My Dog is On Drugs, Can We Start Training?

My Dog is On Drugs, Can We Start Training?

FAQ: My Dog is On Drugs, Can We Start Training?

We often get asked when a dog is on drugs if we can start training? The short answer is “no.” Let me explain why.

First, let’s clarify what drugs. We are specifically talking about psychopharmaceuticals, like Prozac and so on. Drugs that affect the brain. If a dog is on other medication, training can usually begin if the dog is healthy enough to do so.

Veterinary Behaviorists

The pet industry in the United States is booming. It is about $80 billion in annual sales for dogs alone. The veterinary sector wants a more significant piece of that pie. They are expanding through the field of veterinary behaviorists. Veterinary behaviorists attend veterinary school and are the psychiatry arm of veterinary medicine. They usually prescribe drugs instead of training (there are occasional exceptions). It’s a good business as it creates a new monthly revenue stream.

Veterinary behaviorists have varying levels of education. At the highest level, they attended a specialized school and completed intense studies. However, the problem is that it is primarily theoretical. Their daily interactions with dogs are very limited compared to professional dog trainers. As a result, it is very difficult for veterinary behaviorists to understand what is and isn’t a behavioral problem. When you lack the knowledge of how to interact with a dog, classifying behaviors as problematic is questionable. Common statements include:

  • “The dog is too active; let’s calm him down with drug A.”
  • “The dog is showing behavior B; let’s give him drug C.”
  • “Training isn’t good; they use aversives. We don’t want that.”

A Conflict of Interest

Many veterinary behaviorists don’t want dogs to receive adequate training instead of drugs because they would lose clients. They prefer the dogs to be on medication to prescribe refills every month. It’s a good revenue stream.

However, this approach has several problems. First, we don’t fully understand how those drugs work. Second, those drugs are not benign—they have many serious side effects. Third, these drugs often don’t work.

Psychotropic drugs have evolved over time, but these problems persist, regardless of the drugs’ generation. Common side effects include weight gain, epilepsy, and lack of sex drive. The last part is not necessarily relevant for most dogs. However, there are also significant health warnings on how these drugs affect the heart, liver, kidneys, and brain. The side effects are plentiful.

Of course, veterinary behaviorists can offer treatment for medical conditions that could affect a dog’s behavior. Thyroid issues would be on top of that list. And they can affect a dog’s behavior (e. g., lead to aggressive behaviors). In that case, thyroid medication is the first step and maybe all that is needed. But, we are alarmingly medicating dogs for things that are not medical issues. It parallels the use of drugs in human psychiatry. Yet, there are few studies on these medications’ long-term use, which should give us pause.

The Scientific Data

Selective publication of clinical trials on psychotropic drugs also could lead to a bias about their perceived effectiveness, according to a study led by researchers at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center (New England Journal of Medicine, January 2008, Volume 358, Issue 3, Pages 252–260). The study examined 74 FDA-registered studies for a dozen antidepressants. It found that most studies with negative results were not published in the scientific literature. Or they were published in a way that conveyed a positive outcome.

Another study, “Effectiveness of Antidepressants – An Evidence Myth Constructed from a Thousand Randomized Trials?” published in Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine, May 2008, Volume 3, Issue 14, had similar findings. These medications seem like a magic bullet during the sales pitch. But, as hundreds of thousands of dog owners have discovered, they are not. It is always an expensive discovery.

Working With Me

As a dog trainer, I regularly get inquiries from dog owners on those medications. Their dogs are in “treatment” with behavioral specialists. If the drugs worked as advertised, those dog owners would not be looking for training.

I don’t work with dogs on those drugs. I advise owners to discuss how to discontinue usage with their veterinarian before training can be scheduled. These medications must not be stopped “cold-turkey” as that can lead to very dramatic chemical imbalances. These are serious drugs, and they must be discontinued gradually.

I am obviously not opposed to medical treatments, but veterinary behaviorists don’t interact much with dogs; dog trainers do. Veterinary behaviorists may mean well, but they simply don’t understand what is and isn’t typical dog behavior. As such, their advice is based on very limited, narrow knowledge. As the old saying goes: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” In this case, a pharmaceutical nail.

Problem Behaviors

Dog on Drugs for Dog Misbehavior

It is essential to realize that most “problem behaviors” dog owners contact dog trainers for are typical dog behaviors. They are simply expressed in unacceptable contexts. No drug can change that. For example, a dog chasing squirrels is typical behavior. A dog chasing kids on skateboards is essentially the same thing; we just can’t allow that. This is an example of typical behavior expressed inappropriately. This is the same with aggressive behaviors and most other behaviors. These challenges can usually be addressed quickly through training, not through drugs. These problems are not rooted in a Prozac deficiency but a lack of opportunity for genetic drive expression.

My main problem with veterinary behaviorists is that, in their view, “science says” aversives should not be used. That is not what science says at all, but it sounds good. After positive reinforcement (including differential reinforcement programming) doesn’t work, the dog is sterilized and put on drugs. There is no evidence that this works either, but there is money to be made. Yes, I am that cynical about it after 18 years in this industry.

Knowledge Gap

It’s unlikely I could have a meaningful conversation with a regular medical doctor about proper nutrition. Equally, I can’t take seriously a veterinary behaviorist’s advice on a dog’s behavior. They essentially have no way of knowing what is and isn’t typical canine behavior. To know that, you must spend time interacting with many dogs, not just read about them. Book knowledge is meaningful and valuable, no question. But it is no substitute for actually interacting with the species in discussion.

The well-known Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson once said the following in an interview. “The worst dog I’ve ever met was owned and trained by a behavioral psychologist.” Book knowledge and experience are different things. Edison didn’t invent the perfect light bulb in the lab and then just had to build the thing once. He made 10,000 light bulbs before it finally worked. Hands-on experience matters.

More Scientific Data

Lastly, a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (May–June 2021, Volume 43, Pages 46-53) found that these medications essentially don’t even work. The study stated, “…surprisingly, we failed to find any significant associations between treatment response and the administration of specific medications…”. This may have been surprising to the researchers, but it was not surprising to professional dog trainers.

Veterinarians and dog trainers should strive to work together for the best outcome for each dog. However, that is only possible if each stays in their lane of expertise. Not if we try to be something we aren’t.

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About Ralf and Sarah

Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.


Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.

Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.

Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer

Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.

Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.