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Q?

My Dog is On Prozac, Can We Start Training?

A.

The short answer is "no". Let me explain why.

Veterinary Behaviorists

The pet industry in the United States is booming. For dogs alone, it is an about $80 billion market in annual sales and the veterinary industry wants a bigger piece of that pie. They are expanding through the field of veterinary behaviorists. Veterinary behaviorists do attend veterinary school and are basically the psychiatry arm of veterinary medicine. They usually prescribe drugs instead of training (there are occasional exceptions). It’s a good business as it creates a new monthly revenue stream.

Veterinary behaviorists have varying levels of education. At the highest level, they attended a specialized school and completed intense studies. However, the problem is, it is mostly theoretical. Their daily interactions with dogs are very limited compared to professional dog trainers. As a result, it is very difficult for veterinary behaviorists to understand—let alone explain—what is and isn’t a behavioral problem. When you lack the knowledge of how to interact with a dog, classifying behaviors as problematic is a highly questionable practice. Common statements include:

  • “The dog is too active, let’s calm him down with drug A.”
  • “The dog is showing behavior B, let’s give him drug C.“
  • “Training isn’t good, they use aversives. We don’t want that.”

The primary reason veterinary behaviorists don’t want dogs to receive effective training instead of drugs is, because it costs them clients. They prefer the dogs to be on medication, so they can prescribe refills every month. It’s a good revenue stream.

However, this approach has several problems. First, we don’t fully understand how those drugs work. Second, those drugs are not benign—they have many serious side-effects. Third, these drugs often don’t work.

Obviously, psychotropic drugs have evolved over time but these problems persist, regardless of what generation the drugs are. Common side-effects include weight gain, epilepsy, lack of sex drive (not necessarily important for most dogs), and major health and welfare warnings regarding how these drugs affect the workings of the heart, the liver, the kidneys, and the brain. The side effects are plentiful.

Of course, veterinary behaviorists can offer treatment for medical conditions that could affect a dog's behavior. Thyroid issues would be on top of that list and they can absolutely affect a dog’s behavior (i. e. lead to aggressive behaviors). In that case, thyroid medication is the first step and maybe all that is needed. But, we are medicating dogs in an alarming manner for things that are not medical issues. It parallels the use of drugs in human psychiatry. Yet, there are few studies on the long-term use of these medications, and that should give us pause.

The Scientific Data

Selective publication of clinical trials on psychotropic drugs also could lead to a bias about their perceived effectiveness, according to a study led by researchers at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center (New England Journal of Medicine, January 2008, Volume 358, Issue 3, Pages 252–260).
The study examined 74 FDA-registered studies for a dozen antidepressants and found that most studies with negative results were not published in the scientific literature or were published in a way that conveyed a positive outcome.

Another study titled "Effectiveness of Antidepressants - An Evidence Myth Constructed from a Thousand Randomized Trials?" published in Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine, May 2008, Volume 3, Issue 14, had similar findings. These medications may seem like a magic bullet during the sales process, but as hundreds of thousands of dog owners have discovered after spending lots of money, they are not.

Working With Me

As a dog trainer, I regularly get inquiries from dog owners whose dogs are in “treatment” with behavioral specialists and are on those medications. If they were working as advertised, those dog owners would not be looking for training.

I personally don’t work with dogs on those drugs and advise owners to discuss how to discontinue usage with their veterinarian before training can be scheduled. These medications must not be stopped “cold-turkey” as that can lead to very dramatic, chemical imbalances. These are serious drugs and they must be discontinued gradually.

I am obviously not opposed to medical treatments but veterinary behaviorists don’t interact much with dogs; dog trainers do. Veterinary behaviorists may mean well but they simply don’t understand what is and isn’t normal dog behavior and as such their advice is based on very limited, narrow knowledge. As the old saying goes: “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”—in this case pharmaceuticals.

Problem Behaviors

It is important to realized that most “problem behaviors” dog owners contact dog trainers for, are actually normal dog behaviors. They are just expressed in unacceptable contexts and no drug can change that. For example, a dog chasing squirrels is a normal behavior. A dog chasing kids on skateboards is essentially the same thing, we just can’t have that. This is an example of a natural behavior, expressed inappropriately. This is the same with aggressive behaviors and most other behaviors. These challenges can usually be addressed quickly through training, just not through drugs. These problems are not rooted in a Prozac deficiency, but in a lack of opportunity for genetic drive expression.

Experience and Expertise

My clients tell me their interactions with veterinary behaviorists started with a 30-minute consultation for $200–$400. They completed an impressive-sounding questionnaire, the veterinary behaviorist looked at their dog once and then prescribed medication for their dog for the rest of its life. Who seriously thinks that’s a good idea?

My main problem with veterinary behaviorists is that in their view, “science says” aversives should not be used (that is not what science says at all, but it sounds good) and positive reinforcement (including differential reinforcement programming) didn’t work, we are now going to spay or neuter the dog and put it on drugs. There is no evidence that that works either, but there is money to be made, so let go with that.

Just like I am not going to be able to have any meaningful conversation with a regular medical doctor about proper nutrition, I can’t take seriously a veterinary behaviorist’s advice on a dog behavior, when they essentially have no way of knowing what is and isn’t normal canine behavior in the first place. To know that, you have to spend time and interact with lots of dogs, not just read about them. Book knowledge is great and valuable, no question, but it is no substitute to actually interacting with the species under discussion.

The well-known Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson once said in an interview: “The worst dog I’ve ever met was owned and trained by a behavioral psychologist.” Book knowledge and experience are different things. Edison didn’t invent the perfect light bulb in the lab and then just had to build the thing once. He built 10,000 light bulbs before it finally worked. Hands-on experience matters.

More Scientific Data

Lastly, a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (May–June 2021, Volume 43, Pages 46–53) found that these medications essentially don’t work. The study stated, “…surprisingly, we failed to find any significant associations between treatment response and the administration of specific medications…”. This may have been surprising to the researchers, it was not surprising to professional dog trainers.

Veterinarians and dog trainers should strive to work together for the best outcome for each dog. However, that is only possible if each stays in their lane of expertise and doesn’t try to be something they aren’t.

Q?

What is a Behaviorist?

A.

A behaviorist is someone who subscribes to the concepts of behaviorism, also known as behavioral psychology. Behaviorism is a theory of learning which assumes all behaviors are learned through interaction with the environment through a process called conditioning. Hence, all behavior is simply a response to environmental stimuli. Behaviorism is only concerned with observable stimulus-response behaviors that can be studied in a systematic and observable manner. While revolutionary at the time, from today’s perspective it is pretty obvious that this view was very limited and in many aspects has proven to be incorrect.

Behaviorists

Behaviorists are generally people with a college degree in behaviorism. Those tend to work in research. However, many dog trainers call themselves behaviorists these days to advertise their focus on working on behavioral challenges in dogs. That doesn’t indicate they have any special degree in behaviorism or any particular skill set. They just repurposed an official college degree into something other. In fact, many of these so-called behaviorist dog trainers are stuck in a 1950s mentality of thinking that has been upended by subsequent advances in understanding. That doesn’t diminish the importance of behaviorism and its models. They are very important. But it means there is a lot more to understanding behavior and resolving behavioral challenges than this early field of scientific understanding.

Veterinary Behaviorists

A special breed of behaviorist that has emerged in the last ten years or so, is the veterinary behaviorist. Veterinary behaviorists do attend veterinary school and are basically the psychiatry arm of veterinary medicine. They usually prescribe drugs instead of training. This creates a new monthly revenue stream. There are different levels of education for veterinary behaviorists. At the highest tier, they do have to attend a specialized school and complete intense studies. However, the problem is, it is mostly theoretical. Their daily interactions with dogs are very limited compared to dog trainers. As a result, it is very difficult for them to understand, let alone explain, what is and isn’t a behavioral problem. When you lack the knowledge of how to interact with a dog, classifying behaviors as problematic is a highly questionable practice.

This is especially concerning as a recent study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (May–June 2021, Volume 43, Pages 46-53) found that these medications essentially don’t work. The study stated, “…surprisingly, we failed to find any significant associations between treatment response and the administration of specific medications…”.

A Brief History

The journey of the scientific understanding of behavior started to take off in the 1860s with the studies of Ivan Pavlov (known for classical conditioning) and John B. Watson (know for The Little Albert experiment). Especially Watson laid the foundation for behaviorism (1900–1950), which was further advanced by Edward Thorndike (known for The Puzzle Box and the Laws of Learning) and most famously B. F. Skinner, who formulated operant conditioning as we know it today.

As a counterbalance, humanistic psychology (1930–1970) developed. It was a rebellion against what some psychologists saw as the limitations of the behaviorist approach. As a result, humanistic psychology is a perspective that emphasizes looking at the whole being, and the uniqueness of each individual.

Next came the cognitive revolution (1950–1970). It was an intellectual movement that began in the 1950s as an interdisciplinary study of the mind and its processes. It later became known collectively as cognitive science. A key goal of early cognitive psychology (1970–present) was to apply the scientific method to the study of human cognition.

In parallel, ethology (1930–present) looked at behavior from a different angle. Ethology focuses on behavior under natural conditions (instead of the lab), and views behavior as an evolutionary adaptive trait and not simple stimulus-response conditioning.

Today: Evolutionary Psychology, Neuroscience and Genetics

Evolutionary psychology (1980–present), is the current field of study and where our most advanced understanding comes from to date. Evolutionary psychology is a synthesis of developments in several different fields, including ethology, cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, and social psychology. At the base of evolutionary psychology is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. This is further aided by our advances in understanding genetics.

Our current understanding of behavior is shaped by evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and genetics. The advances made over the last 70 years have upended many of the behaviorism doctrines and refocused our efforts on seeking true understanding and not superficial observations alone. Focusing on observable behavior was a fine start when we had no other options. However, today we have functional MRI scanners and no longer have to treat the brain as a black box. Behaviorists still mostly focus on observable behavior only and as such have a narrow view on most behavioral challenges.

Q?

Do You Use Shock Collars/e-Collars?

A.

I usually don't use e-collars for obedience training. Never say never, but 99% of the time, that would be an unnecessary and dumb idea.

But, I sometimes use them. Generally speaking, electric collars (e-collars) are overused in dog training. There is no need to train obedience with e-collars just because we can. I don't even remember the last time I used an e-collar with a dog in our Board and Train program. It's rarely necessary. If I feel it is the best option, I will discuss it with you before I use it on your dog and explain why and how, so you can decide.

Aversives are used to either stop behaviors that must end or stop dogs from choosing competing reinforcers (e.g. squirrels) over commands. Many things can be aversive, it depends on context. Also, something that may be aversive in one context is not aversive in another. For example, a time-out (removal from a situation). If your dog doesn't like visitors and you put him back in his crate, he may enjoy that. While another, very social dog, would hate it when there is a new person to interact with. It all depends.

E-collars are aversive. That's the point. That is their purpose. They allow to quickly teach a dog to NOT do something by attaching unpleasant consequences to it. Sometimes they are necessary or at least the easiest and fastest way to a necessary outcome, but the keyword is SOMETIMES.

Let's say your dog is eating sprinkler heads or self-mutilates his tail, or chases kids on skateboards. In such scenarios, including an e-collar at some stage as part of a larger training plan can make a lot of sense or maybe the only responsible option. For example, a dog chases his tail, catches it, and self-mutilates to the point of serious injury—daily! Are you interested in embarking on a 6-12 month differential reinforcement program that may or may not work out? Probably not. It would be irresponsible and not in the best interest of your dog to let him suffer further injuries. There are many other scenarios. With an e-collar, such behaviors can usually be reliably suppressed with a couple of applications.

In summary, yes, I sometimes use e-collars when I feel it is in the best interest of the dog's well-being in a particular case but it's not a major or even frequent part of my training.

If you are interested in more details on the aspects and components of dog training, I recommend my article on Positive Dog Training.

Q?

How Does Your Board and Train Program Work?

A.

Our Board and Train program is different, and I believe far better than many others you will find. Here is why.

You got our dog to have a friend, and you are sending your dog to school because you want to enjoy living with your friend. The most common approach is to teach a set of obedience commands and boss your dog around all day long to keep him in line. That's how we traditionally do it, so everyone is familiar with that approach. But does that truly get you what you are looking for?

Of course, we will teach your dog all standard commands and then some. But that won't keep him from digging up your flower bed, eating sprinkler heads, or chasing kids on skateboards, just to name a few ideas your buddy may get.

The challenge is your dog's genetics. He wasn't bred to sit home alone all day while you go to work, go on a few walks a week, and may visit a dog park here and there. Every cell in his body is genetically programmed to engage in predatory behaviors, and he doesn't get to use any of them, living with us. Further, every breed has different, additional instincts and genetic drives. If we don't fulfill these innate desires every day, your dog will find displacement activities like digging holes and so on. We tend not to care much for the things dogs come up with.

Our Board and Train program starts by getting to know your dog and figuring out what he finds most rewarding; it isn't food, trust me. We develop a custom reward event for your dog to fulfill him biologically and, as a result, keep him out of trouble. This reward event is a custom-tailored game you and your dog can enjoy together, and it also becomes the reward for all obedience commands. It will take your relationship to a completely different level.

The reward game will create a fantastic relationship between you and your dog. You will have something you can do together and mutually enjoy. This is called play-based training. We usually use toys instead of food, and you will love it. I will teach you the game when you come to visit your dog during training.

Key Points:

  • We have a waitlist, but most dogs can start within 4-8 weeks.
  • We require a 50% non-refundable down payment at the time of booking. The remainder is due upon drop-off.
  • Our Board and Train program is 6-8 weeks long.
  • You'll receive 1-2 training videos per week.
  • Starting at week four, expect to visit your dog weekly for training sessions.
  • Depending on your dog, socialization included.
  • You have lifetime support for your dog.
  • Included: sit, down, stay, come, leave it, off, ut (drop it), loose (casual walk), heel (formal walk), kennel.

Contact us here to schedule a consultation to discuss how we can help you best.

Q?

How Does Your Service Stand Out?

A.

I don't just teach your dog commands. My focus is on making you a better team. I achieve my results through play-based training and building a strong relationship with each dog. Together, we design a custom training plan for you and your dog. Tailored to your needs and helping your dog meet its full potential.

When working with dogs, I consider the dog's genetic drives. I figure out how we can provide your dog with biological fulfillment and as a result, prevent problems from recurring after we got them under control.

I have comprehensive knowledge of learning science, evolutionary psychology, and ethology. I don't offer simplistic no one-size-fits-all solutions. I offer a holistic approach, honoring your dog's being.

I am a Training without Conflict™ certified professional dog trainer (TWC CPDT). In addition, I am a professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an evaluator for the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen programs. Further, I am the author of the canine behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk and owner of Happy Dog Training, LLC. I have been working with dogs for over sixteen years.

Contact us here to schedule a consultation to discuss how we can help you best.

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