Operant Modalities: Alternatives to Psychotropic drugs – Presentation for CVC, Washington DC By Gary Wilkes

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. Note: 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 a needed component for 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 and treatment.

About ten years ago I received a promo package from a major pharmaceutical company for a drug billed as a “doggie anti-Alzheimer’s drug. The packet came complete with a foam rubber model of a human brain with the name of the drug silk-screened on the side. Inside were pages and pages of data and testimonials of professionals claiming efficacy. The drug is currently manufactured, marketed and prescribed for the condition of Canine Cognitive Disorder AKA Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. (Also abbreviated CDS for Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.) I present this information as a critique of some of the difficulties that exist in implementing a healthy balance between drug and training solutions to behavior problems. These were the questions and thoughts that first occurred to me while examining the company’s best shot at selling their product.

  • The pharmaceutical company plainly stated in their literature that the drug should be used in conjunction with a “behavioral program.” What they mean by a behavioral program is unknown. No actual program is described or cited in the literature. There is no indication that any training or behavior program was used to justify this recommendation. A logical assumption is that the drug wasn’t fully effective by itself and that someone guessed that a training program might make it work. (The same is true of the drug most commonly used for behavioral problems by veterinarians.)
  • The claims of efficacy in the literature were not based on a traditional blind trial. Instead, the claims of effectiveness were based on owner responses only. Once the numbers were crunched, there was a mere 15% perception of improvement in the dog’s condition based on owner response. This perceived improvement is not particularly significant and was not balanced by any reported attempts to control the dog’s behavior without the drug.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease, in humans, is accompanied by observable degeneration of brain tissue in particular areas. A CT scan will yield tangible evidence that leads to correct diagnosis. If a similar decay of brain tissue is connected to CCD then prescribing the drug should be based on objective findings, not the owner’s impressions. Efficacy of the drug must them be evaluated by several criteria, including whether it arrests physical damage or and/or promotes healing.
  • Drugs cost money. Many owners have their finances tapped by neurological exams and medication. If behavioral treatment is added as an expense, many pet owners become unable to cover the long term cost of drugs and the short term cost of training. If the behavioral treatment is integral to the drug’s effectiveness it should be arranged by the veterinarian prescribing the medication. This allows for the veterinarian to monitor and control the procedure and track the treatment.
  • Symptoms of the disorder/dysfunction/syndrome include staring into space and housetraining issues. These are behavioral functions that are easily tested using simple operant and respondent conditioning protocols. For instance, as the dog stands blankly looking into space, say “Where’s the kitty?” or some other phrase that has previously elicited a response. No such protocols were reported by the drug company. Additionally, the many websites that are now devoted to this burgeoning condition/syndrome/dysfunction don’t list operant or respondent tests that might indicate other than chemical treatment. Instead of specific recommendations, general suggestions abound, like “do more training” and “increase exercise levels.”

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. To illustrate the problem of making pharmaceutical solutions a first line of treatment, I offer the following.

A Case History:
Breed: Bull Terrier
Sex: Intact Male
Age: 1yr
Problem: Spinning and tail chewing

This dog was persistently spinning and attacking his own tail. The condition is cited in veterinary literature and the dog was diagnosed as having a neurological condition. No brain abnormalities were discovered by the client’s veterinarian. The dog was then examined by a veterinary neurologist and given a battery of tests. None of the neurological tests displayed abnormalities of brain structure or function. The dog was placed on a psychotropic drug and the owner was asked to monitor the dog’s progress. The behavior did not decrease. I was called by the client’s regular veterinarian and asked to evaluate the dog. From the perspective of operant conditioning, two things came to mind. First, no one had ever observed the dog in the absence of humans. Many incredibly odd behaviors can be the result of simple, unintentional reinforcement by the dog’s owners. Unless the dog is observed secretly, there is no way to detect if the behavior is actually a neurological disorder or if the dog is soliciting attention or affection. I suggested a video camera and video recorder be placed in the hospital kennel area. The goal was to discover a baseline occurrence of the behavior without the interference of humans who might inadvertently suppress or encourage the behavior.

After suggesting that the dog be kenneled for a day, I had the opportunity to speak to the owner. The veterinary clinic was not aware that their client had already transferred the dog to someone else. He told me that the combined costs of the dog, neurological exams and medicine had already cost him several thousand dollars. He gave the dog to a coworker. I called the coworker to see if I could be of assistance with the tail-spins. He told me that he thought the behavior was “lame” and threw a glass of water in the dog’s face when it happened the first time. The dog had not repeated the behavior since that event. The water was clearly an example of a positive punishment procedure that was effective in inhibiting the existing behavior. This result implies that even if the behavior was psychogenic in origin, it was most likely controllable through operant means from the beginning of its occurrence.

Operant Alternatives:
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 protocols.

Operant Diagnostics:

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 tests…

  1. Make a conditioned association with a food reward:
    1. Pick a word, any word that is not the dog’s name or a word you might use in normal conversation.
    2. Place the dog in a quiet room
    3. Make sure the dog has not eaten for several hours, up to an overnight fast.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. Repeat about 20-30 times.
    7. Say the word. Don’t offer a treat.
    8. 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.

 Opposite Modality:

  1. Reaction to an aversive stimulus.
    1. 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)
    2. 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.
    3. Wait a couple of minutes.
    4. Say the word “Stop” and throw the pillow/spritz the dog.
    5. Wait about 5 minutes
    6. Say the word “Stop” and do not throw the pillow or spritz the dog.
    7. 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. Relying on drugs alone as a knee-jerk decision will merely make treatment an inadequate and expensive hobby for a minority of owners. There is a risk in accepting this objective perspective on treatment. What if the world found out that dog trainers can do what academically trained behaviorists can’t? Let’s do some blind trials and find out.





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