Choosing To Use Medications For Fearful Dogs

Does My Dog Need Prozac? is the title of the second book I am working on. It is a collection of posts culled from the early years of this blog. The answer to the book’s title, in the case of my dog Sunny, is yes, yes my dog does need Prozac or in his case another anti-depressant and anxiolytic administered twice a day. Coming to the decision to give him meds was not made quickly or recklessly. I regret that I didn’t make the decision to use them sooner. Here are some things to consider as you make decisions for your dog’s mental health.

Quality Of Life

Most of us are fortunate in that we have rarely, if ever, experienced the amount or level of distress many of our dogs are living with 24/7 or 14/6 or 8/3. How many hours and how many days a week is ok with you for a dog to experience fear or anxiety? How many do you think is ok with them? A dog who is routinely frightened by things is not only experiencing that fear, they are living with the anticipation of it occurring again, and again.

What limitations does a dog’s fearfulness put on their life. A dog who has to leave the room when the vacuum comes out is probably not missing out on the finer things of life, but what about a dog who can’t walk down the sidewalk, or get into a car, or greet another dog happily? What about a dog who startles when a piece of paper falls off a desk, scurries out of the kitchen when the stove opens or the microwave chimes? How about a dog who has to leave the room when your husband or teenage son walks in, or sees a shadow on the wall? That we may not know what it feels like to be that scared does not negate or lessen what they are going through. Nor does it lessen the negative impact chronic stress has on a dog’s health.

Seek Out Professional Help

Talk to a veterinarian or a veterinarian behaviorist and follow the protocols outlined for the dosage and timing of any medications you give your dog. Be aware of possible side-effects and how they are commonly addressed. Some side-effects are expected and go away as a dog’s body and brain adjust to the medications, others may indicate the need to change quantity or the type of med being used. Let your vet know you may be contacting them as you start using medications. Don’t rely on a blogger, or your cousin who makes herbal lip balm, or a dog trainer who took a massage class, to give you advice about what is best for your dog.

Medications Don’t Fix Fearfulness

Don’t expect a dog who is afraid of strangers to stop being afraid of strangers just because they are on drugs. What you can expect to see are changes, often quite subtle, in their behavior. A dog may be willing to come into a room they never entered before, sniff something they previously avoided. Be prepared to reinforce these behaviors, and make sure you aren’t punishing the dog by overwhelming them when they do display a willingness to engage with something.

Keep Track

Make notes about your dog’s behavior. Look for patterns and trends. Have they done something 2 or 3 times they never did before? Was it something you liked or something you didn’t?

Small World

People often describe negative behaviors they observed in their dog which they blame on the medications, and stop using them or recommend that others don’t use them. Medications change brains. We can’t know how they make a dog feel or how they change a dog’s perception of the world, or their tolerance for stress as they begin to experience the effects of the meds. Rather than trying to test the effectiveness of a drug make your dog’s world smaller for several weeks while their bodies and brains adjust to the medications. Don’t put them into situations in which a decrease of inhibition can get them into trouble.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Forever

Trying medications for several months and discovering that they are helping is better than not trying them and not knowing if you are doing everything you can for your dog. In some cases the improvements while on medications are significant enough that the dog no longer needs them. For other dogs, not being on medication decreases their quality of life.

It’s In Our Hands

It’s up to us to educate ourselves about the use of behavioral medications for dogs suffering with fear, phobias and anxiety. We are the ones who are responsible for creating a life worth living for our dogs.


29 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    Finna takes shen calmer herbs which fortunately have been able to blunt the edges of her fear enough for her to learn other behaviors and reactions. Not that she still doesn’t have a long way to go but it’s enough support that it buys her a second to think before she reacts and as she practices reaching for tools other than aggressive barking she learns more and more how she can affect her environment without her aggressive tools she becomes more and more calm.

    Still, I’d like to say how much I appreciate posts like this. There are a lot of societal pressures against medication for canine mental health (or human for that matter) that the more clear thoughtful information there is out there the better. Thank you for blogging. .

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment. It’s great that you found something that helps her. It’s a beautiful process of learning, once the dog is comfortable enough to think.

      A glass raised to your current and future success!

  2. sara, oreo & chewy on

    I have a fearful dog who recently (4 months ago) went on zoloft. Two weeks ago, we had a strange man in the house, and Oreo, who would normally run and hide behind the toilet, chose to stay in the same room, where he received tons of liverwurst. I couldn’t believe it. However,when 5 people came over for thanskgiving, he was back to hiding, so we still have work to do.

    I had tried the meds route before, and had some bad side effects with prozac, but I’m so glad I decided to go back to our behaviorist and try again. I do look out for those small changes, like being able to get his brain back quickly during times when he would usually go off the deep end. When you have a scaredy dog, every little gain is thrilling.

    Looking forward to reading your new book! I reread your other book all the time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You and I know what a HUGE step sticking around when someone is in the house can be for dogs like Oreo. That’s fantastic! Meds are not a quick fix as many may assume and as you’ve found, can require trying different meds. Congratulations on your continued commitment to helping Oreo, he’s a lucky dog.

  3. Heather on

    I always wondered about meds with my foster. He made huge progress. He trusted other dogs and after 15 months could act normal in familiar settings or when anchored to me. Not to minimize his gains as they remain huge, but he worked so hard and if i could have helped a little more with meds… even if for just a few months while he was introduced to this new world…would he have soared compared to baby steps?

    I loved that little dog, and actually think more of him for the courage and faith he held. Just wonder sometimes if i made all my efforts to match his.

    And, with him being a foster, i question if this isn’t all the more important to assess–can this increase his “adoptability” or lessen how different he seems. anything we can try to get one dog from foster to HOME, allows another dog to be helped.

    ok, i’ll stop before i’m pondering in “tangent style” oh boy, a new dog book!!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Meds don’t fix the fear, they can make it easier for a dog to learn new skills. Those skills are theirs to keep.

      • heather on

        i didn’t think the meds would fix. was thinking meds might lessen the dog’s notice of the fear or immobility near an item that has or does evoke fear. Then, maybe, the dog could focus on the skills we are talking about, rather than focusing on his fear.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    How meds appear to work, because I won’t know with any certainty what a dog is focusing on, is that they decrease their inhibition to behave in ways they might have previously been too inhibited to experiment with in the past.

  5. Shearaha on

    Making the choice to go to our behavior vet and get our dog on meds is one I’ve yet to regret. My boy is highly fear aggressive, primarily towards strangers. We were making progress before we went to our vet, but nothing like what we’ve accomplished since starting the meds. It was a wondrous thing 4 weeks after starting his Prozac to see him actually relaxed, not tense and not on alert 24/7. As I type this he’s snoring on the floor next to me, something he wasn’t capable of a year ago. We also use L-Theanine and some aroma-therapy. The combination of the three has enabled him to learn, not just react.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for making this comment! Hopefully others will at least begin to consider the use of meds for these dogs.

  6. Jude Gagner on

    I’m new on here, but I’ve made comments several times previously. After having my fearful dog for 1-1/2 years and not seeing much improvement at all, I made the decision to try her on meds. She started out with Prozac for her PTSD and made some small baby steps. When we added Valium to the Prozac, she began making a great deal of progress once they kicked in. They allowed her to be able to relax enough to start to really enjoy herself instead of being hypervigilant and highly reactive to her environment. Fortunately, she is not aggressive and her mechanism of protection is flight. She is a wonderful, loving girl. We’re still working on her fear of my husband when he is walking around. When he’s sitting or lying down, she is very happy to be with him. I am a strong advocate for medication in circumstances such as hers. I’ve been there myself and know what a difference they made in my own life.

  7. Jude Gagner on

    I’m responding to my own comment above. After we had our girl for a month or so, we tried several herbal/flower remedies and a hormone diffuser to help her relax. They didn’t appear to have any helpful effect, so after awhile, we stopped using them. I regret not going the prescription medication route earlier.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for contributing your experience to the discussion Jude. Many folks are unaware of just how helpful meds can be for these dogs.

  8. Lynn on

    We just started Tulip on Prozac. I’ve been very reluctant to medicate her, but your remarks about unnecessary stress tipped the scale. I’m worried about adverse reactions, physical and behavioral, but I’m hoping to wean her off once she’s learned to be more relaxed in the house and around Alex, something no amount of treats has yet accomplished. Fingers crossed. Our vet, by the way, doesn’t recommend meds for our reactive, sometimes aggressive Jasmine, so it’s just training for her.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      One suggestion is that when you start a dog on meds make their world smaller while their systems adjust to the changes in their brains.

      • Jude Gagner on

        The meds enabled Penny’s world to grow. Prior to the meds, she felt safe only inside our house or within the confines of our fenced yard. After being on the meds, she was able to leave the fenced yard, go for car rides to our wonderful river walk and go for a longish slow walk, resting when she needed to and taking in the scenery.

        I do understand what you mean about making her world smaller, although I hadn’t thought of that.

  9. Lynn on

    Can you explain what you mean about making her world smaller? Tulip gets to run free in the woods in the morning with Jazz, and we visit a friend most days where they also run and play with our friend’s dogs. Should that be curtailed, do you think?

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good question Lynn. I am referring to limiting her exposure to triggers or stressful situations. Be on the lookout for behavior differences in general, and be prepared to manage her a bit more if she seems ‘grumpy’ or out of sorts.

      One of the reasons we use meds is decrease a dog’s inhibition toward triggers, but it can be a double edged sword.

  10. Rand on

    Debbie – many, many thanks for your book, “A Guide to Living With and …” and this blog ! They have given me hope for my beautiful 2 year old girl, SkyeBlue. I adopted her from an Aussie rescue group 5 1/2 weeks ago and I never experienced or knew of any fearful dogs and the symptoms they exhibit.

    During this time, I have experienced the same emotions you had with Sunny: sad, depressed, angry, frustrated, etc. I have been very patient with Skye during this time but I’m beginning to think that medication may help her.

    She is very fearful of sudden movements and noises but the most discouraging thing is that she seems to fear me. I pet and stroke her and give treats during this time but she will retreat to her safe place at the slightest opportunity. She NEVER comes out of her safe place. I have to put a leash on her to come out of her safe place to go to the bathroom, a walk, or to eat. I don’t have to drag her out against her will. Once the leash is on, she comes out.

    I will be contacting my Vet and, hopefully, she’ll know what medication to start Skye with. I appreciate all of the comments on this section of your blog as I continue to learn of ways to help Skye.

    Merry Christmas !

    • fearfuldogs on

      If I have not yet responded to your comment, thank you! Meds may help a lot along with continuing to teach her skills. If you haven’t already have a look through the category NIBBLES in this blog. There are videos of me teaching Nibbles to target my finger and feel better about having a leash put on and walking. These techniques wouldn’t hurt doing even though you can get a leash on her and have her walk. They can help lower the overall dread a dog is experiencing. I could get a leash on Nibs but he had to be cornered in his crate and he would try to avoid it. As you’ll see in the vids, he was able to want to have the leash put on. That made both of us feel better about it.

      • Rand on

        Debbie – I have not been able to find any videos on NIBBLES. Help please. Thanks.

      • Debbie on

        On the right side of the blog page you should see a menu for “category”. Nibbles is one of them.

        Debbie Jacobs

  11. Christina O'Brien on

    Habi’s experience may be helpful for people considering meds. Habi was a “beyond the bell curve” border collie when we adopted her at 3 years from our humane society, as our first trainer so kindly described her. Although we were very experienced with working dogs, we were not prepared for her. Fortunately our trainer sent us to a behavioral vet, who diagnosed extreme generalized anxiety and started her on Prozac, as well as starting us on behavioral modifications. We kept her on Prozac for a year, then – pleased with major progress and reluctant to do long-term meds – weaned her off them and tried to maintain the progress through training. We plateaued, not regressing but unable to make much progress.

    After a year, we re-evaluated, and started her on Prozac again. As our vet explained, some people are unable to make their own insulin and need to take insulin every day for the rest of our lives. Habi is apparently unable to produce enough serotonin on her own, so she will be on it for the rest of her life. As someone who resists taking even aspirin, this was a hard pill to swallow (so to speak), but when we stepped back from our prejudices, we could see that her life was so much better on meds. Five years on, she goes out and about with us almost like a normal dog. This is a true miracle, and a testament to her resilience. I am so proud of her!

    • Christina O'Brien on

      I should also point out that our animal shelter routinely recommends the Fearful Dogs website, and it certainly has helped us over these last five most interesting years.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that Christina! Sunny is a ‘lifer’ as well and like you I resist resorting to medications when other options are available. But when it comes to helping these dogs meds can often be the hands-down winner. And thanks for letting me know that your shelter if familiar with and recommends That’s why I created it, feels good to know it’s being helpful.

  12. Rand on

    Hello Deb. Thanks for the help in finding NIBBLES info. Wow- there’s lots of info there !

    I’ve been giving 10 mg of Fluoxetine to Skye for 14 days and haven’t noticed any changes in her anxiety. Will the meds take longer to kick in ?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes medications can take several weeks before you begin to see differences in the dog’s behavior. You shouldn’t expect huge differences and they don’t “fix” fearfulness. What we look for are what might be very subtle changes in a dog’s ability to perform certain behaviors on their own. When this happens, and the behaviors are ones we want to foster, we reinforce them, usually with food.

    • Shearaha on

      It takes 30 days for Prozac to fully load, though you may start seeing a diference as early as 14, it’s unusual.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for your reply to this. Folks should also keep in mind that a change of dosage may be required and perhaps even a change of medication in order to get the most from medications. All should be done under the guidance of a vet.

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