Secret world of dog professionals: Fluoxetine (prozac) and behavior modification

I was asked a question recently about the use of doggy prozac to help with reactivity. The person asking was concerned that it was a training issue, not necessarily fixed by meds. So I compiled my thoughts on it below. Come join the conversation! www.canine-cred.mn.co

I have worked with clients whose dogs were on “prozac” (fluoxetine) and I don’t in any way think that was a bad decision for them to do that. They made the best decision for their dogs with the information they had at the time. So I don’t want to shame those people.

And I know of at least one dog who was put on fluoxetine after very extensive behavior modification training, and I don’t want to shame people in that situation either.

In general, I steer away from recommending pharmaceutical interventions and toward training and lifestyle interventions, and below is more of my take on it.

Jackson “hates confident intact males bigger than him” and Jack, a confident intact male who is bigger than Jackson. This is their first walk together. Both dogs understand leadership, and don’t need drugs in order to get along.

Fluoxetine summary

“Fluoxetine is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug for dogs that is often referred to by the brand names Reconcile or Prozac–the human form of the drug. It works by inhibiting reuptake of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

“Fluoxetine has several uses for treating conditions in dogs such as behavioral problems, separation anxiety, fear, and aggression. The medication is meant to be prescribed alongside behavior modification training. As a dog responds to behavior modification, dosage of the drug is weaned away.

“Fluoxetine is for short-term use until a condition is manageable without it. There are some side effects that can be harmful to dogs, and the drug can react badly with other medication. You’ll need to see your veterinarian for a prescription and follow their instructions closely.” (from dogtime.com) 

Fluoxetine in is used in humans “for the treatment of major depressive disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), bulimia nervosa, panic disorder, and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.” (wikipedia)

Behavior Modification

I really appreciate the angle from dogtime.com, which emphasizes the drug being a short-term solution, and behavior modification being the more lasting fix. The indications for this med from the descriptions above are so broad. I call this the dog “not having its head screwed on right.”

What contributes to a dog being a hot mess? Its genetics, its life experiences, its human-centric living situation, the world making no sense through its doggy perspective, all play a part in the dog’s constitution. (and I’m sure there are more)

Most of these factors can be worked on in a behavior modification program, with training and lifestyle adjustments. There are so many elements in a well-rounded behavior modification protocol besides just nice leash walking and commands. There’s massage and relaxation techniques, impulse control, mindset (of the dog and owner), etc. etc.

The question often comes up of if the owner wants to, or can, make the adjustments to their life to help resolve it. If they don’t (or can’t), then focusing on what the dog puts in its body will probably help more than it hurts.

But, before prozac, I would definitely try dietary changes and a CBD/supplement regiment.

Have I ever seen doggy prozac specifically have an effect on reactivity without other training interventions? NO. And I see no way that it could. The dog is still the same dog, and especially if the reactivity is so bad that the vet is recommending medicating it, then meds aren’t going to take the edge off that much.

So if the owner does choose to go the fluoxetine route, I would emphasize the same info as from dogtime.com, that it is a short-term solution (if even that), and if they need a referral for a good trainer in their area, well, that’s what networks are for.

Vets and Behaviorists

In my experience, the extreme vast majority of vets don’t know anything about behavior. And the VMA makes really bad recommendations for how they should handle behavior issues. And most vets don’t make the effort to go against VMA recommendations.

The vast majority of vets refer their patients with any behavior problems out to “behaviorists.” This is a term (like dog trainer) that anyone can use to describe themselves. There are at least a couple organizations accrediting behaviorists, but no one regulating the use of the term. Usually it means the behaviorist has some college education, maybe in biology, psychology, or animal behavior.

Some behaviorists are decent, and can offer interesting insights. In my experience, behaviorists primarily make recommendations for how the owner can manage (not modify) the behavior.

Behaviorists’ experience is mostly from academic settings, not real life training, and all of the behaviorists I know adhere to “force free” methodology. It’s kind of a secret code — balanced trainers don’t usually use the term “behaviorist” because for us it has such a strong connotation.

For many many many dogs, “force free” methodology is a death sentence. Or at least it’s a waste of money and time and energy for the owners.

I’m not saying to put every dog on a prong collar. I AM saying every dog does need clear boundaries and leadership (which is not the same as domination). And some dogs need more clear communication to understand boundaries and leadership, which might include the use of training tools like prong collars.

My tangent about behaviorists is just to demonstrate how little most vets know about behavior, and they’re usually the ones recommending to medicate the dogs. Vets, behaviorists, prozac, and force-free methodology usually come together. It’s a really sad trope that dog trainers have seen too many times.

DOG BLESS all the vets out there who are validating balanced training methods, and the use of CBD/supplements and nutritional considerations in consulting with their patients on behavioral issues. They are really going against the grain in their field, and it’s gorgeous how brave they are being when they do this.

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