Your pet has a bacterial infection and is feeling poorly. The vet prescribes medication. You willingly begin giving it. Your trainer is observing things that has him worried. It is recommended that a medical professional be called to discuss the possibility of medication. You balk at the idea. Why?
I asked people why they were or why they thought pet owners were reluctant to consider medication as a primary tool in training. The answers included the following: The stigma people have with mental health. Concerns medications will make their dogs zombies. The assumption that veterinarians are trying to take pet owners’ money. It may take too long to find the right medication and dose, people wanted faster results. Real trainers do not have to consider medication for animals so suggesting it means you are a bad trainer.
Almost two decades ago when I was getting my business off the ground, I thought medication was a last resort and we needed to try everything else first. When I started training in the 1980’s, the use of medications as tools in training was barely a blip on anyone’s radar. We were never taught the importance of medication with some cases. However, over the years I and many others have learned the importance of medication as a tool when working with some pets. To understand why medication should not be a last resort, we need to first look at stress and its effects on the body.
Simplistically, stress causes chemical changes in the body. The amygdala sends distress signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts upon glands that start to pump chemicals (like adrenaline) through the body to prepare for action. When the stress goes away, more chemicals are released to assist with recovery. However, if enough stress happens over a prolonged time the body can adjust its chemistry. This can result in stress chemicals staying higher and this can negatively affect behavior. Medications can help readjust the body chemicals and take the edge off things. This can increase the effectiveness of training and behavior modification.
Here is my take on using medications to help our pets. I want to consider the use of medications sooner rather than later in some cases. When I sit with a critter who is in distress, anxious, really in need, it is my job to look at all possibilities to increase the chance of some level of success. Medication is a tool. If I have something at my disposal that can help alleviate stress and make our work easier, why would I not want to use it if it is humane?
Along with the benefits of medication, owners need to understand what it is not. Medication is not a magic potion that will absolve you of work. Medication will not make your higher energy Border Collie lower energy like a Basset Hound. Medication is not always a fast or a short-term fix. Each situation is unique to that pet and situation. However, once the most effective medication and dosage is found it can be a great tool!
When I have a client, who is reluctant to consider medications, I set a time frame of a few weeks to a month. If within that time frame we are not seeing any meaningful changes and the owner can honestly state everything needed addressing is being done to the level needed, then we revisit medication.
Using medication is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is a sign of a greater understanding of how to best work with our pets.
- Karen Peak – West Wind Dog Training