Working with Behaviour Modification and Medications

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We know how emotionally taxing it can be to have a dog who is presenting with behaviour challenges like fear, anxiety, reactivity, or aggression. These challenges can arise for so many different reasons – genetics, stressful environment, lack of early socialisation and training, trauma, and sometimes health issues can cause behaviour changes.

When fear, anxiety, reactivity, or aggression becomes a chronic challenge (one that affects a dog daily or multiple times weekly), we often turn to medication in order to provide relief and aid in the behaviour modification process.

Female Veterinarian smiling at woman holding bulldog

Booking an Appointment with your Trainer

If the behaviour challenge is more sudden than gradual, or if we cannot see a clear reason for the change in behaviour, we will certainly recommend that the dog be seen by a veterinarian in order to rule out health concerns before embarking on a training program.

In training, we will start with a handful of lessons to work through management and prevention, changing your dog’s emotional response toward their triggers, and training replacement behaviours using positive reinforcement.

If throughout this process we find that a dog is too anxious to learn or that the dog is experiencing what we consider “chronic” anxiety, we may also recommend that our clients see their veterinarian in order to discuss pharmaceutical intervention. We will include a letter to the veterinarian that acts as a report for their file, helping them to make the best choices possible to help you and your dog.

Booking an Appointment with your Veterinarian

When booking an appointment with your veterinarian, you may be required to book a longer appointment than the typical exam. This can be done by notifying the call centre team at the time of booking that you require a “behaviour consult”. Always ask if you are uncertain – this is better than having to reschedule last minute because there isn’t enough time!

If your dog is struggling with fear, anxiety, reactivity, or aggression, it might be helpful to ask for the first or last appointment of the day so that you can minimise the number of triggers your dog faces when arriving for / leaving the appointment. This is not always possible but is worth asking. If it isn’t possible, ask the client care team if there is an alternate entrance or if they can make a recommendation to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

Before the appointment, prepare your questions and pack a bag that includes:

  • Your dog’s mat/bed/towel so that they have something familiar to rest on in the exam room
  • A stuffed, frozen Kong to keep them busy and chewing (stress-relief!)
  • A bag of very high value treats
  • A basket muzzle (optional and recommended)
  • Forward all medical records from other clinics if any (at least 2-3 days in advance)
  • Forward all behaviour records from your trainer (at least 2-3 days in advance)

Don't feed your dog for 8 hours before the appointment. A hungry dog is more interested in their treats during the visit. Only do this if there is no health reason not to, such as diabetes. Always allow water.

Also, consider parking and leaving your dog in the car briefly while you run ahead to make sure they are ready for you and that you can head into an exam room as quickly as possible. You can even ask the front desk to call you on your cell when they are ready for you. If you are arriving by transit or taxi, find a safe place to wait outside the clinic if need be. Between two parked cars is a fan-favourite.

When you are called in, if it is safe, consider making a quick stop at the scale – place your dog’s towel on it and gently lure your dog onto it, into a sit. Feed a series of treats to keep them in place until you get a proper read on the weight, and then head into the exam room.

During the appointment, explain your reason for booking the appointment and give your veterinarian the important details or a letter from your trainer in order to speed up the process. You can even email them the letter ahead of time, so that they can be prepared for your visit! Your veterinarian may have a series of questions to ask before examining your dog. Always answer as honestly and clearly as possible so that your veterinarian can make the best decision possible for you and your dog. Omitting information due to embarrassment has no place here! Your veterinarian is not here to judge you – they are here to help you.

Your veterinarian will likely perform a thorough physical exam on your dog and during this exam, feel free to be proactive and feed your dog treats throughout, in order to keep their mouth busy and associate wonderful things with this experience. Consider utilising a basket muzzle if you are concerned that your dog may bite. It’s paramount that your veterinarian and their staff are kept safe no matter what.

Before starting any behaviour modification medications, your veterinarian will likely require up to date blood work so be prepared for this during the physical exam.

Starting Behaviour Modification Medications

When starting your dog on medications, it is strongly recommended that you start on a day when you will be home to monitor your dog’s initial reaction – for example, a weekend or a day off.

Administer the medication as directed by your veterinarian and try to keep it at the same time(s) daily so that there is consistency. Log any changes day to day, as this data will be very important. I find it's always nice to keep a log whenever a dog is having a behaviour challenge as it can be overwhelming and that's when we tend to miss catching any patterns.  

Oftentimes medications can take 4-6 weeks to take effect and it requires some patience on our part. If you notice any side effects, log them and notify your veterinarian. Some side effects will pass within 1-2 weeks and others are more serious and should be assessed by your veterinarian without delay. Do not stop this medication or alter the dosage without the direction of your veterinarian, as some medications require a weaning period to avoid causing damage or symptoms of withdrawal. Speak with your vet if you are unsure. 

Remember that even “natural” and “holistic” products can interact with medications – to be safe, always speak with your veterinarian before adding anything, even “calming treats” into your dog’s routine.

Your veterinarian may also require regular blood work at various intervals to ensure the health of your dog – please do not skip these appointments! Any medication (not just ones for behaviour modification) can affect a dog’s health and early detection is key in order to allow your veterinarian to make any necessary adjustments.

Caregivers

Always notify alternate caregivers, such as dog walkers, pet sitters, and daycare workers so that they are aware and can also watch for any changes in your dog’s behaviour. If a caregiver will be responsible for administering this medication, be sure to give explicit direction both verbally and in written form so that there is no confusion. Include your veterinarian’s contact information as well as the nearest emergency clinic and poison control hotline as a backup.

Training

During the behaviour modification process, the medications act as an aid that simply lessens the anxiety, allowing the dog to learn and retain information longer. Behaviour modification medication is not generally given as a life-long aid, but rather as an aid during the training process.

Be consistent in your training and continue to keep your trainer in the loop with regular appointments to check in and make the necessary changes to the training plan. During this process, if your trainer is not kept in the loop, your file may be closed after a few attempts at contact, and the veterinarian may be notified that we are no longer involved.

This is due to an ethical responsibility to support clients through this process and ensure that medication is not being relied upon without any behaviour modification plan. Your veterinarian may request occasional updates from your trainer in order to continue to feel comfortable prescribing this medication.

Reaching your goals

Once you and your trainer have reached your training goals, we suggest maintaining for 1-3 months to ensure it’s “sticking”, and then speak with your veterinarian to determine whether or not it is a good time to wean off the medication. Do not do this on your own! There is much more to this process than what Dr.Google can provide and your veterinarian is the right person to work with during this process.

Additional challenges

If at any point your trainer or veterinarian feels that your dog would benefit more from an assessment with a Veterinary Behaviourist, you may be referred to a Veterinary Behaviourist or to ask your vet to book a consult with a Veterinary Behaviourist online through their professional network - this is called a “vet-to-vet consult” and involves only your veterinarian and the Veterinary Behaviourist. Fees incurred for this consultation may be passed along to you by your veterinarian. 

Related Resources:

Finding a Veterinary Behaviourist

The material within this lesson is not intended as a replacement for advice from a Veterinarian or a Veterinary Behaviourist. We are not Veterinarians, nor is providing this information considered practising veterinary medicine without a license. This is not considered advice; it is considered basic information that can also be found on the internet and in books and other online courses and resources.

See your veterinarian prior to embarking on any training plan and please do not rely on medical advice given from non-veterinarians, including information on "natural" products and/or supplements. These products can have side effects and can interact with other medications and/or conditions.

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