A Confession: I’m a Dog Trainer Who Put Her Dog on Prozac

It was hard to admit, but I couldn't solve Cuba's problems with training. I turned to medication.

dogedit  |  Oct 26th 2012

Editor’s note: This post originally ran on Casey’s blog, Rewarding Behaviors. We’re running it here with her permission.

A while back, I came out of the training closet. I have a reactive dog I have raised since puppyhood. I chose the best breeders I can find, and his littermates are behaviorally normal. Cuba is an anomaly in many ways, but he’s my anomaly and dammit, I love him!

Cuba is 2 years old, and we’ve trained together every single day. The methods I use are sound –- I have friends who train service dogs and who have used much the same protocol with great success.

Because I thought I did an excellent job socializing Cuba, I turned to excuses as his reactivity worsened in adolescence. “He will grow out of this.” “This is just a phase.” Somehow, I convinced myself things that I knew to be untrue were true -– I know that dogs rarely grow out of, and almost always grow into, behavior problems.

My own proximity to the situation (this is a dog I own and love deeply) prevented me from rational observation.

While I often see (and help rehabilitate) dogs with significant behavioral challenges, there are times I need to pass them on to someone with more or different experience. On a couple of occasions, I’ve referred clients to world-renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall. Recently, one of these clients returned and told me that her dog had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety gisorder. Something in my brain clicked -– that sounds like Cuba!

Research, commence. The first online result was from my friend Crystal Thompson, author of one of my favorite blogs, Reactive Champion. Her dog Maisy, a cross between a dog and a Muppet, showed remarkably similar symptoms to Cuba’s.

Crystal told me that a veterinary behaviorist prescribed medication for Maisy that, in conjunction with appropriate behavior modification, dramatically changed the quality of life for both of them. Maisy now competes in various dog events and attends seminars. She has a relatively normal dog life. Crystal said that the meds helped make Maisy more responsive to learning.

Before I address how I treated Cuba, let’s discuss medications. Behavior medications for dogs (and people!) are often inappropriately prescribed. What do I mean by that?

1. Medications are overprescribed

Take Sammy, an 18-month-old purebred Lab who was crated for nine hours a day when her busy owners were at work. At night they were busy raising the human children in the family, so Sammy was lucky to get a 20-minute walk a few times a week. Sammy started chewing the carpet.

Her general-care vet prescribed Valium as treatment for “separation anxiety.” The problem is, separation anxiety is a clinical diagnosis, and Sammy manifested none of the signs (no mutilation of self or property, no absence-induced anorexia, no excessive vocalization, no inappropriate elimination). Sammy was simply bored, undertrained, underexercised, and understimulated.

Labs, believe it or not, love putting their mouths on stuff –- it is what they were bred to do. Sammy didn’t need Valium; she needed a chance to be an adolescent dog. Trying to dope up your dog to cure a behavior problem that is not organically based is, in this trainer’s opinion, unethical.

2. Medications are underprescribed

Here’s where my confession comes in: Last night at the vet’s office, I got Cuba a prescription for Prozac. We’re starting with a very low dose, knowing that we can increase if necessary or change strategies.

Why not just train him? Because I’ve been doing that. I have trained enough “problem dogs” to have confidence that my techniques are effective. Why would an individual dog not respond well in the hands of a well-trained, patient owner? Because something larger is happening.

Vets should understand canine behavior and also which drugs are appropriate for specific behavior problems. What works for one dog might not work well for another. Sometimes Prozac is the right choice, sometimes Valium. Although some general care practitioners know the difference (many of them work directly with behavior consultants), others do not.

I see behavior meds as being like insulin. Some diabetics live happy, long, and healthy lives through dietary and lifestyle modification alone; similarly, some dogs respond well enough to training without medication. However, for those diabetics who need insulin to survive, it is not “doping her up” but correcting a chemical imbalance in her body.

Much as diabetics receiving insulin treatment also need to change their lifestyle in terms of diet and activity, behavior meds are never effective in a training vacuum. All the training in the world cannot fix a behavior problem that finds its roots in wonky brain chemistry or hormones. Similarly, medication alone will not fix these issues. Training and medication must go hand-in-hand. One without the other is a lot like chili with no cornbread — it misses the point.

Doping up the treatment-receiver also misses the point. The truth is that many pet owners are afraid of behavior medications changing the fundamental nature of their best canine friends.

As a person who has received treatment for mental illness, I know this is not true. I have taken a variety of meds in the past 14 years for issues including severe depression to PTSD following my dad’s murder. None of them changed who I was, but they sure did change my ability to cope with a world I could not understand or function well in.

I’ll talk more soon about what was covered at Cuba’s vet visit, his treatment plan, and about the stigma related to using meds to help those — dogs and humans alike — suffering from mental illnesses.

But let’s get the discussion going now. Have you been prescribed meds like Prozac or Valium for your dog? Did they solve the behavior issue? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!