How do you know when to give medication to aggressive or anxious dogs?

On Saturday I saw a client for the first time. My client hired me to assess her 4-year old Yorkshire Terrier named Sam. My client has had Sam for 4.5 months and she recently started giving him Reconcile, a Prozac for dogs to address his dog-to-dog aggression issues. 

I sat with my client in her living room and petted Sam while my client provided me more details about what she has tried in the past and details about Sam’s reactivity level.

Sam currently is only able to interact with one dog that he has known since my client adopted him. My client described Sam’s level of reactivity as high and it is affecting their quality of life so much that she doesn’t take Sam outside. Since he is a small dog, he is able to use puppy pads inside. When she takes him outside he causes such a disturbance in the neighborhood that she is concerned that her neighbors will complain.

I provided the strategies that I wanted to try with Sam when we go outside: desensitization, counter conditioning, stay at the proper distance to ensure that Sam does not rehearse the behavior causing an escalation of behavior. 

We then headed downstairs and Sam became extremely agitated even before we made it outside. He barked in the elevator, as soon as the elevator opened and then once again as we approached the glass door leading outside.

We saw another dog approximately a half block away after being outside for about one minute. Sam escalated very quickly, stopped taking treats and would not take his eyes off of the other dog. Once he started barking, he did not calm down the entire time we were outside, even after the other dog moved out of sight. 

I recommended that we move inside and discuss what happened and my assessment. Not only did I agree that Sam should be on medication, I recommended that my client discuss increasing the dosage with her veterinarian.

My client was glad to hear that she wasn't overreacting by putting Sam on medication. She has had friends and family give her grief for doing so. I assured her that she made the correct decision and we discussed next steps . . .

When should you discuss medication options with your veterinarian to help your dog’s behavior?

I recommend discussing medication options with your veterinarian if your dog has high levels of separation anxiety or aggression. However, not all forms of these behaviors require medication.

Separation Anxiety

I recommend that medication be considered for Separation Anxiety if two or more of the following conditions are present:

  1. A dog is hurting himself. Possibilities include breaking teeth, damaging paws by repeatedly scratching on crates or doorways, or slamming himself against the crate when alone
  2. A dog is not able to be alone for a short amount of time without a quick escalation of panic behavior, including barking or destruction
  3. A dog that is normally housetrained has accidents every time he is left alone

Medication (often Clomicalm) can help a dog with Separation Anxiety by reducing the overall anxiety level while proper training is practiced. Separation Anxiety training involves conditioning a dog to be calm during departures and finally when alone. This is by far the most challenging topic in dog training. If you have a dog that is aggressive around dogs, you can usually avoid dogs.

But, you always have to leave your house at some point. Dogs with Separation Anxiety can regress if pushed past their current ability. For instance, if you work on departure exercises and your dog can finally be left alone for twenty minutes, he might regress if left alone for an hour. The logistics of real life can make Separation Anxiety treatment seem impossible. Medication can provide a starting point by lowering the overall anxiety level.

Dog-to-Dog Aggression

My criteria for recommending medication as an option involves looking at the environment of the dog and determining if the dog’s behavior allows a starting point for treatment using behavior modification alone. My philosophy for treating dog-to-dog aggression dictates that dogs are kept within their comfort zone as much as possible during training. I do not prescribe to the physical tactics used by many trainers to punish a dog for barking.

I have had great success using desensitization techniques and feel that this is the only way to go. However, if a dog’s daily walks take him too close to a dog and he escalates into a frenzy every walk, it is virtually impossible to use desensitization alone in these cases. 

Medication can help lower the anxiety of a dog to allow training to happen at a faster rate because the dog can remain calm and less reactive while being closer to the dog. Medication is not a magic wand, however, proper training needs to be used in combination with the treatment.

If you find yourself in either of these situations, talk with your veterinarian about options. When used correctly, the proper dosage and type of medication can do wonders. However, it can take 2-6 weeks to notice the effects, and sometimes different medications or dosages need to be tried to find the right combination for a dog. My goal is always to fade out the medication over time, but there are certain cases that require long-term medication.

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