By Eileen Anderson
Most of us have used the “hide it” method at one time or another to get our dogs to take pills. In fact, I wrote a whole post about some ways to sneak pills into dogs.
But there’s a better way. What if you never had to hide a pill again? What if your dog would take a pill almost like a human? Instead of washing it down with a drink of water, your dog would get a favorite treat afterward instead.
Pill-taking can be trained as a behavior. It blew my mind when I first realized this, after reading Laura Baugh’s post on it and seeing her video.
The concept is simple. The dog gets a treat for the behavior of swallowing a pill. But you don’t have to start with pills. You can start with low-value treats such as kibble. Something you’re sure the dog will eat. Swallow a piece of kibble, get a much better treat! Then work your way through bland items, non-food but safe items, and finally to pills. With Clara, the sequence was kibble, pieces of carrot (which she does not consider food), empty capsules made of gelatin, then actual antibiotic pills.
Another dog might need additional steps between the capsules and real pills, which can be bitter. You could consider rubbing a gelatin capsule with lemon juice or another vegetable or fruit juice that’s safe but unfamiliar. Just enough to make it taste “weird.”
I had an easy dog to teach it to. Clara is a gulper, so it was easy to get the idea across to her: swallow this and get an awesome treat. My friend has a dog who, while she loves food, is suspicious of anything you give her and has to give it a good sniff. Gulping down something handed to her is not in her repertoire. This will be a lot harder to teach her, but I will probably take on the challenge. I’m glad I got some practice with Clara.
The Wonder of Gelatin Capsules
Empty capsules are a great transition between bland edibles and real pills. They come in sizes from 000 (about an inch long) to 5 (less than half an inch). You can buy them in drug stores or online.
If your fingers are wet, gelatin capsules will stick to you. I used sizes 3 and 4 as shown in the image. You can apply spray cheese to the capsules, as Deb Jones does in this video. I didn’t need to since Clara was already gulping by the time we got to the capsules. But if your dog is apt to react poorly to something that could stick to his tongue, you can apply spray cheese or some other food at first. But remember: the eventual goal is to get them to swallow something that is dry and potentially unpleasant. So that’s what you work toward.
Notes About the Method
Remember to check out Laura Baugh’s post, “An Easy Pill to Swallow,” if you want a good training plan instead of my method, which was tailored for my own dog.
One way my process differed: I used the verbal cue from the beginning. I almost never do that anymore. We generally avoid using a cue when we first start training a behavior, since it may only be a rough approximation of the final behavior. We don’t want to attach the cue to the wrong thing. But since I started with a piece of kibble, I knew Clara would eat it. That is the final behavior, so I used the verbal cue from the beginning.
During all the repetitions, she only failed to swallow the “pill” twice. The first time was with a carrot. She spat it out. Sorry Clara, no treat. On the next rep, she swallowed it right down. The second failure was with an actual pill, but ended up not being a failure at all. Clara dropped the pill, but then she picked it back up off the ground and swallowed it! I don’t count that as a failure. I think it shows she understands what behavior pays off!
You can’t see it clearly in the movie, but I did vary the time between the “pill” and the treat so she could learn to tolerate a short wait.
Some of you will notice that I don’t feed Clara in position in a sit. But remember: swallowing the pill is the behavior. I didn’t chain anything else into it. She does not have to sit or hold a stay. If she wants to jump or reach for the treat afterward, that’s fine with me. Since we trained for speed, going after the treat came pretty naturally. Others might make a different decision.
I debated whether to post this because my technique is not always great. But I want to spread the word about training pill taking. And spreading the word is why I have a blog, so I went for it, warts and all.
For another example, here’s a completely different method from Michelle Chan, who shaped her sheltie Juliet to take pills in one impressive, less than three-minute session: Juliet Pops Pills.
Why Train a Dog to Swallow a Pill?
This can be a foreign concept. Many of us transitioned from forcing pills to hiding them in food, and I think that set the bar for “humane” pill administration for a long time. 1) But think about it. In what other situation do we settle for “let’s fool them” if we don’t have to? Why not work toward cooperative care?
Some reasons for teaching a dog to take a pill are:
- The “hide it” method may eventually fail (and you’ll have to force it).
- There may come a time when your dog has to take a pill without food (and you’ll have to force it).
- It adds another behavior to their palette.
- It’s cool.
I’ve seen some people argue that training the dog to take a pill this way is less humane than hiding it because the dog has to taste the pill. But see the first two bullet points above. There may be a time when they have to take a pill plain. And then they will not only taste the pill, but they will likely be stressed from the force involved.
Also, I think it may vary from dog to dog. Clara is truly gulping the pill. She doesn’t chew it and doesn’t have much time to taste it. You’ll see in the movie that once she gets the hang of it, Clara thinks this is a fun game and very easy money. I give her really nice treats for swallowing pills.
And once you’ve trained it, you don’t always have to use it every time. Right now I am giving Clara half an allergy pill every morning. It’s small. Most of the time I just bury it in a small wad of peanut butter, which she gets twice a day whether she is getting pills or not. But some days I cue her to take her pill, then give her the peanut butter afterward, so as to keep the behavior sharp.
One situation in which you would probably not want to use this method is with pills that must not be chewed. Even though I have a gulper, I’d probably just bury those in food, rather than risk a mishap with her biting down on the pill.
Every discussion I’ve seen of training a dog to take a pill like this has prompted comments like “this is my disguise/trick/hide method.” I know it’s natural to want to be helpful and give suggestions of things that worked for us. But I’m going to ask that if you want to suggest disguises, go visit my old post on hiding pills and comment there. Let’s keep this discussion focused on teaching the behavior.
Who else is working on this?
Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson
About the Author
Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. See more at https://eileenanddogs.com.