readily available and well known around the world, look it up for yourself and you will see what I am talking about.

Keep in mind that there ARE children who will take these medications and ARE better and DO need it, just not at the levels that WERE taking it.

Now this is where we come to Medicating dogs…

At least 15 years ago, I started seeing dogs come to me that had been prescribed behavioural medicines often designed for people, such as Chlomicalm, Prozac, Lovan, Fluoxetine, Clonidine etc.

I would see maybe one dog per year and we worked through the behaviour problems as per normal and the owners decided with their vet andMedicating dogs sometimes without that medication was a good idea, wasn’t a good idea and or what the dose rates should be. I had no real issue with it although at times I suspected that the medication was not necessary.

Shoot forward to 2017 today, I am seeing a very high percentage of dogs (some weeks 30%!) on medications, sometimes three and four tiers of medications and sometimes at very high dose rates.

Now let’s stop there for a moment, catch our emotions and let’s look at one very important fact.

The dogs are still coming to see me, they STILL have the problems EVEN when they are on the medications, sometimes 2 and 3 tiers of medications and huge dosages.

So is Medicating dogs working?

Let me be totally honest with you and let me share what “I think” at this point in my life.

  • Medicating dogs ISΒ helpful in some cases.
  • SOME dogs will do better when taking these medications.
  • MOST dogs do not need these medications.
  • Medication is NOT a replacement for education, training, behaviour modification and management.
  • Medication for behaviour problems is NOT a cure, it is to assist in behaviour modification.
  • All medications have SIDE EFFECTS, some short term, some long term. If you are using the medication to assist in Behaviour Modification the long terms side effects should not be a problem. If your using the medication as a cure, your dog might suffer the side effects that come with long term use.

My philosophy on working with behaviour problems in dogs.

I again will preface this with another caveat, remember in the dog world people can get a bit tense when your opinion differs from theirs!

It won’t take you much research to see that I have been helping people with their dogs for a very long time, and that I have helped people achieve some fantastic outcomes with their dogs.

Does that make me an expert? specialist, better than others? NO, I have over 30 years of real experience working with dogs and I am happy with the outcomes I help people and dogs achieve.

I don’t know what others do, I don’t really care either, I am not interested in “who’s way is better”, or naming and shaming others that do it differently than me, my focus is wholly on my clients and their dogs.

So if you don’t agree with what I say, don’t like it, do it differently, that’s perfectly OK in my book!


Now back to how I do things as I feel this is a useful process when working with dogs.

I start by letting the dog owners speak, they know their dog, they love their dog and they spend more time with their dog than anyone, so their experience is VERY valuable here.

We ask them to fill out an extensive form before they come to see me so I can familiarise myself with their dog and the problems.

When they are here I am often observing the dogs behaviour, his or her interaction with me, the owner/s, the environment etc.

I get to hear all the things the dog does that he or she shouldn’t and I very often ask this pretty important question “what should he/she do?

You know, I just don’t find many people that can give me a reasonable answer. They often say “not that“. But you can’t strengthen a dog NOT doing something, you can suppress the dog doing it, with medication, with intimidation, with pressure etc.

You can distract the dog from displaying the behaviour with rewards, sounds and pressure too, but once the dog stops doing the thing you don’t want him or her to do, what should they do now?

Connections!

Dogs make connections with things, for example many people pick up a leash and their dog becomes excited. This is called a concomitant cue, associative cue or a connection if you like.

Medicating dogs

When dogs display a behaviour problem such as dog to dog aggression, a connection has formed that is not ideal. This when rehearsed becomes a cyclic maladaptive pattern in which the miss formed connection is rehearsed and has become cyclic, meaning it goes around and around until it is interrupted.

So, if your dog see’s another dog and the connection he or she is formed is not the one you think is ideal, do you think medication will change that connection alone?

I believe that teaching a dog the correct behaviour is highly important when it comes to resolving “connection problems”.

Here is a simple question that I may ask a client.

ME : Can your dog maintain the sit position when he or she sees another dog?

CLIENT: No, because my dog is too anxious, fearful, over excited, has no impulse control or whatever the problem may be.

ME: So, how about we teach that?

Teaching a dog how to sit when a dog is present will and should include a number of steps depending on your dog’s level of training, mental state and connections.

  • The dog should be taught in a clean environment, i.e. without other dogs around.
  • The dog should find that sitting is rewarding and the dog should want to sit.
  • The dog should know that it must sit, even if a situation arises that he or she may not want to sit.
  • The dog should be taught how long you want him or her to sit.
  • The dog should be exposed to distraction from low levels through to a level that exceeds the level another dog would provide.

If you taught your dog in the above manner, with the above criteria, you could then provide sessions in which your dog is exposed to other dogs and a new connection can be made through desensitisation and counter conditioning.

Does it work? Of course it does! Watch our videos, this is how we do it! (Our YouTube)

Do I have to use: –

  • Food
  • Corrections
  • Clickers
  • Rewards
  • Medication
  • Calm energy
  • and the rest?

No, the point is that you can use any or all of the above or none of the above if you use the above system or another system that works.

It is NOT ABOUT the tool, the medication, the reward or any of those things, it is about getting results, isn’t it?

Teaching a sit and providing controlled exposure to other dogs is not going to be enough to rehabilitate a dog, this is just an example but you get my meaning.

Suppressing the dogs behaviour with pain and intimidation has long been frowned upon, so I of course don’t condone suppressing the dogs behaviour with medication either.

I am writing this post because I want my clients or future clients or dog owners to make somewhat educated choices when it comes to their dogs welfare, that’s right WELFARE, because this is a welfare issue.

People these days live in a very close relationship with their dogs, dogs live indoors more than they ever did, they are a bigger part of our emotions now than they ever were, this means that we are susceptible to following emotional advice if we even think it could help our beloved dogs.

Here is a very valuable piece of advice I learned over 30 years ago when it comes to training dogs (and many other things).

Most emotive advice has very little connection with facts.

In reality, I wish when a dog come to see me that I could give the dog a pill, or a pill every day and the dog was simply better, how good would that be!

This just isn’t the case, it never will be, in fact it falls into the “too good to be true” category doesn’t it?

I think the way that I rehabilitate dogs is very successful, and clients (that have put in the work) do to.

But, it has one downfall (that I have never managed to overcome).

IT – TAKES – WORK – AND – WORK – TAKES – TIME!

There is no magic tool, technique, pill or luck involved. I have spent a lot of time on research and development so that I can make my programs more efficient so that the amount of time is something I have been able to reduce considerably.

I empower owners, educate them and teach them how to teach, train and modify their dogs behaviour so that they know the best ways to help their dogs.

If I had to take my dog somewhere because of a behaviour problem and as soon as I got there the person said:

  • Here is a tool that will fix your dog
  • Here is a pill that will fix your dog
  • Here is a magic trick that will fix your dog
  • Your dog can’t be fixed

I would walk away.

  • I agree 100% that your dog may need to learn some functional skills so it knows what to do in place of the undesirable behaviour.
  • I agree that medication MAY be needed with SOME dogs in order to teach and utilise these skills
  • I agree that a tool such as a leash, a collar, food, toys, a muzzle etc may help you move forward in teaching these things.
  • I agree that some breeds are challenging and take longer or more work to turn around.

The cure is not in what you use but in how you use it and when and where you apply it.

  • I am concerned when I hear people tell me that they have a dog that needs my help, the dog is 4 years old and has been on behavioural medicine since it was 14 weeks old.
  • I am concerned when I hear people tell me that they have a dog that was displaying behaviour problems that the advice they were given is to administer three types of medication daily as a cure.
  • I am concerned when people who have problems with their dog are told OVER THE PHONE by someone who has not ever met their dog that euthanasia is the only option.
  • I am concerned when someone is told that “it is a breed thing and they are all like that“.

Over medicating is happening and it is just as bad as over feeding, over correcting, over rewarding and over anything.

There are many people that are against using aversive tools as they feel that they can cause more problems than they cure, perhaps that is true but isn’t that the case with everything?

Using rewards only may fail to provide results with some dogs, medications may cause side effects, correcting a dog could cause stress…

So the answer is not the method, tool or political stance you have but your common sense developed STRATEGY that is designed to suit the individual dog and the individual goal.

Here is the problem with that, common sense is not as common as it should be and those that lack it often try and make you believe success comes from methods, tools etc. This missdirection is to take you away from the fact that they probably cannot really help you or your dog.

When I say strategy (program), I mean a number of strategic moves (tools, rewards, managements, support systems, lessons) that help us move beyond the obstacle (behaviour problem).

If you have your dog on medication this post is NOT about telling you that you shouldn’t, it may suggest to you that it may be a good idea to take stock of your dogs progress and see if it is on track.

Please do not abruptly alter your dogs medication intake or dosage rate without consulting your vet. This can produce very dangerous side effects.

Medicating Dogs
Pet Arc Calm can help

Many vets are advising you use medications as their background and experience is medical, not psychological and whilst they are usually well meaning, it can be helpful to leave the behavioural advice to behaviourists who work in this field daily.

There are many altyernatives before taking the leap into medications which have some risky side effects, addiction and withdrawl problems etc, one we use is a supplement that only really has naturally forming amino acids (L Tryptophan) and B group vitamins that help combat anxiety and also help stimulate the Pituitary Gland to produce more serotonin. Its non harmful and non addictive, quite harmless really.

 

If your dog is on medication and it is working, great! I am about getting results and I am more invested in the outcome rather than how you get there but if your thinking that medication may be of help for your dog, I feel that this is something to consider after professional diagnosis and a behaviour modification plan has been introduced by someone other than a person who primarily uses medication in their rehab.

As always, we welcome your comments so tell us what you think below!

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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16 comments

  1. Such a great read, Steve. If you don’t mind, I would like to share this on my own FB feed.

    I am coming across more and more people who are medicating their dogs, including a few in the sports performance world, as a quick fix for behaviours that have been allowed to develop (which ties in with your article on “Are Dogs With Behaviour Problems Abused”) or to tone down an over-aroused dog in the agility ring so it’s more likely to “keep its head”, perform its job and achieve a clear round.

    No judgements from me here … just sadness that a lack of education or unwillingness to put in the hard yards required results in dogs being unnecessarily medicated and possibly subjected to some nasty side effects.

    I will admit though that I entertained the idea of Prozac when Bo was a young yahoo! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ Just kidding ….. it was Gin … I drank a lot of Gin! πŸ™‚

  2. I love seeing the videos of the dogs you work with and agree with you on the topic of medication. Wish you had an online course as it is a bit far to come to Australia from Denmark ?

  3. Great read ..I love reading and learning from you…I so wish more dog owners would take responsibility and at least do some basic training.
    Keep up the great work..

  4. Steve, just love your articles , they are a pleasure to read and so understanding of dogs …and humans . Couldn’t agree with you more on the ‘caveats’……oh so true , each and every one of them !

  5. Thanks, interesting read. Tells me I need to work more with my Danes! My anxious 1 more as I don’t think he needs medication just more support/training on how to be when out and about. He’s not reactive to other dogs. Have 2 others who are and will work at strengthening their sits etc as above. Merlin is quite timid away from home, sometimes fearful but never reacted. Will hide behind us even at vets. Vet has suggested medication after some incidents st home. We have just being more vigilant about his triggers etc.

  6. Thank you so much for this article it was brilliant, as the owner of a wolfhound cross rescue with a whole lot of issues, I was advised he could never be trained without Prozac my heart said no, but the behaviourist said yes. After 3 days on Prozac the dog himself was gone I was left with an emotionless animal who would not leave my bedroom, I threw them in the bin. After 2 days he was back and we have worked very hard to get where we are today, no trainer mentioned that the problem was me, this dog scared me because he was so unpredictable and he was feeling this in me. A new trainer 2 hours work in rehabilitating me , showing me how to hold a lead correctly and the implementation of a check chain and it’s correct use, and constant praise of the animal has seen both him and I make fantastic progress. I think he is ready for his Australian road trip. I have ordered some petarc calm for his benefit also. I feel blessed to have such caring people in my life through the dog obedience club in Townsville that are constantly sharing these types of articles with me to help Ned and I on our journey

  7. Janette Cussons

    Brilliant article Steve, I meet more & more people who’s dogs are highly medicated & quite often they’ve not even been advised of other options, inclusive if training, let alone the side effects of what’s prescribed.

  8. I think your doing a brilliant job and would take your training methods over medication any day, we went down the road after being given recommendations from a dog behaviourist to medicate and all we saw was a drugged up dog who continued to be anxious just drugged, thank goodness we chose to wean him off that avenue . Keep up your great work ?

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