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

  1. Fun fact: while normally the positive/negative consequence has to occur very soon after a behavior in order to influence it, this is not true in case of taste aversion. One study has shown that rats will develop an aversion to a food even if the negative effects occurred 6h after they ate it! (Coombes et al. 1980).
  2. This is a general rule in medical training: always follow unpleasant procedures with super high value reinforcement.