medicine for dogs

Using Medication for Behavior Modification in Dogs: 7 Things You Should Know

Using behavioral medications can make a significant difference in the management of severe behavior problems.  What I like best is that these medicines can help to begin the modification process for cases that would otherwise be very complicated.

I recently attended the Science of Animal Behavior Conference hosted by K9 Turbo Training and Detroit Dog Rescue in Detroit, Michigan. It was the first time in this area where I am proudly from, that several of the country’s top veterinary behaviorists were featured together. 

The speakers included Dr. Theresa DePorter, DVM, MRCVS, DECAWBM, DACVB from Oakland Veterinary Referral Services (OVRS) and Dr. Marie Hopfensperger DVM, DACVB from Michigan State University. Also, Dr. Ashley Elzerman, DVM also from OVRS and Dr. Erica Hawker, DVM from Union Lake Veterinary Hospital.  

This outstanding two-day conference brought together 12 of the best Animal Behavior professionals to focus on evidence-based behavior science to better understand, treat and work with animals in our local community. There was a wide variety of behavioral topics with the most current information science has to offer including: Behavioral medicines – how to know when they are needed and how to prescribe them for best results.  Also, science-based behavior medicine and interpreting canine body language. 

For decades there has been a significant amount of scientific data collected supporting behavior medications for a variety of species including humans and dogs. 

I would like to discuss that data!

Over the course of my career I have personally experienced the positive impact that medicines have for families in need. As long as they are coupled with gentle behavior modification techniques, safe and healthy exercise, and ongoing communication between the family, the chosen force-free trainer and their trusted veterinarian, medicines can be an excellent way to allow your dog to learn more easily in high-stress situations. 

This is my list of 6 things you should know about behavior medicines from my own personal experience and a few extras I recently learned from some pretty phenomenal experts that I thought I would share!

  1. Not all medicines are created equal, but they do indeed exist
    As a matter of fact, many of the same medicines used to treat anxiety for people are used for dogs. Medications can be used for a variety of different behavioral conditions dogs have varying from compulsive disorders such as tail chasing and fabric suckling to noise phobias, aggression, fear, and anxiety. 

Click here for a full rundown on different medications and their uses.

  1. You need your veterinarian to prescribe any medicines
    Ideally, it’s best to work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (DACVB) or an experienced veterinarian with a special interest in behavioral disorders. These professionals who are specialized can not only rule out prior medical conditions prior to diagnosing but they can help to assess the advantages and disadvantages of each medication for the individual patient. 
  2. Medicines are backed by scientific research
    There is decades of research supporting the changes that can be made from medication. These medications work by basically changing how the brain transfers information, which affects the products made by your dog’s brain cells. I’m sure a neuroscientist would squirm at my explanation – but that’s the long and short of it!
  3. Medicines are NOT for every dog
    The majority of my clients are able to work with me and no medicine is needed. 

With a nice dose of counter conditioning, a splash of desensitizing and plenty of ongoing maintenance that includes close tracking of behavior, exercise and individualized plans for success, we simply don’t need any brain-altering medicines. 

That is not to say that I don’t have cases that the welfare of the animal is at stake and that there are indeed those times that their safety and comfort will sometimes require a “cocktail” of sorts. Medications should be considered as part of a behavior program only when a qualified veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist determines that the condition of your dog is not falling within normal parameters and/or is not responding to appropriate behavior modification efforts with your force-free experienced dog trainer or behaviorist. Preferably certified with the Certified Council for Pet Trainers, (CCPDT).

When might a veterinarian recommend behavior medication?

  • When a dog is experiencing levels of fear, arousal or anxiety to the point that it’s affecting their quality of life or impairing their ability to learn.
  • When the dog is experiencing generalized levels of anxiety and they are moderately anxious or worried in a variety of different situations.
  • When a dog has physiological effects to stimuli or specific events in life are so intense, learning without medicine is nearly impossible.
  • The dog may become quickly or easily frustrated, agitated or over-aroused. These dogs are usually slow to recover after becoming aroused. 
  1. Medicines can provide relief from mental anguish and suffering
    For dogs who experience severe or extreme anxiety, fear, phobias, and panic, medicines can indeed improve their quality of life and offer relief for the family as well. Medicines can provide relief from mental anguish and suffering.  If a dog is regularly reacting to fear-inducing situations or stimuli with any of the behaviors listed below this is a cause for concern:
  • Drooling
  • Urinating
  • Defecating
  • Attempting to run away
  • Inflicting harm to themselves or others

If your dog reacts like this when fearful, anxious, or agitated It’s our responsibility as pet parents and professionals to act quickly for the welfare of our dogs and their health and safety and to provide relief as quickly as possible. Appropriate medications can sometimes be what’s needed as a necessary first step. Dr. Jen has a great explanation and breakdown of medicines here

Check out the case studies included in this article, also explaining the common misunderstandings of behavioral medication. So many people are under the impression that medications will make their dog dopey, sleepy and unresponsive. Some people may feel that drugs are unhealthy, but this just is not the case. Medication should only be prescribed after a thorough exam from your veterinarian, sometimes including a blood workup and urine analysis. Learn more here:

  1. Medicines can make learning easier
    Medications can help regulate the dog’s physiological state so that learning can take place. Some dogs are in such a state of arousal or agitation this prevents them from being able to learn new behaviors and responses altogether.
  2. Medicines can work!
    How do you know if the medications are working? You should begin to see changes in behavior along with the plan you and your force-free trainer have created. 

Improvements will include a dog who is:

  • Comfortable more often
  • Overall much happier
  • Able to go with you to places with more confidence
  • Able to withstand environmental changes
  • Able to react to stimuli and environmental changes and reactions will be less frequent and intense. Recovery time will decrease as well.

    Medication is not one size fits all. It’s going to take time for your veterinarian, your trainer (the therapist!)  and your family to track what you see so you can continue to communicate with your veterinarian and make appropriate adjustments to the medicines until all of you find the right fit.

You will know when you’ve found the right fit for your pet. It’s a pretty obvious and relieving feeling when the welfare and happiness of your pet has changed for the better. I’ve seen the results with my own eyes and felt it in my heart, time and time again for many families. 

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