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Healthy Dogs

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Treating Behavior Problems in Dogs

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Can Medication Be Used Instead of Behavior Modification?

Behavioral medication alone isn’t usually effective for resolving a behavior problem. For the dog, medication serves to make a situation tolerable but not necessarily acceptable. Behavior modification can then be used to make the situation acceptable. For instance, if a dog is afraid of thunder storms, medication can ease the dog’s fear enough that he can tolerate the storm and undergo the counterconditioning necessary to treat his fear. But it’s the counterconditioning that helps him overcome his fear. In addition, many dogs can develop behavior habits because of a problem that requires medication. The medication can help the core problem, but behavior modification is still necessary to treat the accompanying behavior habits.

Which Medicines Are Best for What?

Five types of medicines are usually used to treat behavior problems in dogs. These are benzodiazepines (BZs), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The following is a table that shows different behavior problems in dogs that have been successfully treated with behavior change training and medicine.

Behavior Problem

Medicine Type

General Timidity and Fear of New Things

TCA, SSRI, 5-HT agonist

Thunderstorm or Noise Event Phobia


Distress at Being Left Alone (Separation Anxiety)


Compulsive Behavior (repeating the same short response or sequence over and over again)

TCA, SSRI, 5-HT agonist

Excessive Licking

TCA, SSRI, 5-HT agonist

Cognitive Dysfunction


Medicines for the Treatment of Sudden or Severe Fear and Panic

Some dogs experience fear only in specific situations, such as during fireworks or other events with loud noises. The benzodiazepines can help in these situations by reducing fear as needed right when these situations occur. Benzodiazepines take effect quickly, so they can treat impending fear within a short period of time-the same way an aspirin relieves a headache shortly after you take it. In contrast, most other drugs for alleviating fear need to be taken daily for several weeks before they produce results-just like antibiotics need to be taken a few days before they begin to fight bacteria. A minor drawback is that BZs must be given to the dog before the fearful event begins. Optimally, the medicine should be given one hour before the beginning of the scary event, or at minimum, it should be given before the dog shows any signs of fear or worry, such as stress panting, trembling, tail tucking, pupil dilation, sweating paw pads, etc.

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