Behavioral Medications For Fearful Dogs

This dog is suffering from his fears.

Behavioral medications can help fearful dogs. So why the reluctance on the part of pet owners to use them? I will share what mine was.

1. Medications can have side effects that will affect the health of my dog.

2. Medications are a cop-out.

3. I didn’t want to ‘medicate’ my dog.

While there are shy or fearful dogs that can learn new behaviors and change how they feel about things that scare them, without the benefit of medications, many more continue to struggle and suffer. This struggling and suffering could be reduced through the professionally supervised use of behavioral medications.

As for my concerns-

1. Yes medications can have side effects. However the behavioral medications available for dogs from veterinarians have been researched for their safety and efficacy. Many others, while not specifically labeled for use with dogs, have also provided relief. The the list of side effects can be daunting on any medication available today, even routinely used over the counter products.

The side effect of fear is stress. Long term stress has its own long list of health damaging side effects with no benefits. Check out these videos of Robert Sapolsky to learn more about the dangers of stress. For my dog I decided that the risks of ongoing stress outweighed those of the medications which have helped him. A blood work panel should be performed before starting any drug regime with your dog.

2. My non-fearful dog with a heart condition was given daily doses of heart medications prescribed by a cardiologist, they did what they were designed to do and improved her quality of life. I didn’t feel as though I was copping out by using them. Another of my non-fearful dogs with low thyroid, gets two tablets a day and has since grown a thick coat of fur, stopped suffering from skin infections and has increased energy. This wasn’t a cop-out either. My fearful dog with neurochemical imbalances in his brain deserves the same consideration.

3. The misconception that behavioral medications act as sedatives to ‘calm’ a dog down, are just that, a misconception. Though sedation may be a side-effect, it should be short-lived. Do your homework on how behavioral medications can help your dog’s brain improve, making it easier for them to learn new responses to fearful provoking stimuli. From Leashes to Neurons by Karen Overall DVM is available through Tawzer Videos. In it Dr. Overall explains how behavioral medications work and why she views them as a powerful tool in the rehabilitation of fearful and aggressive dogs.

There are a variety of other non-medicinal approaches we can take to help our fearful dogs, and I recommend that owners learn about these as well. Many can be used in conjunction with prescription medications, but check with your vet if you have any questions or concerns.

I have seen the most progress in my fearful dog Sunny through the use of medication. These medications are also the most cost effective product I have purchased, which may not be a selling point for some folks, but it sure helps when you are caring for multiple dogs. It can take time to discover the medication and dosage which provides the most benefits to your dog.

Behavioral medications, namely the SSRIs, TCAs and benzodiazepines are not cures for fearfulness, but along with a playful training program, they sure aren’t cop-outs either.


19 comments so far

  1. Barb on

    Having had a dog bleed to death after two weeks on a prescribed pain medication, I would do everything possible to avoid putting a fearful dog on medication. My dog is afraid of water, baths, and cats (other than my 15 year old cat, but even her a little). Each fear we come across is something to work on gradually. Thankfully, his fears are not panic… perhaps that makes the difference.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It makes sense that if you have had a negative experience using medications with your dog, that you would be reluctant to consider them. It does not change the fact that medications can help many dogs by lowering their levels of anxiety and stress. If a dog’s triggers are easily controlled, such as baths, water and cats, then meds are not likely indicated anyway. There are many dogs out there living lives of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation which could be relieved through the supervised use of behavioral medications.

      I’m glad to hear that your dog survived its experience with meds. It’s a good warning for others to do their research, understand potential side effects of anything they give their dog and what symptoms they need to be on the look out for. Thanks for sharing your story.

      • Aimee Hamby on

        I was touched by your article on medications for fearful dogs. Having to take medication myself every day for stress, anxiety and depression, I had a “light bulb” moment when I considered that my dog most likely experiences the same debilitating fear, anxiety and stress that I do. It seems inhumane now to rule out medication for my rescue dog simply because of side effects.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Aimee. I think that for people who do not experience debilitating levels of anxiety it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like to have to deal with it on a daily basis. Just because our dogs can’t tell us how miserable they are doesn’t mean they aren’t. I hope that both you and your dog are finding the appropriate meds to help you.

      • fearfuldogs on

        What about putting him in another room so he does not have to get that hit of fear that is causing him to rush and bite? It can make a lot of sense to train a scared dog to move away from what scares them rather than toward it. If you want to email me your location perhaps I can recommend a trainer to help you with this dog. You might also want to think about a muzzle, he’s already had more than his share of bites on people.

      • fearfuldogs on

        So meds may be a way to help lower his anxiety. Have you ever trained with a clicker?

  2. selkie on

    I was very interested in this – as I have been wondering whether medications would help my terrier rescue. Darcy reacts EXTREMELY aggressively when someone comes in the house or near him – initially. Scarily. I believe it is fear – and that he literally “loses” it. This was proven the other day when my son (who he loves) came in from outside. Darcy is tethered a good part of the time we are home for a number of reasons; we find he feels more secure if he is with my husband or I, we have control over his actions, he is content and happy. BUT, still, when someone comes in he goes NUTS – we have been working on breaking through is craziness to focus on us- becuase once he is able to focus, he calms and listens. BUT, when Declan walked in, my husband got up to say hi and darcy bit HIM – he ADORES my husband – and doug says he obviosly has no idea what he had done. Once he recognized declan he calmed and was “normal” but in the interim, doug has a pretty serious bite in his leg. We keep a leash on Darcy 24/7, my kids are trained not to bring anyone in until he is under control (either crated or at least held tight).

    Despite watching him like a hawk, keeping a leash on him (a long one to grab), taking all sorts of precautions, Darcy has bitten 4 people (including doug) since we got him last October. I don’t want to give up on him, but this is really discouraging. His behaviour in other ways has improved dramatically- his separation anxiety has improved and he calms faster.

    But do you think a medication could help him focus and not lose it so badly?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Meds can help lower a dog’s anxiety but they will not cure its fearfulness. A dog that is afraid and cannot run from what it is afraid of is often more likely to bite. Even dogs without fear issues can often become more agitated, frustrated and aggressive when on a leash. I agree that the dog did ‘lose’ it when he bit your husband. A dog that is terrified is almost literally out of its head and unable to make good choices.

      Along with managing your dog you also need to be working on ways to help change how the dog feels about the things that scare it. Having to deal with people coming in is obviously putting your dog over threshold. Besides meds I’d suggest that you read about and understand triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. There is a good list of books to check out on the site.

  3. selkie on

    thank you both – I will read up on it.
    I realize that sometimes leashes can cause issues, but there is no choice here as Darcy WILL and HAS attacked – not run away when unleashed. He needs for his sake and anyone coming into my house to be on a leash, although most of the time it is simply trailing. When he gets his anxious bouts, we tether him as I said and it really seems to focus and calm him. He also has his crate right in our living room which is his ‘safe place’ but most of the time he wants to be draped on top of me!

    I’m going to talk to my vet about medication to see if it can help alleviate some of his anxiety.

    He was quite awfully abused so I understand the poor guy ha issues for a reason.

  4. selkie on

    actually, he WAS in the other room!

    And I do have a muzzle which I use when I walk him (other than his early morning 4 a.m. walk – I walk all my dogs before I leave for work and I work at 5). He’s actually fine with his muzzle when we’re out- I’ve brought him up to Pet Smart and he’s behaved beauitfully (but muzzled of course – always good for a laugh, a 92 lb black shepherd and an 18 lb terrier and the terrier is the one muzzled!).

    And believe me, those bites are NOTHING compared to what he has bitten. I’m the Last Chance Saloon for this guy – who apart from his little contretemps when he loses it, is the most loving affectionate sweet guy you will ever meet.

    It doesn’t matter where he is in the house; if he hears someone come in he goes crazy.

  5. selkie on

    I never have trained with a clicker… but it is something to consider. I’ll have to look for some guidance on it. I know that what I need is a trigger that will focus him immediately, snap him out of his fog of fearful aggression. I spoke to my vet yesterday on the phone for more than an hour; it was reassuring in that she said many of the things I am doing with him are right and she is getting together a package for me of information, articles etc – both on dealing with a fearful aggressive dog and on the medications available. She mentioned that her one concern is that SOME of these meds can have the opposite effect and it is something to be aware of. Will keep you posted…

    • fearfuldogs on

      Something to keep in mind is that rather than count on something to snap a dog out of his fog of fearful aggression, is that you prevent them from getting there in the first place. That fog you mention is a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters that don’t just disappear or stop with a click. Once a dog is aroused it can take hours to days for their brain chemistry to return to its original levels. A dog that is continually in a place where it is subjected to triggers has a higher level of stress hormones which, in effect, puts them closer to their snapping point. By lowering their chronic level of arousal you in a sense give them more time to think before they reach the point at which they are not thinking, just reacting. Once a dog is over threshold they are not going to be able to learn the skills we are trying to teach them. Learning of the kind we want, is not facilitated by being that aroused.

      The use of meds needs to be done with a vet’s supervision and with careful monitoring. Dosages may need to be changed or the med being used may need to be changed. They are not a cure for fear aggression and the change they produce may be so subtle that it is not easily noticeable. What we hope for is that they make learning new skills easier. But we can’t keep our scared dogs in the situations in which they are in and not improving, and expect that meds alone are going to fix them. Good luck with this, it’s great that you have a supportive vet to help you out.

  6. KozyDogs on

    Thank you for the information on what you can do for a fearful dog instead of medication. Too many people want a quick fix.

    • Debbie on

      Thanks! There are many things one can and should do whether a dog is on meds or not. True meds are not a quick fix but for many dogs they can provide relief from high anxiety and make it easier for them to learn new skills.

  7. Chris Dignan on

    Thanks for the post. I rescued a dog last year who exhibited severe sep anx. We were able to a lot for the dog using behavioral means but she is still having problems eliminating when she is left alone. Wanting to know if you have any experience with Shen Calm or any other herbal supplements and if you have heard of any success stories. Any help would be greatly appreciated. This is a great dog and I want to try to reduce her stress levels. Thanks!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hi Chris, I don’t have any experience with Shen Calm. If it’s for dogs you can give it a try but set some kind of time constraints on it and keep a journal of the dog’s behavior so you can see if you are getting any improvements. While many herbs and supplements can help, they can be expensive and don’t have the research behind them to back up claims of efficacy. A product I liked is called Composure, it’s expensive (not why I liked it, just saying!) and one of the ingredients is L-theanine which is also what vets sell as Anxitane. Always good to check with your vet before giving your dog any supplement or herb.

      Sometimes approaching the problem head on with something we might consider to be more ‘potent’ can help in the long run. The dog has the chance to relax sooner and can begin to practice new more appropriate behaviors sooner. If we really think that an herb is powerful enough to help our dog, than it stands to reason that it might also have side effects. Many of the meds we use work in similar ways as herbs but they have been studied and we know dosages and possible contraindications for their use.

      I think we need to be realistic and acknowledge that a dog that may ‘seem’ better to us might still be suffering and that anything we can do to help alleviate that should be tops on our list. Talk to your vet.

      Just some thoughts and good luck with your dog!

      • Chris Dignan on

        Thanks Debbie. I’ll research Composure and pass it along. Agree with the fact that the dog is still suffering. That kind of stress that causes a strong reaction can’t be good for long term health. Thanks for your help!

  8. Lori Diamond on

    I have a fearful 7-year-old Labrador Retriever. I manage her fear very well on a daily basis by asking people not to approach or pet her; however, that doesn’t work at the vet’s office where they NEED to touch her in order to examine her. I’m considering medicating her for scheduled vet visits. Acepromazine was recommended; however, after doing some research I’ve decided not to consider it. Can you recommend a different drug for this situation? Thank you!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ask your vet about an anti-anxiety med that can be used alone or in combination with the ace.

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