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.
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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!

29 thoughts on “A Confession: I’m a Dog Trainer Who Put Her Dog on Prozac”

  1. We had a smooth fox terrier on Prozac and one day as my husband reached for his bowl, he growled and my husband said, “That’s weird,” and continued to reach. Our dog went into a rage, bit my husband’s hand and shook it and wouldn’t let go. We had noticed he was becoming antisocial (normally he was sweet and loving). Anyway, husband’s hand had major bite wound and he ended up in ER. We slowly weaned our dog off the Prozac and he was loving and sweet for the rest of his life. Even so, we have a wire fox terrier and I don’t know what the breeder did to him… he’s a smart, sweet and loving dog, always snuggling and kissing, but when you pet or stroke him for too long, he’ll suddenly snap at us, fortunately not actually biting, as if he were reacting to a scary situation. Also, he watches TV like a human, barks at animals on the screen, and gets upset if there’s shouting or violence on Midsomer Murders, our favorite show. We wonder if he experienced domestic violence in his breeder’s home… Anyway, we are trying Prozac, in spite of our last experience because I take Prozac for anxiety and my doctor said most dogs are good with it, like many humans, but some, like some humans might aggressive. We’ll watch for antisocial behavior and if he growls, we’ll heed that and play it by ear… but no reaching for food dishes if he starts growling, and that’ll be the sign for weaning off. You have to be aware of all the subtleties.

  2. I have a Jindo mix also from the dog meat trade. He absolutely suffers from PTSD and increasing noise phobia exacerbated by my loud neighborhood in East oakland. After two years of heartwarming progress last summer was the tipping point – following many many consecutive nights of fireworks and loud motorcycles or cars missing transmissions etc. he back slid to first being afraid of nighttime and then February 2021 he was no longer willing to come inside our house because that is where scary things happen – ie noises. He will no longer go to his bed, or even, to sleep. He is mr. vigilant all the time, refusing to sleep until he literally falls over. This is obviously problematic because he will only be relaxed if he is not at home (yard or house) And we don’t have somewhere else for him to just live! This was combined with a series of about 3 weeks straight of night time panic attacks – pacing panting crazy eyes tucked tail avoidant behavior pushing stuff so I started him on Prozac and Gabapentin and sometimes supplement with the heavy stuff when he is really panicked – trazadone. It’s been 20 days. He does have a slight tremor about the mouth that is new. While in the yard he now mostly just stands and stares and the panic attacks have ended -but i don’t know if that is Prozac or he just can’t physically sustain that level of fear. He is generally still accommodating when on walks – we walked him 4-mi a day previous to this (he can’t go that far now he is super tired and just wiggles on his back or aims to nap under bushes) and takes treats only outside the home. Hopeful but also sad about the changes in my pup. I have to say that these changes happened over night – one day he was scared but manageable and normalish lounging around with lots of naps pets and walks – and the next he was a hot mess. It seems like a nervous breakdown but I am not finding much of that on the internet!

  3. It’s been 3 weeks since we started our Peppina (a Jack Russell mix rescue) on 20mg of Prozac. The fears and anxiety in this dog are too much to list. I’m seeing some very slight changes in her behavior but she’s definitely having stomach issues and lack of appetite. I was going by this point we would see more changes although I know it’s not a magic pill. I plan on reaching back out to the behaviorist for more training. But basically we still have a cute young dog that only allows one person in the family to pet her and only slightly wags her tail. We were hoping Prozac would take more of the edge off. I will say that she hasn’t been eating non-food items so I believe this is helping her eating disorder.

  4. Just started my 2 year old cavapoo on Prozac. He comes from an outstanding breeder anf has never been abused. Yet he started backing away when we went to pet him, barks at everything and I mean everything and is now adding fears into his behavior. I feel awful that he isn’t comforted by me. My bet said the world is a scary place for him and hence Prozac. I always had standard poodles and this is the first small dog I have had…16 pounds of fur. Hoping it will help him and I am studying all these comments!

  5. I am quite glad to find this information. We have just started our Jindo mix rescue dog on Prozac. He is almost 2, he has lived with us for a year and a half. His behavior has gotten worse as training has increased.
    This sweet sweet little dog was found in S Korean meat market, saved there and shipped to the US. He and his sister were in a kennel for 18 hours flying. He and his sister have loads of reasons for anxiety and fearfulness.
    Our vet retired and I’ve gone to a new one. Her first reaction to his story was Prozac. I accepted because I think he needs it.
    What I need help with is training. Certain things need to remain in place, ie going in the back yard for potty and play and then coming in. He can’t quite get the transition, going out and coming in. He cries and shakes to go thru the doorway. Also it takes him extra long to bathroom, turning easily for 3-5 minutes, lowers his head and waves it side to side like a trapped tiger.
    We have a dog, lab husky, that was rescued a year earlier. He’s really come a long way too and is a great big brother. We hope and pray this drug can help our little fella calm his anxiety enough to learn he’s safe now.
    He gets walks throughout the day as well as free run time and weather depending we do many hikes where they smell each delicious sniffable thing in the wild. Hours each day are dedicated to our rescue pups.
    The animal behaviorist I found locally is over 400$ for one time visit. I have to choose their vaccinations first.
    I am searching for any suggestions about training. The immersion training seems extreme for this sweet dog as he’s already been in very rough real experiences as a meat market product. It took about 8 months to accept human touch, still he seems to have ptsd moments when he “clicks” out and just trembles. Those are getting less, so room for hope.
    Thanks

  6. My border collie rescue has been on Prozac for three weeks. After working with him for six months I had a problem with him marking in the house and his ocd behavior around water. He would literally attack the ocean, a lake, a pool, the outside side edges of a kiddie pool etc. The change started within three or four days. So far no marking in the house. We spend about six months at the beach as we live in Florida and I never thought I could enjoy the beach with this dog. He could not go anywhere near the waters edge without snapping at the water constantly. Now he is a different dog. Everybody loves watching him run on the beach and chase his ball in and out of the water. At the dog park he will play ball and swim in the lake for hours having the greatest time.Once in a great while I will see that look come over him like he’s about to attack but all I have to do is call him to divert his attention. There has been no change in his appetite or his activity level. His personality is the same minus the behavior that just didn’t seem to be responding to training. I would highly recommend trying this drug for inappropriate marking and OCD behavior.

  7. One thing I’m not seeing here and everyone seems to be forgetting is that dogs feed off of our emotions and moods.
    I’m a long-time dog owner and have other pets as well, one being an Amazon Parrot (research those – yikes some days, lol, but love her anyway!). And I, like some of you, have been on meds for mood as well. Helped some at the time, but worked it out and it’s not needed now.
    I’ve noticed for myself that when I’m uptight my dogs are too. If we’re out and I’m uncomfortable with my pups around other dogs my dogs become a bit reactive.
    Now, before everyone jumps on me, I’m NOT saying your dog doesn’t need meds.
    That’s a personal decision between you, your family, and your vet.
    BUT take a step back, look at yourself.
    Are you nervous and uptight? (many of the posts before me indicate stressful home/work situations.)
    All that, whether you’re cognizant of it or not, flows right down that leash to your dog (figuratively speaking).
    Look to get yourself calmer around other dogs and in your own situation and see if that doesn’t help your fur baby too.

  8. Lori Schrolucke-Foster

    I have a 30# Frenchie who after a move into our new home would NOT tolerate our older Olde English Bulldog. We went the training route, sought the help of a behaviorist at Ohio State, and finally resorted to putting her on 10mg of Prozac daily. Wow! What a difference this has made. She is a model citizen and has no problems tolerating the medication. She eats well, plays and has interest in what is going on around her (not doped). Made a huge positive impact! Don’t let them suffer if there is an alternative!

      1. Anita,
        Same here with my dog. Started about 5 days ago. My vet said it could take a few weeks to see an improvement. Just wish there was an easier way to give a dog a pill. He discovered I’ve been giving it to him in wet food, so he stopped eating it. He’s not treat motivated either.

  9. PANAGIOTIS KRANIDIOTIS

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience. In Greece, we live in a medieval era about medicines that correct behavior. We have only one behavioral veterinarian across the country. I have been with Maggie for 3.5 years. We have been trained 3 times. Her phobias are constantly on the rise, her antisocial behavior has reached such a point that she doesn’t even enjoy her walks.
    After much research on the internet I decided to take the situation into my own hands and start Prozac at a very low initial 10mg dose. I think that if he responds to medication after 1-2 months he will be able to go to a good trainer for behavior improvement. Thank you all.

  10. Diane G Talbott

    I purchased an AKC registered choc. lab who too was districtive and would pull out phone jacks, chew elective cords, and also be put to attacted 3 Lhasa Apsos. She broke the jaw of one and developed seizures and had to be put to sleep. That dog had to be put down. 2 other ones had to be put down as well. One had to have it’s eye removed and the other had it’s cornea scratched. She would get the smaller dog put her mouth around the dog’s head and shake it. I tried to brake up the fight but I couldn’t. Finally she let go. The dog weighs 66 lbs. the Lhasa weighed 20 lbs. I sent the dog back to the breeder and she said she would observe the dog for 2 weeks and then place the dog out. She is 6 years old as of 4/16. The breeder now told me she was going to place the dog out tomorrow, which is 48 hrs. She is not holding her end of the bargin!

    1. Anytime a dog grabs another around the neck and shakes it is a dangerous dog. It is a vicious dog! I have four dogs, 2 bulldogs and 2 Boston Terriers. They fight, but not drawing blood nor have the bullies ever grabbed the little ones around the neck, yet alone shake them.
      I brought a Dalmatian into my house that was abused. She gained weight and thrive. I had a standard poodle who would not go around here. I had a small Boston Terrier, she grabbed her twice around the neck and shook her so hard I thought she would kill her. I go bit in the process. It happened one more time. That was it. I didn’t know this dogs back round and I know about alpha dogs, I have had dogs all of my life. But never attackingto kill the other.
      Please get that dog out of your house before it kills one of your others. And definitely get tat breeder to give your money back and taken that dog back.

      1. I honestly don’t think that dog should be placed any place. That dog is aggressive and could attack a child.
        I am a dog lover, my dogs own us and our home!! But to own a dog like that and perhaps taking it out for a walk or it getting loose, it could attack another animal or person. I may be wrong but this is how I truly feel.
        I sometimes wonder, there are so people born bad and show signs even as children and I think it is true of animals. Probably rare but still it can happen.

  11. Has anyone tried Prozac and seen ZERO changes?
    I adopted a rescue pup 2 months ago. He is now 7 months old. He is very fearful of everything and everyone.
    I worked with a trainer on behavior modification, but nothing has gotten better. She
    recommended a DVM that specializes in behavioral medicine. The vet prescribed
    Prozac (along with anti-anxiety meds BuSpirone and Prophanalol).

    ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAS CHANGED! My boy is still just as fearful as the day I rescued him.

    Any advice is welcomed and needed!

    1. Maurine,

      Did your dog get better? I am dealing with the exact same thing with a 6 month old puppy I adopted about a month ago. He just started Prozac. He is terrified of everything and doesn’t want much to do with anything. He hides and somethings is visibly shaking. Just curious as to what you ended up doing.

  12. I have a reactive German Shepherd female who just turned 3. I got her at 7 weeks, socialized her trained her, she is very leash reactive towards other dogs. I have had hercat 3 different trainers & she is still reactive towards other dogs. I am goingvto the Vets tomorrow and hopefullycwe can find a medical answer to her problem.

  13. Melissa Kooyman

    I am going to the vet in an hour to discuss a prescription for prozac for my 1 year old Border Collie,Nikko. Nikko is a reactive girl. We have a very good trainer we are working with,that suggested,or rather ,insisted that we try this for Nikko to be able to learn other ways of dealing with anxiety,more easily. As I understand it..Nikko reacts so quickly and aggressively,it is hard for her to listen or think of anything else. Prozac should mellow her reactions..take the edge off her anxiety,in order to learn a different response that works as well as aggression. IE: walk away,look at me,go to her ‘safe spot'(kennel). Which one we have not started any of these yet. We are just avoiding those situations to keep from ingraining the habit of aggression. So thanks for the article. I hope I can post here again with the results that we find.

    1. I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes for you and your dog, Melissa. My dog just started Prozac this morning. (Rescue dog, one year old, who knows what she’s endured, also it seems to me that in her mutt lineage she definitely has some border collie.) The vet and the animal behaviorist who visited us both suggested many of the same training goals you mention, and noted that Prozac might help in tamping down her flooding-of-emotions reactions so we can get some training done, so she isn’t overwhelmed all the time. Good luck!

  14. I got an RX this evening from vet for prozac for our almost 2 year old pup.
    what dosage have you all been given, and how often.
    we were given 20 mg to give twice a day. I felt that might be a bit much. he is 46 lbs.
    I think i feel this way, cause i personally am quite sensitive to medication. I have such mixed feelings…. after reading some experiences, i feel he could benefit, yet am afraid of side effects and the “stigma” of using a drug. (yea, i myself am on zoloft)

    1. My 14 lb. Chihuahua was given 10mg once a day yesterday. I am also on Zoloft. For this reason I have no idea why it took me so I g to seek out help for her anxiety.

  15. I have 2 rescued boxers each coming from deplorable situations. And for understandable reasons are becoming increasingly aggressive with other dogs.We have tried everything because the pent up aggravation will at times turn them on each other and after trying everything else have started them on Prozac. My biggest concern it the accompanying anorexia. Boxers are notorious for stomach issues and my Star who usually watches the chicken in the oven until it is finished would not take a bite last night. Neither of them would take their after walk treats which my Robbie would normally nag my husband for.
    Has anyone experienced this and please tell me it is temporary

  16. Today is the first day my dog has been on Prozac, so of course no noticeable changes. He went from being a hyper, normal puppy, 7 mos at the time, in May. We live in a downtown loft with tons of noise around us! He went from loving to be outside, 2 long walks a day, for about an hour each, we took him to restaurant and bars, and daycare twice a week on days I worked .
    one day, he did not want to go outside, he would not budge, we would carry him out, and the slightest noise, car starting to sirens and he would hitail it back to our door, ANY noise! I tried , melatonin, cbd oil, Benadryl, and nothing worked , so I broke down one day and my husband said guess it time for Prozac.

    I am nervous though when I hear it may cause agression because he has never been, love people and kids, goes crazy when he knows he is going to daycare, anyone experience the side effects of aggression.

  17. Thank You my baby started Prozac today. He’s a beautiful deaf boy with a tremendous amount of anxiety. I look forward to following your post.

  18. After a year of dog training and thousands of power walks I put my one year old collie on Prozac due to uncontrolled obsessive barking. My neighbors wanted me kicked out of the neighborhood because of my dog. We bought his and hers Bose headphone just to try to survive in our house. The TV, a bird, a dishwasher, a washing machine, a weedeater, a lawnmower -even the sound of rain – anything that made noise turned him into a uncontrollable maniac. He has been on Prozac for 4 weeks and I believe there is hope now. I continue his training and for the first time ever-he can actually listens to a command of quiet most times. My hope is that we can continue his lessons and get him off Prozac but for the moment – it is the best decision I’ve ever made.

  19. So happy to have just read this. My dog started a dose of 10 mg of Prozac on Friday. She has been pulling her fur out of her shoulder. I am a very active person so she for sure gets runs and hikes and walks. I’d originally thought the problem was that I was working two jobs and gone a lot of the day, despite the activity she was getting. I now work just one job and it seems to have gotten worse. She’s also had bouts of peeing inside but I never attributed that to anxiety. Sadie is a rescue dog, so I don’t really know her background. She is a great dog but *can* be reactive with other dogs in her face, and has the occasional indoor peeing thing, and the fur pulling. Also, she’s got an intensity like no other dog I have ever had. She absolutely has a hard time relaxing, cars driving down the street bother her, dogs walking past bother her. I have attributed a lot of this to her just being an intense dog. But the fur pulling was difficult to ignore, an obvious sign of distress. As someone who also takes anxiety meds, I know that it’s not enough to go for a run or have toys to distract you. We’ll see how this goes, but this article is encouraging.

  20. Thank you for the admission, as I too have trained dogs for many years and today actually had my australian shepherd put on Prozac. He is a champion show dog, titled Rally Excellence and CD and CGN. He is 4. Over the last year, he has slowly started changing in subtle ways. Finally I have had to accept that he needs more help than I can help him with. Thank you so much for your comments, as you really do feel like something went wrong, when you know you have socialized and exposed them and trained them to the best of your ability. The positive side is that we can now council clients better when behaviours are beyond training. Thanks for being brave!

    1. My sweet, loved-by-all, Isabella colored, velvet haired NORALEE is 14 years old now. Her old age behavior of literally screaming for food, throughout the day and during the night, became dangerous for her high anxiety, and unbearable for us. Our fantastic Vet prescribed 10mg Prozac, to no avail after 6 weeks. Finally, the dose was doubled and NoraLee is much better. She sleeps quite a bit now, but I have to face her slow decline due to her age. I am so happy she is out of the anxiety and can be by our sides with a smile on her face!

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