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  • Writer's pictureSara Scott

When Fido's Fear and Anxiety Persist: The Role of Medication in Canine Behavior Modification

For dogs tormented by pronounced anxiety, aggression, or phobias, medication may be one piece of the rehabilitation puzzle when combined with professional training. But what exactly is the role of psychotropic drugs in treating canine behavior problems? Let's explore this complex issue.

What is a Veterinary Behaviorist?

First, it’s important to understand that while general practice veterinarians can prescribe psychotropic medicines for pets, ideally these medications should be carefully selected, monitored, and managed under the guidance of a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. This is a licensed veterinarian who has undergone intensive postgraduate training to become a recognized specialist in animal behavior.

Think of a veterinary behaviorist like a psychiatrist for humans. They determine if medication might help, which drugs may work best for the individual dog's needs, and provide medical oversight for side effects or dosage adjustments.

How Can Medications Help?

Medications don't directly resolve or eliminate problem behaviors in dogs. For example, drugs don't teach a dog not to be aggressive or afraid.

However, the right medication can lower a dog's overall baseline anxiety, impulsiveness or fear. This lifts the dog's stress threshold so that behavior modification training can more effectively reshape the unwanted responses.

Two Main Categories of Psychiatric Medications

There are two primary categories of medications used for canine behavioral problems:

  1. SSRI Anti-Anxiety/Anti-Depressant Drugs

SSRI stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. These medications are typically prescribed for daily, long-term use. They work by increasing serotonin levels which has an anti-anxiety effect. Fluoxetine and clomipramine are common examples.

  1. Fast-Acting Anti-Anxiety Drugs

These types of medication are given on an as-needed basis in anticipation of certain stress triggers. For example, gabapentin or trazodone may be administered situationally before a vet visit, grooming session, or storm to induce calmness.

The Critical Role of Combined Approach

It's vital to understand that medication alone is rarely a solution for canine behavioral struggles. The certified professional trainer's role is equally critical.

The trainer analyzes the motivation behind the problematic behaviors and designs a tailored behavior modification plan using techniques like desensitization, counterconditioning and positive reinforcement.

The medication provides chemical support in lowering stress while the trainer actively reshapes the dog's emotional responses to triggers through behavior training.

Caveat About Natural Supplements

Some owners are hesitant to use conventional psychiatric medications and instead seek out supplements like CBD oil or herbal blends.

However, at this time, most natural alternatives lack rigorous scientific evidence showing their efficacy and safety for dog behavior struggles. The veterinary behaviorist focuses on FDA-approved medications with proven track records.

What About CBD?

CBD, derived from hemp, has garnered attention for anxiety, seizures, and pain. But evidence on its effectiveness for dog behavior is limited.

Consult your vet before using CBD, ensure proper dosing for your dog's size, and monitor effects closely. Unlike FDA-approved meds, the purity, potency and quality of supplements are not regulated.

The Takeaway

For pronounced fears, phobias, anxiety, and aggression, prescription psychiatric medications, carefully combined with customized behavior modification training, can empower dogs to overcome their hurdles.

Collaboration between your veterinary behaviorist and certified trainer is key, with medications lowering stress and trainers actively modifying emotional responses through positive reinforcement techniques.

While the path is not quick or easy, with this comprehensive approach we can help our dogs achieve lasting confidence, resilience and happiness as part of the family.


My goal is to empower you with the tools and knowledge to help your dog thrive. To learn more about my science-based behavioral services, click this link.


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