While visiting the human doctor recently for a yearly checkup, a conversation ensued about dogs that led to the topic of giving a dog medication for behavioral problems.

The doctor explained that her dog continually had behavioral issues: He was nervous, scared, and in her words, “not trainable” from one supposed trainer after another. She reported that anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications were tried on the dog as well. Nothing worked and after she had a baby, the dog was relinquished to a new home. (by the way, he’s thriving now, but I digress).

Should dogs take medications for behavioral problems

Behavior Modification

Whenever a dog is exhibiting signs of a behavioral issue, a modification of that undesired behavior is the solution. How an individual chooses to correct the undesired behavior is a hotly contested debate depending on the person and his or her training style.

Positive reinforcement is always the key. Here at Fidose of Reality we advocate for and believe solely in the power of positive reinforcement. There are some behavioral issues that can be controlled when other attempts at correction have failed. Additionally, sometimes medication can enhance the efficacy of the behavioral modification.

The experts at Tufts University agree, stating, “Excessively harsh corrections at the very least may teach your dog that you are not trustworthy and at the very worst could make your dog fearful or even aggressive.

Medication for Behavioral Problems Examples

Dog parents who choose medication for a behavioral issue generally do so to treat fears, phobias, anxiety and/or aggression.

According to webMD, there are different types of medicines usually used to treat behavior problems in dogs, and these include:

  • Benzodiazepines (BZs);
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs);
  • Ttricyclic antidepressants (TCAs);
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs);

This is a table that shows some of the different behavioral problems in dogs and how they have been treated with behavior change training AND medication, courtesy webMD:

Dog behavioral medications webmd

Is Medication Right For Your Dog?

In our case, our Cocker Spaniel experiences extreme distress during the fourth of July holiday. When Dexter first entered our lives, he had zero fear of loud sounds such as fireworks and/or thunderstorms.

One day while out for a walk during the fourth of July time of period, a group of kids tossed a pack of firecrackers our way and ran. Well, this is the exact moment that my dog changed from happy go lucky and undisturbed by sounds into a shaking, seriously fearful dog when the fireworks explode.

We tried a variety of things from calming jackets to holistic remedies with no avail. Once a year, we break out the Xanax, a benzodiazepine, as prescribed by the veterinarian.

It is temporary, it helps take the edge off, and it is very short term, a day or two at the most.

Each dog, like each person, has a different story. Medicating a dog for the sake of convenience and because you do not want to try and help the dog through some positive means of reinforcement with an experienced kind professional is not a good plan.

NEVER give a dog human medication nor guess at a dose, as the dosing of the drug should only be dispensed by your pet’s veterinarian.

Cocker veterinarian

Genomic Causes

Results from a genomic study out of Tufts University in 2016 has identified genetic pathways that exacerbate severity of canine compulsive disorder in Doberman Pinschers, a discovery that could lead to better therapies for obsessive compulsive disorder in people.

“Dogs naturally suffer complex diseases, including mental disorders that are similar to those in humans. Among those is canine compulsive disorder (CCD), the counterpart to human obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD),” says the study’s first and corresponding author Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, DACVA, DACVB, professor in clinical sciences and section head and program director of animal behavior at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

What If Everything Else Fails?

One of our go-to resources for dog health news and information is the Merck Veterinary Manual. In their current online resource, Merck states, “Drug treatment for almost any behavior change is most useful when combined with behavior modification.”

Further, they state that if medication is used without behavior modification or environmental changes (and even when it is used with these techniques in some cases), the unwanted behavior may return once the medication is discontinued. Some problems may require treatment for a year or longer. In most cases medication is used for a period of several months.

Aggression in dogs is also a hot topic. Merck agrees in that a qualified veterinarian should evaluate the risk of future injury by an aggressive dog, identify any triggers for aggression, and formulate a plan of changing the behavior from there. The same goes for high energy dogs: If a dog is bred or has developed to be high energy, there are ways to channel that energy. Give the dog a task, allow him to be a dog and release that energy, etc. Sedating or medicating a dog who is simply being who he or she is, such as a high strung border collie, is just wrong. As their guardians, we owe it to the dog to allow them to be the best possible version of themselves.

Dog in car

Bottom Line

To create a plan of action for a dog dubbed to have behavioral problems, dog parents should:

  1. Determine the source of the behavioral problem. For example, if a dog is left alone for a large part of the day and he is a chewer or a barker in your absence, the problem may be separation anxiety. There are many resources available to treat separation anxiety without medication. Investigate and determine the problem and other viable options before diving right into medication.
  2. Determine what the behavior problem, in general, is. Diagnosing a behavioral problem in a dog is not as easy as 1-2-3. Take video of the questionable behavior when possible and discuss the behavior and any surrounding circumstances with your dog’s veterinarian. Merck has a wonderful resource to help with diagnosing and getting behavioral problem help for dogs.
  3. Develop a plan with your dog’s veterinarian. Do not try to self-diagnose, but rather work in tandem with the vet to find the right course of treatment. If medications are used to modify a dog’s undesired behavior in conjunction with positive reinforcement training, the first medication or first dosage amount may need to change and/or be titrated. Again, each dog, like each human being, is different.

medicine versus mom

Medicine Vs. Mom

In conjunction with former veterinary technician, Rachel Sheppard, Fidose of Reality has teamed up with her on My Kids Have Paws blog, for her perspective on using medication to treat behavioral problems in dogs.

Click on over to read her take on this issue, then weigh in below in the comments.

What are your thoughts on using medication in dogs with behavioral problems?


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