Training Fearful Dogs To Take Pills

fearful dogs May 14, 2024

Is your sensitive pup a slow, suspicious eater? Are you running out of ways to trick them into taking their pills? 

For dogs who quickly gulp down treats without chewing them, and will enthusiastically take treats from your hand, giving pills is usually easy. You can use the popular method of rapidly hand-delivering several treats in a row, with the pill hidden in a treat somewhere in the middle of the sequence. 

But what if your dog eats slowly and cautiously, and thoroughly chews their treats? Chewing is a big problem when you're giving pills. If a dog bites into a bitter pill, they may be put off of that particular treat for good. Or worse, they might become suspicious of treats in general. If you want to train your dog to take pills without hiding them in treats, you'll be fighting an uphill battle if they are biting into the pill even occasionally. There's a good chance their pill-taking behavior will be punished by the bitter flavor. 

I have several clients right now who all started having trouble getting their dogs to take medication at about the same time. All of these dogs tend to chew their treats, which means that the chance of them biting into a bitter pill is high.  To compound the problem, many of my client dogs (including some of my pill-refusers) won't take treats reliably from their person's hand. So I searched for ideas from the world of Cooperative Care to see what I could find.

There are some nice blogs out there on training a dog to take pills (check out this one from Eileen and Dogs, and this one by Laura Baugh that Eileen cites) as well as a couple of large Facebook groups where you can learn from experts on how to train your dog to participate in various aspects of their care (just search "Cooperative Care" on Facebook.) But none of the methods I found was quite right for my highly sensitive client dogs. We can't hand feed these dogs reliably- and definitely not quickly- and even trying to quickly deliver treats sequentially on the floor isn't an option for some of them because many of my client dogs are afraid of a hand coming toward them. 

So we've been experimenting with how to get these dogs to eat a little more quickly, and chew less.  Our goal is to have the dogs eventually take pills in a way that doesn't rely on us disguising them and crossing our fingers that they don't find them. 

I show a short demo of the first step in this training in the video below, but here are the basic steps: 
1) Get a bowl, plate, or something else you can put treats on. In the video I use a small cutting board. Whatever you choose, it should be new to your dog, with no history of being associated with pills.

2) Cut up many very small, high value treats. So far I've had the best luck with soft treats that are pretty smelly, won't stick to your treat delivery surface, and- VERY IMPORTANT- have never been associated with pills. 

3) Place two of the small treats close to each other (an inch or two apart is usually fine) on your bowl, plate etc. 

4) What you do next depends heavily on your individual dog, so you'll have to experiment. Does your dog eat faster if you move away from them? Turn your head away? Look at your phone? Whatever you do, try to avoid anything you would normally do when trying to get your dog to take a pill.  For most people this including lingering nearby and watching their dog intently. Don't do that unless you want your dog to be suspicious of the game. 

5) Repeat several times, and adjust as needed. Observe (watch in real time, or review video) your dog to see if they are starting to eat more quickly, and chewing less. If so, yay! You're on your way to getting the behavior you need for successful pill taking. If not, you might need to experiment with treat type and size, your own behavior, or other variables that are unique to your dog.

Here is video of this first part of this training:


In part 2, I tried out some strategies for reinforcing eating less valuable treats and eventually pills without scaring a dog who is uncomfortable if you reach toward them:

In part 3, I show you how I generalized the swallowing a treat behavior to lower-value foods:

 And in part 4, we move on to capsules filled with flour, and finally on to real medication!


This is a work in progress! If you try it, I'd love to hear how it goes for you. Over the next few weeks I'll be updating with new steps in the training, and report on how it's going so far.

If you're looking for for more help with your fearful dog, check out the free resources here.