One aspect of veterinary behavioral therapy is the use of psychotropic drugs to control behavior. To set the context for my
comments, I am not a veterinarian. I do not claim any direct working knowledge of these drugs - but I routinely work with
animals that do. Specifically, this presentation is not about abandoning or curtailing the use of chemical therapy for treating
behavior problems. Diagnosis and treatment with psychotropic drugs is often the key to a dog's sustained mental health. The
goal of this presentation is to offer a different perspective and potential solutions that dovetail standard medical diagnosis
General Psychotropic Drug Treatment:
Several drugs are currently being used to control unacceptable behavior. Some of these drugs influence maladies that are the
result of neurological dysfunction. However, some dogs are given psychotropic drugs without a clear indication that a brain
malfunction is the cause of the problem or that the specific chemicals contained in the drug have a connection to that brain
function. For instance, giving a dog Prozac or Valium as a first solution to excessive barking at the door is a questionable
practice. Barking uncontrollably at the doorbell is a normally occurring behavior in the vast majority of indoor dogs. It
is also easily controlled through operant and respondent conditioning protocols.
Loosely defined, an operant is a behavior that is determined by its consequences. If a dog attempts to bite someone giving
an intravenous injection and is accidentally jabbed in the mouth by the needle, it may stop future attempts at "hand-biting"
behavior. I observed this first hand as the target of the bite. This is an operant response because the consequence of the
behavior was the presentation of an unpleasant event – the jab of the needle. This acted as a positive punishment to the behavior
of hand-biting. Likewise, if a dog hovers around the dinner table waiting for food scraps to drop on the floor, the behavior
becomes strong based on the consequences of hanging around the table – falling food scraps that are palatable to the dog.
While veterinary medicine has made great strides in the application of medicines to treat behavior, the world of psychology
has not kept pace. If you wish to study the influences of psychotropic drugs on animals, you can attend any number of fine
colleges of veterinary medicine. If you wish to study how to directly influence the behavior of animals you have very limited
options. Practical courses in operant conditioning are rare at the university level. Moorpark College, an accredited four
year school in California, does provide a course of study that includes operant conditioning. However, this training is limited
to one side of the behavioral spectrum. Moorpark does not include practical instruction in how to apply positive punishment.
Their focus is understandable – that great majority of their students are training to work with exotic animals in zoos and
marine parks. They are not likely to work with companion animals gone wild. Some schools, such as the University of West
Virginia use the perspective of behavior analysis to guide graduate students toward expertise in companion animal behavioral
therapy. An analysis of their perspective yields the common bias in favor of positive reinforcement and against punishment
Fortunately, it is not necessary to study operant conditioning at a university level in order to use it effectively. To discover
if an operant conditioning protocol may be the correct starting point for a dog's treatment, here are several simple diagnostic
1. Make a conditioned association with a food reward:
a. Pick a word, any word that is not the dog's name or a word you might use in normal conversation.
b. Place the dog in a quiet room
c. Make sure the dog has not eaten for several hours, up to an overnight fast.
d. Say the word you have selected. EG: "Blue" Say it in a normal tone of voice. Do not wait for the dog to look
at you and do not say the dog's name.
e. Present the dog with a treat. The first few times you do this you may have to orient the treat to the dog's mouth
and shove it in.
f. Repeat about 20-30 times.
g. Say the word. Don't offer a treat.
h. If the dog suddenly orients toward the sound of the word and is obviously expecting a treat, the dog is capable
of making a normal association between an initially neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus – food. This is the foundation
of all learning and the dog is probably trainable without drugs.
2. Reaction to an aversive stimulus.
a. Get a small, soft throw pillow that has no piping, buttons, exposed zippers or rough surfaces. (If you choose
not to use a throw pillow, try a squirt gun or other appropriate stimulus)
b. At an arbitrary moment, for no reason at all, say the word "Stop" and clobber the dog over the head with the
pillow or spritz him/her in the face with a spray bottle of water of water pistol.
c. Wait a couple of minutes.
d. Say the word "Stop" and throw the pillow/spritz the dog.
e. Wait about 5 minutes
f. Say the word "Stop" and do not throw the pillow or spritz the dog.
g. If the dog visually startles flinches or attempts to escape the pillow, you are dealing with a dog who can change
its behavior in response to aversive stimuli. This dog is probably capable of inhibiting specific behaviors without the need
of psychotropic drugs.
These tests are not meant to be a comprehensive behavioral evaluation prior to prescribing psychotropic drugs. They are meant
to illustrate that without some kind of basic tests to discern a dog's ability to respond to the environment, it is difficult
if not impossible to know if a purely behavioral solution is possible. As behavioral protocols become more uniform and effective,
the creation of a specific series of tests may become the norm. In the mean time, marrying psychotropic drugs with behavior
protocols will be a diverse but necessary step in the future of veterinary behavioral medicine.