Medication in behavior work

Even though the stigma surrounding psychotropic meds for humans has decreased in the past decades, many dog owners are still afraid of pharmacotherapy. They worry that medication will change their dog’s personality, turn their companion into a “zombie”. Many still believe that medication is a last result, but actually in some cases behavior modification can be quicker and more effective if it is paired with a medical intervention.

When should we consider using medication?

It makes sense to consider including drugs when the dog:

  • experiences a lot of fear, anxiety, and stress on a daily basis,
  • recovers very slowly after stressful events (days/weeks instead of minutes/hours),
  • does not respond to training: the condition either does not improve or even if one “problem” gets solved, another one pops up in its stead (for example the dog stops showing stereotypic behaviors but starts reacting aggressively to something).

What kinds of medication are out there?

There are two main medication groups:

  • “Maintenance” medication which works long-term. It usually takes several weeks before its effect can be observed. It is used when the triggers are frequent and unpredictable (for example the dog is terrified of traffic and the owners live in the city center).
  • “Situational” medication which starts working within a couple of hours. It is used when the triggers are rather rare and predictable (for example vet visits, fireworks).

What is the goal of pharmacotherapy?

Medication is used so that the dog:

  • is calmer and more balanced – the reactions to triggers are less intense and/or less frequent; everyday management is easier and more effective;
  • learns better, responds faster to behavior modification protocols;
  • feels better, because the underlying neurochemical imbalance is adressed;
  • recovers faster after stressful events.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will the medication “cure” behavior problems?

NO, it won’t. Medication is practically always applied together with behavior modification protocols. It’s very rare that medication itself is enough.

Will the dog have to take medication for the rest of their life?

Just like humans this is an individual matter. Some stay on medication long-term, some can discontinue meds after a while. The start and discontinuation of pharmacotherapy must always be supervised by a veterinarian!

Why is the dosage so high?

Compared to human dosages it often seems like dogs are getting an extremely high dose of medication, but their metabolism is just much faster than ours – the active substance leaves their system much faster. Therefore, they need a higher dosage compared to the human one.

ATTENTION

  • Medication can only be prescribed by a veterinarian!
  • Pharmacotherapy requires regular check-ups!
  • Since animals can’t tell us how they are doing, finding and maintaining appropriate medication regimen can be tricky. The owner must watch their dog’s behavior closely!

Gomba is a charming dog with a lot of issues. Her owners first reached out to me because she was showing some concerning behaviors around guests. Unfortunately, over the following weeks we discovered that this was the least of her problems.

Gomba’s situation is an example of a perfect storm. She:

  • came from an impoverished environment
  • probably did not come in contact with people during the socialization period
  • might have a genetic predisposition (her mother was chained because she bit someone)
  • faced a host of medical issues (prolonged ear infection as a puppy, pseudopregnancy followed by an early spaying, allergies…)
  • fell victim to aversive training (alpha roll, flooding, corrections)

Her owners are some of the most dedicated people I know but it soon became clear that the issue was not the type or quantity of training we were doing.

We encountered all the signs that medication is necessary that I mentioned above:

  • Progress was slow and often as soon as we improved one problem, another one popped up (for example loose leash walking improved but she started barking as cyclists).
  • It was impossible to keep Gomba under threshold because we couldn’t avoid the two things that scared her the most: the staircase of the house and the buses on the nearby road (and people…).
  • A single incident was enough to set us back by weeks.

Eventually Gomba’s veterinarians prescribed her medication and her owners could relax a little:

  • The protocols we’ve been trying became easier to apply and more effective.
  • She can handle minor triggers much better.
  • When she does react, her reactions are less intense.
  • It’s easier to get her to disengage.
  • She can process stressful incidents without regressing.

ATTENTION! The medication is not a magic wand and it did not solve any of her problems. But it has allowed Gomba and her family to get out of crisis mode and start working on them.

 

Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2

(Disclaimer: It is not my goal to diminish the problem. Aggressive behaviors are not acceptable in our society and showing them can have serious consequences for the dog and their owner, as well as for the victim. Living with an aggressive dog can also cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the owner. It might be a good idea to see a therapist yourself!)

“Aggression” is one of the most frequent reasons for seeking out professional help.  Basically, any strong reaction (barking, lunging, snapping) in any context can get labeled as “aggression” and people usually assume bad intent behind it. While some dogs certainly aim to bite, many – if not most – show aggressive behaviors simply in order to get more space. When dealing with any kind of problems, it is important to separate our narrative from the facts.

This post examines what aggression is and how it can be analyzed. Catch up on what aggression isn’t in part one.

two dogs snarling at each other over a toy Continue reading “Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2”

3 steps to make your training more efficient and more fun

I think that once you get into training, it suddenly seems so simple! But sooner or later everyone gets stuck and discovers that given the right skills it is easy, but it is not simple… Follow these three steps to make training more fun and effective for you and for you learner.

Continue reading “3 steps to make your training more efficient and more fun”

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?”