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Helping the Medicine Go Down

Updated: Jan 13, 2022

For as long as I can remember, my dog Portia has been on some sort of medication. Early in life she struggled with skin allergies and subsequent infections. This meant repeated rounds of steroids and antibiotics until our veterinarian was able to identify the culprit behind her itchy skin. For several more years she fought chronic urinary tract infections, leading to more pills and supplements until our current vet cracked the case.

These days, to keep her skin allergies and urinary incontinence at bay, she's on a twice daily regimen of medication and supplements, and it seems we've finally hit that healthy sweet spot (knock on wood). While it's likely my dog does more pill-taking than your average canine, she's also on the once monthly schedule of heart worm and flea & tick prevention that we're all familiar with.

Before the invention of Pill Pockets for these things, a lot of folks used cheese, lunch meat or peanut butter. Some dogs gulp it down and don't seem to notice the pill inside. Though I often wonder how many dogs out there actually willingly eat those so-called “chewable” tablets without garnish.

Only one “trick of the trade” works when it comes to getting my dog to eat "hidden" pills, and that is butter. I'm not sure what it is about butter that works. Maybe the scent molecules of the medication have a difficult time permeating the fat? Maybe butter just slides so easily down the throat that she doesn't have a chance to become suspicious of my motives? Regardless, it works. However, due to being on a twice-daily multi-pill regimen, as well as the fact that I do not own a dairy farm, I choose to save the butter for our dog sitter to use. The rest of the time, I physically pill her myself.

If you're unfamiliar with pilling, it's the process of opening a dog's mouth wide enough to place a pill at the back of the throat, then closing the mouth and rubbing the throat to encourage swallowing.

Recently I was lucky enough to have a video of my dog's pilling routine shared by Dr. Susan Friedman of Behavior Works. My quote included in the post reads,

Portia is a dog that will not eat food with pills hidden inside, so in order to get her daily medication, we've worked on having her participate in the "pilling" process. She tells me when she is ready for the next pill by enthusiastically pushing her snout into my palm and opening her mouth. She communicates that she is not ready by turning her head away when I present my hand. Usually this happens when she's not done eating the food reinforcer from the previous round. We do this same routine at night for brushing her teeth. I use doggy toothpaste for that, so she'll often turn her head away multiple times since it can take a while to get down - sort of like peanut butter! Husbandry is my absolute favorite training endeavor because it's such a necessary, oftentimes daily, component of our animal's lives and having their active participation is just amazing!

That's all true, husbandry training is my jam.

That being said, I'm lucky for Portia's pilling cooperation since I somehow managed to get it on board prior to becoming a professional dog trainer. I helped make the situation more tenable for her by always following it up with food reinforcement.

Somewhere along the way though, it became more refined. It became a dialogue.

Since most dogs are naturally uncomfortable with body handling, it can be easy to get caught in the trap of “good enough” or “tolerable" in husbandry training endeavors. Our goal is for the dog to comfortably tolerate whatever it is we're doing to them, so we can get it done and call it a day. But what if that were just the beginning? The bare minimum?

We often can, and therefore should, go on to have our animals as partners in the training process. For example, after teaching the behavior of “push snout into cupped hand,” we can then begin to give the dog the option of participating.

This isn't to say that I would fail to give Portia important medication were she to “opt out” completely. Were she to do so, I would have the butter method as back-up. In addition, were it a supplement, rather than actual medication, I would simply forego the procedure until next time.

My hope, as the person charged with giving my dog the best quality of life possible, is to give her some degree of control, especially when it comes to consent and body handling. Dogs so often have things done to them. While it's a good goal to do things without scaring or otherwise making them overtly uncomfortable, the best thing we can strive for is to instead do things with them.

To do this we must listen to our learners. We must carefully observe their body language in order to see the subtle signs of discomfort that may come up even when they're choosing to stick around. It is my experience that providing the animal with a choice, and by choice I mean the ability to clearly communicate “ready or not,” has the potential to eliminate that discomfort.

While I have not yet instituted this dialogue in all aspects of Portia's life, my goal is to try. To my mind, no matter how much knowledge and experience we have, we have to keep striving for better, even if takes longer or flies in the face of what we've been previously taught. Don't dogs deserve that much?

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