I ran across this snippet online yesterday: “I took a while, but we trained through Issue X. I’m so glad I didn’t follow my vet’s advice and try medication.”
It was a “close the computer and walk away” moment.
I don’t think psychiatric medication is the solution to every training issue. Not even every fear-based issue. I tried every positive training method and mood enhancing magic widget out there before we switched to medication; I understand why people are hesitant. But if your dog has a problem severe enough that your veterinarian is recommending medical intervention, why on earth would you persevere through training without it? If your dog is that miserable, why are you withholding help?
Let’s pretend this comment was about, say, Kennel Cough. “It took a while, but my dog finally quit coughing. I’m so glad I didn’t use medication.” Does that make sense to you?
What’s at issue here is fear and misunderstanding.
People assume that a dog on medication for a mental problem is going to be stuck taking it forever, and they assume that the dog will become a zombie robot.
Neither of those things is true.
According to our veterinary behaviorist, very few of her patients require medication indefinitely. Psychiatric medication in dogs is largely a training aid–the medication helps your dog have a milder reaction to X, and over time they learn not to have a bad reaction to X anymore. That learning stays in place, even when the medication is gone. It isn’t a fast process, but a year or two (the timeline the behaviorist mentioned as fairly common for her patients) is not forever.
As for the zombie-robot angle, that is also not true. If medication makes your dog act lethargic, it’s not the right medication or dosage. Dogs who are hyper-vigilant may start to sleep more when they feel less anxiety about their environment, but that’s a good adjustment to a more “normal” way of living. We do have one medication where the top-end dosage made Silas very clumsy, so we don’t give him that dose.
Silas still wants to play from 5:00 until bedtime. He still has enough energy that he’s hard to entertain in a townhouse with no yard. Last night, he ran around upstairs with my husband, then we played upstairs/downstairs fetch, then I did a training session that included running to get treats, then I took him in the garage and did some car training, and THEN he was still so energetic that he and my husband had to chase each other around and around the garage at top speed. We don’t do that much every night, but it’s within the normal range.
People also believe that using medication means you are a failure as a trainer.
That isn’t true, either.
Dogs who need medical help overcoming a problem often react so strongly that there’s simply nothing you can train. This is what finally pushed me over the edge with Silas. I read 8000 books and articles saying “start in a place where your dog can see what he’s afraid of, but doesn’t react to it.” Without medication, that place does not exist for Silas. He could see a glint of metal through the trees at the park, and we had to leave. Just being outside was so hard for him that he literally could not eat a cookie or play with a toy, even in familiar places. His medication gives me enough room to do real training. Which brings me to my last point:
Medication is not magic.
The other misperception is that the right pill will “fix” a problem dog immediately. Silas did not start walking on the sidewalk as soon as I handed him the first pill. What the medication let me do was start training him. We could go to a park with cars on the horizon, and we’ve meandered up from that over the last seven or eight months. Yesterday, he stopped to sniff a bush while we were next to the street, and I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down in glee. His “walks” on the sidewalk are literally in the one minute range. But he’s out there. It’s possible that if I had stacked just the right combination of non-medical remedies we might have eventually made similar progress, but I don’t see the point in dragging out his misery just to avoid a well-established medical protocol.