Pill Popping

I am a member of an online group devoted to discussing fearful behavior in dogs and offering support and advice to owners. After reading several messages about a particular dog it sounded as though it would benefit from the use of a behavioral medication. A reply to my suggestion was posted, lamenting the ‘automatic’ response people have about choosing to pop pills for their fearful dogs.

I decided not to be offended by the assertion that my suggestion to someone, or to use medications with my own dog, was based on an impulse to automatically choose ‘pill popping’ over an alternative. But I was compelled to respond.

There are dogs for whom limiting and controlling their environment may be the kindest thing. I was not ready to make that choice for my dog without at least trying as many techniques and tools available to me, including behavioral medications.

drugsAs I sit at my desk to my left is a bottle of DAP spray. To my right, a 6” ace bandage to use as an anxiety wrap along with a partial burned moxa stick (like charcoal) which the acupuncturist recommended I use to heat up Sunny’s heart and kidney regions (that didn’t go over big with him as you might imagine). I’ve used up the Chinese herb mixture I purchased to help his heart energy in between acupuncture session. Also used up is the Composure liquid sold to me by my vet. In the cupboard in the kitchen you’ll find a jar of powdered herbs for calming, Rescue Remedy is in the downstairs bathroom. Upstairs in the bedroom is the melatonin which was the first supplement I tried with Sunny, and lavender oil is by the bed, Sunny never did seem to like it but I take a few whiffs every night to help me fall asleep.

On the bookshelves in my office you’ll find dozens of books about dog training, Ttouch, herbs, raw food diets, dog breeds & behavior. An overflowing file folder on my desk has magazines, articles and handouts about training, medications and behavior. Next to my bed are dozens of research papers, many of which were very interesting but most bored or frustrated me to tears (actually quite good as sleeping aids). One, written by a trainer from the U.K., who shuns the use of medications, documents how he was able to change the fearful response of dogs that were afraid of gunshots and another of hot air balloons, without the use of drugs. Oh that my dog was just afraid of hot air balloons and gunshots.

I believe that the kaleidoscope of emotions dogs experience goes beyond just varying shades of fear, though when we speak of our scared dogs we rarely say more than that. When I looked at my dog, who spent day after day in the corner of our living room I saw not only fear, I saw what I would describe as depression and I’ll take the risk and say, even sadness. It was because of this that I initially allowed my dog to be my ‘wild boy’ spending his days off leash outside, usually perched on the hillside behind the house, coming down to try to steal frisbees or tennis balls from my other dog. He still was wary and afraid of me, but he was active and engaged and the hours it took me to get him back inside many nights apparently seemed worth it to me.

I did not choose to use medications with my dog because I don’t think that all the alternatives available to us are worthless. Indeed I think that they are all probably helpful in some way and should be used with the same care and oversight that one uses drugs. I don’t stick needles in my dog on my own and I don’t experiment with herbs because I believe that if they are powerful enough to help my dog they may also be potent enough to cause problems. I did choose to use medications in part because they are easy and relatively inexpensive. Fault me for that if you like but I have other dogs and other things to do with the hours in my day, and the dollars in my bank account. And since I was never sure if I was doing Ttouch correctly or if I had actually located Sunny’s heart & kidney regions, I didn’t want to waste time, time which as we all know, is all too limited in the lifetime of our dogs.

Medication alone is not enough to help a fearful dog in the long term (though from my dog’s perspective I’d guess that the short term is more important anyway) so along with counter conditioning and desensitization on a daily basis I attend classes with my dog. I don’t do it because I ever plan on competing in obedience or agility, I do it because training classes are one of the few places where I can control the environment. There are other dogs which make Sunny more comfortable and the people in class usually follow my instructions not to talk to or look at my dog. Though the training is important for managing Sunny I attend these classes because I believe that the engagement in non-habitual movements helps his brain.

When I finally made an appointment to meet with a well-respected trainer in our area, several months after Sunny came to live with me, she, after reading the information I provided about Sunny suggested that I contact my vet and put him on a behavioral medication. I might have balked but had been a member of this group and had read the discussions about meds and followed her advice. It’s advice I wished I’d followed sooner after reading about it here. I wish I had given Sunny an anti-anxiety medication before he raced around the house looking for an exit, defecating as he ran. I wish I’d given him a medication before I made him ride in the car, hiding on the floor or jumping out the window when he got the chance, I wish I’d given him something before he spent a month living in a corner. This list could go on.

As for my decision to use medications being automatic- I don’t think so.


12 comments so far

  1. barrie on

    I go back and forth on whether I want to try Buspar with Jellybean. I guess I am not going to go that route since she is calm in every situation except for anyone other than me wanting to touch her. I don’t know. Like I said, I go back and forth on it.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    There’s nothing that says once you try a med that you HAVE to keep using it. I figured that I’d give prozac 4-5 months to see if I noticed any improvements in Sunny’s behavior (and you should give it that long if you’re not seeing any negative reactions). I did and have never taken him off of it, but some folks are able to wean their dogs from the meds and retain the improved behavior. Sunny is just too generally phobic around people and new situations, though I’ve thought that when he is no longer afraid of my husband I will think about taking him off the meds.

    The thing about the meds is that there seems to be evidence that they actually help the brain change and improve. I’m not encouraging you to do it, just sharing info that I have. I had bloodwork done on Sunny prior to using drugs and again yearly just to be sure all’s well in that department.

    But I understand 100% where you are coming from. I am now debating whether he is better off with daily doses of Xanax. Like most dog owners I don’t enjoy giving my dog drugs for whatever reason, but if they help improve their quality of life I will do it. I have to decide how much daily stress and fear do I think is ok for him to have to deal with, because he can’t tell me. Is zero a reasonable expectation? I wish I knew.

    • Emily on

      Seems your Sunny has the same type of fear problem as my Chow pup..although my pup was not a rescue and has suffered no abuse, neglect or any other traumatic reason for his fears.He comes completely unglued if one of the neighbors happens to be outside in their yard when its time for a potty break.Today I’ve had to physically pick him up and carry him to the grass then hold him there till he peed and pooped…he’s over 50 pounds and this is just not acceptable. All this because the new neighbor’s kids were in their yard playing…out of sight..so it was just the sounds that triggered this. Children laughing put this dog in a tailspin and he was raised by a breeder with children!
      There is, however, no separation anxiety with this dog. He gets on great with other pets in the home and is actually a bit pushy when playing with the other dogs… inside.

      I’m at my wits end. I can’t take him out front for a walk or even enjoy playtime out back with him. I’ve tried everything, read tons of books and articles and am ready for meds.
      I’m taking him to the vet next week.Did you see an improvement with Prozac? …and how long before improvement is seen?…I’m an inch away from returning this dog to the breeder (who I have talked to about all this and she is baffled too).I’ve had him 5 months..he’s 7 months old..and its just no fun for him or me …I’m not sure I can take anymore.Any suggestions for things that work?
      Thanks for ‘listening’
      PS..I’m not an inexperienced dog owner..I worked for a pet rescue for over 20 years…this one has me stumped

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for your comment Emily. It is the case that some dogs just come onto the scene ‘wired for sound’ as I think of it. They would probably do well surviving on the plains of Africa, the first to flee at the rustling of grass created by the lion out looking for lunch. However it’s not a very useful attribute in the world of human civilization.

        Have you had a chance to visit the http://www.fearfuldogs.com website? There’s lots of information there to help you get your head around how you can help this dog, if you decide to. There is no way of telling how much progress he’ll make and by the sounds of it, you’ll have a long term training project. That’s not always a bad thing, it just depends on what you’re up for. I can tell you that if you do the work with a dog, they may always be a skittish or sensitive type of dog, but they can learn skills and become more easily managed, though an owner might have to provide an environment for the dog where it is not constantly exposed to triggers, so between your interest in pursuing the project and the reality of where a dog has to live when it’s with you, your home may not be the one for this dog.

        Have you done any counter conditioning and desensitization with the dog? It’s an incredibly slow process, much slower than people imagine and few of us have the patience or experience to give it the time it needs. I’m saying this not as a criticism, it’s just the way it is. In regard to meds, yes, I have seen an improvement in my dog’s behavior which I attribute to the medication. But, meds are not a cure, they can provide your dog with some relief from anxiety, making it easier for them to learn new behaviors and change how they feel about things that scare them. My dog has been on meds for years, and may be on them for the rest of his life. It’s not my first choice but until I believe he can function in the world he needs to be in, without debilitating fear, I’m glad that I have them as an option. The changes I have seen have been subtle, one day he walks into a room he never did before, has a sniff and walks out, for example. But any progress is good and he continues to build on it. The meds themselves can take a few months to build up in the dog’s system and it was suggested to me that I give them 6 months to see what I was going to get. Some people begin to see changes in a few weeks. Having the support of a knowledge vet or behaviorist is key. You may have to adjust dosages or change meds.

        I also use an anti-anxiety medication with Sunny when I have to take him out of his comfort zone and I know he’ll be scared. I use them for traveling and for training classes. I see a big difference when I don’t use them. On them Sunny is able to participate in agility and other classes (we worked up to this for many months), actually seeming to enjoy himself sometimes. I use these classes to continue to stimulate Sunny’s brain and help him learn new skills and behaviors.

      • Emily on

        Thank you for your quick reply. I looked into desensitization training for him, but the things that frighten him are not on the CD’s I found offered for sale. I made a recording of some sounds that bothered him and tried those, but have seen no improvement with him in 3 months. I was hoping meds would take the edge off of things so that training sessions wouldn’t add to his problems.
        I’ll check with my vet and read more on this site. It’s the only thing I’ve found that addresses his problems.

  3. Connie on

    We’ve had a young Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Teddy, for 10 months now (he’s about 1 1/2 years old) whom we got at a rescue organization. The rescue org. had him for 6 months, working with him & his fear issues. They got him from the breeders who apparently neglected him and left him with littermates who constantly bullied him. The woman at the rescue org. told me they tried meds on him but he just slept all the time. His anxiety issues are great. He’s terrfied of my husband and strangers, and still pretty scared of me. I can sit by him, most of the time, and pet and touch him, but he’s not totally comfortable with it. His only real joys are are other dog, Dutch, who is gentle and sweet with him. He adores Dutch. He also loves running around our front yard. Otherwise, he just parks himself on our sofa most of the time, or runs under our bed when we open the bedroom door at night. What I’m getting at is–do you think it’s time to try another med? I hate to see him living with such anxiety.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are a variety of meds available and it can take some experimenting to come up with the correct dosage. Sometimes sedation is a passing side effect, or an indication that the dose or med needs to be changed. Here’s a link to a website with information. Make copies of it if you need to to share with your vet. Also, Karen Overall DVM has some of the most up to date info collected about meds, you can find her online.


      Along with meds you MUST implement a program of systematic counter conditioning and desensitization. It’s not hard to do, but does take time, patience and commitment. The easiest book to start with to help you understand these training concepts and triggers, and thresholds, also important to understand is IMO The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell. You can find it and other good books here


      Good luck with this boy.

  4. Lizzie on

    Like Barrie, I too go back and forth about whether to start Gracie on drugs.

    Over here in the UK however vets are no longer allowed to prescribe drugs such as Valium or Prozac to dogs. My vet told me that there had been cases where dogs lose their inhibition and become aggressive, when they previously were not. I have read so much about side effects to other drugs like Xanax for example that I always err on the side of ‘leave them alone’ in that case.

    Yes I know there are side effects of long term stress as in always being scared/anxious/fearful, so it is always a toss up as to which you would rather your dog endure.

    For Gracie she is doing well, although yes in a limited environment that I can’t justify, at the moment, giving her something that just might not be necessary.

    Every dog is unique in it’s own way and we all do our very best for them.
    Sunny is a lucky boy to have you and the kind of life you have given him

  5. Betty on

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Betty, sorry for the delay- your comment was put into the spam folder 😦
      I do appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the blog. Hope it’s helpful!

  6. Lisa on

    I just ordered your book today and have spent some time reading through your website and this blog. Thank you for compiling in one place the information I have been looking for for months! =)

    This past January I took in a rescue (mini Aussie). She is about 3 1/2 years old and afraid of everything and everyone. When I first brought her to my house I mostly just ignored her and instructed my husband and his Mom (living with us) to do the same. No eye contact and no reaching out to touch her. We went along that way for about 4 weeks and she finally started coming closer to Mom and me and wants nothing to do with any man we’ve come across. She’s a runner… if she has a path to escape then that’s what she’ll do and this has resulted in her being hit by a car, so now she has a titanium plate and 8 screws in her front right leg, she’s had a toe on that same foot completely amputated and, like your Sunny, will stay motionless in the crate if you look at her or talk to her.

    I can reach in and clip a leash on her and lead her out just fine. For the most part she’ll follow me anywhere once she’s on leash but will not come to me willingly. She enjoys walks and LOVES going to our local dog park and running with my other 2 dogs. So far, this seems to be the only time she’s truly comfortable – at the park running free and playing with the other dogs. Hard to use that as a reward for training though 😉

    This past week, however, when it’s time to leave the park she has a problem going through the double gate area. She is conflicted… she wants to be on the other side of the fence with me and the other two dogs but can’t work up the courage to go through the gate to get to them. I don’t want to stop bringing her to the park but also don’t want to have to spend 45 min and get the help of other people (holding one gate open) so that I can “corner” her in the double gated area to releash and walk to the car.

    I’ve tried a lot of things with this little girl and my heart aches for her. She was on chlomipromine when I first got her and felt drug just wasn’t for her. Clearly this dog needs some medication to help her anxiety but that one seemed to either leave her still way on the edge of her anxiety or completely knocked out like a zombie. I have now switched her to amitriptoline and that seems to be a better chemical fit for her. Just like people, every dog is wired differently and some need more help than others and there is a lot of trial and error when finding the right medication and dosage for a dog like this.

    It takes a lot of patience and I look forward to reading your book and hope to discover something here or in the book that will help make me a better person to help her become a happier dog.

    Thanks again for the work you’ve done in this area.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story with us. One thing to keep in mind with any behavior we want our dogs to learn, whether it’s coming to us, going up or down stairs or through gates is that if we can break the behavior down into manageable bits, and help the dog get really good at each of the ‘bits’ it’s often easier for them to put the pieces together. Also, along with providing a reward like a treat when they do one of the bits, we can give them another reward by letting them go back to where they started. So going through a gate might look like, take a few steps toward the gate, celebrate and walk away again. Anxiety often begins to build long before the behavior which causes the dog to dig in their heels or respond negatively. If we can whittle away at that, so the dog is joyous taking a few steps toward the gate, we can inhibit the climb toward feeling more and more stressed as we take the next steps. I used a tennis ball for targeting to get my dog to stick his nose through the doorway, then tossed the ball out for him to chase. He got very good at this behavior, running through the door to target the ball and then being sent out again to chase it. At no point in this process was I forcing him to come through the door or trying to lure him in (I was sort of, but I had given him the task of targeting the ball, it just happened to be slightly inside the door) which dogs can become very savvy to.

      I understand you need to leave the park and can’t stay there for days while your dog learns to cope, but this might give you an idea of how to proceed. You might also notice what is scary about the gate, the clanking shut, the movement of the gate toward the dog as it closes, etc. If you can figure this out you can try to manage the situation to minimize this stuff or counter condition to it. My own dog Annie was afraid of the A-frame in agility and using the process of only asking her to take one step (then two, then three) and then retreat within about a dozen reps who was going up and over happily on her own. She became proficient with each step of the process.

      Just some thoughts.

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