Will Behavior Medications Change my Dog's Personality?


©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

"…for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy."

Many moderate to severe behavior issues I see in dogs require the use of behavioral medications as part of the treatment plan. It can greatly increase the success of behavior modification in some cases; it can also speed up the process.

These drugs are known as psychopharmaceutical, psychotropic or psychoactive medications and are the same drugs used in humans for the same issues. See my article, The Truth About Doggy Downers, for more information.

Common, and not so common, examples of these drugs used for dogs to facilitate behavior modification include fluoxetine (Prozac), trazodone (Desyrel), alprazolam (Xanax), clonidine (Catapres) and naltrexone (Vivitrol).

In most cases, I work with your veterinarian to help control your dog’s anxiety using medication since anxiety is the root cause of most behavior issues such as aggression (all types except prey aggression – although I would argue that prey aggression is not really aggression at all), separation anxiety, inappropriate urination, fear and compulsive disorders.

When the subject of these medications comes up, the next statement from the owner is usually, “But I don’t want to change my dog’s personality.” I completely understand, but I encourage the owner to consider the following:

  • When dosed correctly, most of the medications have no significant sedating effect on the dog.
  • I remind owners that in some cases we want to modify the dog’s personality. This would be especially true in cases of aggression and fear issues.
  • It is not uncommon for clients to tell me that their dog’s temperament has changed in ways they didn’t expect after starting meds.  They frequently reveal to me that, for the first time in the dog’s life, they are seeing their dog’s true character that now includes play, increased confidence and increased energy. Anxiety can negatively affect dogs in many ways.

Another question I get from owners is “How long will my dog need to be on these drugs?”

  • Normally I tell clients to consider an initial six-month trial period. During this period, it’s important to adjust dosages as necessary and possibly change medications if we’re not getting the desired results.
  • At the end of the trial period we can evaluate whether it is necessary to continue the medications.
  • While a small percentage of dogs will stay on these medications for an extended period, most can be tapered off these drugs as we begin to see the results of behavior modification.

The other question I often get from dog owners is, “How much will this cost?”

  • Fortunately, all of the medications used to help with behavior issues are available from local human pharmacies such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS. As a result, owners are also able to shop for competitive pricing using tools such as GoodRX.com.
  • Just like with humans, the amount of medicine required varies according to the dog’s weight and the specific medication. I’ve found that the cost averages about $50 per month per dog when generics are used. Surprisingly, in many instances the cost for prescription medications is less expensive than lesser effective (or completely ineffective) over-the-counter supplements that frequently are nothing more than an owner placebo and a profit generator for the seller.

There is no reason to be afraid of these medications if they can help your dog work through a significant issue. Working with a certified dog behavior specialist as well as a veterinarian who understands and is experienced with these drugs can make this a not-so-difficult process for you and your dog.