Giving meds to your dog

Giving pills to dogs (and other animals) frequently turns into a battle. Sadly, a lot of “advice” found on the internet calls for aversive methods to “win” it. You probably heard that one person should grab the dog, the other force their mouth open, push the medication in… I’ll spare you the rest.

Unsurprisingly, the situation gets worse and worse and in the end both dog and human hate it. As a result, owners start avoiding giving medication to their dog. And let’s not even talk about what happens to their relationship…

In this blog post I will share tips and tricks that will make giving medication to your dog if not fun, then at least much, much less stressful or all parties involved.

The weird taste serves a function!

First of all, animals don’t spit out pills because they’re stupid, and they’re not doing it to spite you. In nature, weird taste usually signals to the animal that something is wrong. We too spit out milk if it tastes sour! Taste aversion itself is a very interesting phenomenon and it plays an important role in survival.1

Teach them

Good news is that taking medication is a behavior like any other, which means that you can train it. We often treat medical/grooming behaviors as something separate, which needs to be treated differently than “normal” training. But from the dog’s perspective taking meds is just as much of a trick as heeling.

The basics

  • Consult your vet first! Some drugs cannot be mixed with food or no food can be ingested after taking them.
  • Don’t stress! If you do, your dog will notice. Help your dog make positive associations with taking medication. Make a game out of it!
  • Option 1: practice in different situations and locations. You don’t want them to start avoiding a specific place or situation.
  • Option 2: give medication in the same location where you give extra tasty kitchen scraps. This way you’re using the positive associations linked to a location to your advantage.
  • Experiment! There is no universal solution that works for all dogs. Be creative 🙂

Hidden medication

The simplest option is to hide medication.

You need food which you can form and, of course, which your dog likes. It’s also useful if it’s smelly, it will mask the scent of medication to a certain extent. Here are some ideas:

  • wet food
  • cream cheese
  • sour cream
  • minced meat
  • liver pate
  • mashed banana
  • peanut butter

Make several balls of size appropriate for your dog. Out of 10, hide medication in one or two (depending on how much you have to give them). With your vet’s approval (!) you can split large pills.

Give it during training

Your dog does not expect medication when you’re training. Go to your usual training location, steer clear of the area where you usually give meds.

  1. Ask for a couple of “warm up” tricks/behaviors, make sure your dog focuses on training. First, reward with pure food.
  2. After the next trick reward with the ball with the pill hidden inside, then follow-up with a pure ball.
  3. Keep training afterwards for another minute. Reward with pure food.

Speed feeding

If your dog tends to eat quickly and doesn’t really examine their food – especially when you’re training – you often don’t even hate to hide the food.

  • Prepare the medication and 5-10 treats.
  • Feed 2-3 treats, then the pill, then 2-3 treats etc.

If you have more dogs: make them compete

Group setting tends to increase the value of food – whatever the other dog has must be better! There isn’t much time to scrutinize the treats in a situation like that 😉 Just make sure to administer medication to the right dog!

What if my dog already hates meds?

Don’t worry, you can train any behavior from scratch.

First, figure out what triggers “bad reactions” from your dog:

  • the location
  • the pill itself
  • the sight or sound of the package
  • specific time of day

Then get creative: set up an environment as different from the “poisoned” one as possible. Hide meds thoroughly and don’t make a fuss out of it, don’t alert your dog to what’s happening!

Oh no, my dog has bitten down on the pill!

It might happen that instead of swallowing it whole, your dog chews on the pill and you can very clearly see that they are not happy once they realize what they’re eating. In that situation you must be fast:

  • Don’t leave them to ponder this situation!
  • Praise and feed more food. 2.
  • Ask for a favorite trick or play together. Don’t let them dwell on this unpleasant surprise. Make it a fraction of your interaction.

When nothing works

Some people don’t like “tricking” their dogs and some dogs are always very careful with what they take into their mouths and the methods above won’t work. In that case you can teach the behavior of swallowing (pills). If you’re interested, contact me!

teaching pill swallowing in itself: the dog learns the cue “swallow”.

teaching liquid medication: a pig is learning to voluntarily take deworming medication

The name game

Have you ever heard of the name game? You can use this game to teach your dogs:

  • that the treat comes after their name,
  • and that everyone will get their share,
  • so they don’t have to be impatient.

It also comes in handy when you have to wait around with a couple of dogs or if you want to distract them from something.

What does it look like?

Two or more dogs are around you:

  • four feet on the floor
  • they look at you or at the food

There should be no barking or whining. When dogs vocalize it usually means that the exercise is too hard and you need to modify it.

The order

  1. Say the dog’s name.
  2. Turn your body towards the dog and look at that dog.
  3. Give him/her the treat.
  4. If necessary use your body so that the dog standing next to the eating dog can’t disturb him/her

Repeat this process with each dog, then start from the top. Always change the order in which you call their names and don’t forget the release cue at the end!

Other tips

  • If one dog is especially impatient, start with him/her and treat them more throughout the game.
  • You can work with low value food. In group (“competitive”) situations food tends to gain more value and we don’t want to increase arousal.
  • In the beginning play fast. Once the dogs are familiar with the process you can start dragging out the time between each name.
  • If one dog is prone to stealing food or tries to chase other dogs away from the source of food, it’s worth working with a helper. At first this dog is treated by the other person (as a part of the game though) and you gradually decrease the distance, until he/she can be integrated into the group.

You can also play this game with one dog

Many dogs get frustrated around food (bark, lick the hand, mouth, whine) even when they’re alone. There are many possible causes for these behaviors, such as:

  • it’s unpredictable to the dog where and when treats are available
  • our use of event markers (clicker, verbal marker like “yes”) is inconsistent
  • our body language is confusing
  • we have not reinforced the behavior of “waiting calmly”
  • we take away the treats a lot (negative punishment)
  • the breeder fed all the puppies from one plate and the puppies learned to associate food with stress and frustration

Obviously you can’t solve this kind of a problem with one exercise, but the name game can be quite helpful here.

Meet Mr. X

Your dog is close to you, four feet on the ground, pays attention to you. Now there are only two players – your dog and Mr. X:

  1. Say your dog’s name, turn towards them and look at them, deliver the treat.
  2. Say “Mr. X.” (or anything else you like!), turn away from your dog and put a treat in a bowl or into your other hand.

At first it should frequently your dog’s turn and Mr. X gets treated only from time to time. Once your dog understands the game, you can increase the amount of treats given to Mr. X and start dragging out the time between each name.

Don’t forget to give the release cue at the end of the session and yes, you can give your dog all of Mr. X’s treats 🙂

thank you

To the Donau Dogs trainer Philip Engelman (first video). Check out their website for more dog training tips.

What is science based training?

Calling your training “science based” is all the rage right now – I also advertise my services with that label. But even though many dog trainers do have a university degree, very few of us work as scientists as well and the training definitely does not take place in laboratory conditions. But then what do we mean when we say that our training is science based?

Science is the “systematic approach for seeking and organising knowledge about the natural world.” (Cooper, Heron and Heward. 2007)

In one of his seminars, Chirag Patel talks about six defining principles of science:

  • determinism
  • empiricism
  • experimentation
  • replication
  • parsimony
  • philosophic doubt

Let’s have a look at what these principles mean and how I apply them in my own training!

I strive for fear free training and the methods I use are rooted in science. The dog does not listen to us because we have “calm energy” or we are “the pack leaders”, but because we help them learn desirable behaviors using appropriate criteria and consequences.

Determinism

The universe is a lawful place. In terms of dog training that means that every behavior has a function. Recognizing the root cause of a behavior as well as its function is our most important task before we try to come up with a training plan.

Let’s imagine a client whose dog “hates guests”. Apart from basic information (like age, sex, history, daily routine and health condition), we need to learn more about the problem behavior:

  • When did it start and how did it develop?
  • Does the intensity change? Depending on what? (for example gender of the visitors could be relevant)
  • Have the owners tried to intervene? What methods did they use and what was the result?
  • How long does the problem situation usually last?

Empiricism

Obviously it’s impossible to be 100% objective. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we describe the problem in as objective terms as possible – describe, don’t label.

For example saying that the dog is “rude” or “hates guests” is not really useful. Let’s try to replace these labels with descriptions:

  • The dog starts pacing and panting when they notice that we’re preparing for a visit.
  • When the doorbell rings, the dog starts barking (short, high-pichted noises).
  • When the guests enter, the dog barks louder, jumps at the guests, nips at their clothes.

Experimentation

In order to achieve an effective behavior change, first we must learn what factors influence this behavior.

Let’s stay with our example. Does the behavior around guests change depending on:

  • The number of guests?
  • Their gender and/or age?
  • Their behavior around the dog? (If they talk to the talk or move slowly/fast)
  • Our reactions? (Do we correct the dog, try to distract them, separate them in a different room).
  • The location of the first encounter? (For example in the yard instead of the flat).
  • What happened with the dog that day?

Parsimony

Always start with the simplest logical explanation first. Only once that explanation is proven false can we move on to more complex causes.

In our example we established that the problem is with the first encounter – later on the dog calms down. The dog gets very excited when the guests arrive, and the more they interact with the dog, the more the dog jumps and nips. The dog seems healthy (both physically and psychologically), there are no other problem behaviors. The owners have never practices this situation with their dog.

Under these circumstances the simplest explanation is that the dog does not know how to behave, doesn’t know what is expected. Here our training goals would be to teach the dog:

  • that they direct their attention to something else, for example go fetch a toy and chew on it to calm down;
  • that they will be rewarded for keeping all four paws on the ground; and
  • that they can go to their station when the guests arrive.

The owners must also explain to the guests how they should behave! For example they shouldn’t try petting the dog, they should try to remain calm – that will help the dog stay calm as well.

Replication

A behavior modification plan can only be successful if all the elements are replicable. That means that everyone who might be handling the dog in the problem situation must be able to do the exercises. The training plan must be tailored to the owner’s needs too, not just to the dog’s needs.

Let’s say that the clients with their guest problem are a young couple. The training exercises must be designed and practices with both of them, so that each of them can handle the situation later.

If we were working on something else, for example an issue outdoors and the dog was walked by several members of the family, each of them would have to learn how to act in the problem situation.

It is practically impossible to achieve a lasting behavior change without consistency.

Philosophic doubt

Strictly speaking philosophic doubt means that we should approach scientific facts with “healthy scepticism” because science is constantly evolving and so is our understanding of the world.

For me as a dog trainer the philosophic doubt has to direct consequences:

  • I must continuously educate myself. Personally, I prefer to learn from veterinary behaviorists and ABA practitioners, in order to keep up with both the theoretical and practical aspects of dog training.
  • Each training plan has to be reviewed on a regular basis:
    • Has the problem behavior improved? (For example: does the dog bark less? Can they calm down faster? Under what conditions do they still jump up?)
    • Can the owner do the exercises?
    • Can we increase criteria?
    • Are the rewards we chose appropriate?
    • How can we improve the current plan?

training process

Help, my dog pulls on the leash!

Intro

In this series we have written time and time again that equipment cannot replace training and you should not use anything that causes them discomfort and pain to make dogs stop pulling (or barking, or jumping…). At the same time, many dogs are very strong and they pose danger:

    • to their owners (sprained wrists, leash burns, injuries from falls…),
    • to themselves (running blindly under cars), and
    • to other dogs (especially if they get loose).

In this post you will learn how to manage the situation while you train them to stop pulling (preferably with a competent professional).

Continue reading “Help, my dog pulls on the leash!”

What is aversive equipment?

DISCLAIMER

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

This post contains no euphemisms. We think that aversive training tools should not be used1. Don’t feel attacked or threatened if you realize that you own something that is aversive. You’re trying to provide the best life possible for your dog, you’re willing to learn and improve and this is all that matters. At the end of the day, all we can do is try to do better next day.

What is aversive equipment?

A stimulus is aversive when it is something that the dog will work to avoid. We define equipment as aversive when it causes discomfort or pain to the dog by design 2, in order to make them behave the way we want.

Continue reading “What is aversive equipment?”