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.
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 normal 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.
It is essential to realize that most “problem behaviors” dog owners contact dog trainers for are normal dog behaviors. They are simply expressed in unacceptable contexts. No drug can change that. For example, a dog chasing squirrels is normal behavior. A dog chasing kids on skateboards is essentially the same thing; we just can’t allow that. This is an example of normal 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.
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 normal 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 under 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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