Not too long ago I got an exasperated phone call from a client. Her six month old German Shorthair Pointer puppy was driving her crazy. She worked long hours during the day and the puppy had to stay in a crate to keep him from destroying the house while she was gone. When she got home from work she was tired and just wanted to relax, but as soon as she let the puppy out it would be zooming around crashing in to everything and causing a general ruckus.
It seemed to be a pretty clear cut case of a young, high energy dog who was in desperate need of a lot more exercise and social interaction. The owner agreed, but insisted that she did not have the time to be out running him around with her busy life and schedule. What she wanted was tranquilizers for the dog. She was pretty angry when I refused to solve her behavior problem with drugs and will probably never talk to me again.
It seems that in the world of medicine these days there is a pill for everything, so I can see how one gets the impression that any problem encountered in life has a solution in capsule form, but medicating behavior issues in dogs is almost never a sound or effective strategy by itself.
Separation anxiety and phobic behaviors are the situations that most often cause people to request medication. I can understand where that is coming from when every time you walk out the door you have to wonder if you are going get away with just having to replace the blinds after the dog tears them down today, or is he going to chew a 4X4 section out of your living room carpet, requiring both replacement of the carpet and an expensive surgery to remove the pieces that got jammed in his small intestine afterward. There is a place for medication in severe cases of separation anxiety and phobias, but it is completely ineffective unless it is paired with behavioral work and training. Some dogs fly into panic mode so fast that there is no time to even start any sort of training, and a panicked dog is not capable of learning. The goal of anti-anxiety medication is to reduce the panic threshold enough that the dog can be intensively worked with to learn ways of coping with the problem.
Unfortunately most people tend to treat these medications like magical make-all behavior-problems-go-away pills. Just pop one into your dog in the morning and he will go from a raging terror in the household to a well-adjusted model citizen. If it actually worked that way I might become a zillionaire, marketing this miracle pill both to pet owners and parents. What generally happens is that owners spend quite a bit of money on medication and then call me back a month later frustrated because the situation is not one iota better. The fact of the matter is that working through behavior problems is time consuming and difficult, and there is no short cut for getting results. There are good resources to help you, however. Many trainers and training organizations are qualified to help with these types of issues, and it is well worth a frustrated owner’s time to find a professional to help you learn how to help your dog. Before selecting a behavior specialist listen carefully to the techniques they recommend and decide if they sound reasonable and doable by you and your family. If your trainer suggests that when your dog does something that you don’t like you should throw the end of his leash over the top of the swing set and hoist him up to hang by his neck until he passes out, you might want to consider looking elsewhere, but a good match of dedicated trainer and owner can make for longer term harmony in the family and big savings in carpet repair.