An Easy Pill to Swallow: Training Dogs to Take Pills the Easy Way

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series An Easy Pill to Swallow
from "How To Live With A Calculating Cat"

from “How To Live With A Calculating Cat”

There’s a fabulous cartoon series on how to get a cat to swallow a pill, in which the feckless humans tried to plead with the cat,  ratchet the defiant jaws open, disguise the pill in delicious food, etc., all without success.* I have to give the dogs pills occasionally, and I’m far too lazy to want to go through a hassle each time — nor can I count on always having a food product gooey and smelly enough to disguise the offensive pill.

So I’ve taught the dogs to take pills plain, on cue.

This really isn’t difficult at all; it’s a rather obvious application of the Premack Principle (roughly translated for the layperson, “Do something less inherently worthwhile to get something better”). Anyone who has ever eaten vegetables to get dessert has participated in this training plan.

It’s harder to explain to the dog, however, what exactly we want in advance (“please eat this obnoxious non-food item”) and that it will ultimately be reinforcing (“if you do, I’ll give you this tasty treat”). At the worst, showing the dog a treat as a shameless bribe only gets him more excited over the good food and even more confused and disgusted at the pill you keep shoving at him.

This is where a training plan comes in to save the day.

You will need:

  • A dog (or other pet)
  • Tasty small treats
  • Bland small edibles — not offensive, just not exciting. I know, some dogs think everything is exciting food! and this will work with them, too.
  • Mildly offensive, safe, non-food items to serve as training pills. I used melatonin pills which I was giving anyway (obviously one per day, rather than several reps in a session!); you might be able to ask your vet or pharmacy for empty pill casings.

Splitting is key here, as in all good training plans, but especially where the incremental steps not only make no sense to the learner, but seem actively contrary to natural impulse. Keep your criteria clean and your steps small.

Step 1

Feed two small treats immediately back to back, probably using two hands for fastest delivery. You are asking your dog to develop the skill of accepting two items nearly at once. Yes, some dogs can do this from birth! but others actually do have difficulty, so make sure we have this first. Also, this is a good time to make sure you can feed the dog from your fingertips without nipping; you’ll want fingertip control as we progress.

Praise as you do this. It’s not really necessary at this point, but praising your dog for eating treats is a sure way to blow his mind and get him engaged in your silly game.

Step 2

Take a bland edible and present it as the first treat, with the second, tasty treat immediately following. This shouldn’t present much difficulty; they are both pieces of food, after all.

Step 3

Gradually add a pause between the bland treat and the tasty treat. As we’re still working with two pieces of real food, this shouldn’t be too hard, but make your incremental increases pretty small if necessary. Work up to the dog accepting the first piece of food, swallowing it, and then you present the second to him.

If you have a dog who thinks all food is fabulous, this has been really easy thus far!

Step 4

Bring out your safe non-food item and go back to step 1. You are asking the dog to take both pieces nearly simultaneously in order to have the second, tasty item.

Keep your presentation the same as before, just offering the two items. No wheedling, coaxing, begging, or otherwise skewing our neutral learning environment! If your dog balks at this, don’t worry about sequential presentation and simply offer both pieces at once, even in the same hand, with the neutral piece slightly in front of the tasty one so that the dog must take both pieces together.

Once the dog is taking both items at once, then present them in very tight sequence.

Step 5

Gradually begin adding a delay between the first and second item. Go slowly — your first delay may be an eighth of a second or so. Don’t let the dog wonder! He should have utter confidence: “If I eat this stupid thing, I will get something much better. A dumb game, but it pays well.” Increase your delay by no more than a quarter second at a time.

Be generous with your reinforcement. As I tell clients, five pennies is way more than a nickel, and several tiny treats given in succession is a bigger reward than one giant treat. The first time your dog willingly takes the non-food item and waits expectantly for his “real” treat, pay big! with a half-dozen small tasty treats.

Step 6

Add a cue when your dog knows the game. My rule of thumb is, When you’re willing to say, “Watch this! I’ve got 50 bucks that says he’ll do it first try!” then you’re ready to attach the cue.

I didn’t get too creative with this one: “take your pill.” As with all cues, say it just before you present the first item, so it’s predictive.

I do always follow with some tasty food item (for reinforcement and also, who wants a lingering medical taste in the mouth and nose?!), but it’s now a reward rather than a lure, bribe, or wishful camouflage.

Want to see it in action? Check out the video below. I apologize for the video quality; I was recording one-handed on my smartphone while dosing Laev. But as you can see, it works well even with large, icky pills. (At this time Laev was on antibiotics following emergency surgery — she’s fine now!)

Try it? Let us know how it went in the comments below.

* In the book How To Live With A Calculating Cat, by Eric Gurney. The final panel, in which the humans at last trick the cat into taking the pill, is a gem.

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About Laura VanArendonk Baugh CPDT-KA KPACTP

Laura was born at a very young age and started playing with animals immediately after. She never grew out of it, and it looks to be incurable. She is the author of the bestselling FIRED UP, FRANTIC, AND FREAKED OUT. She owns Canines In Action, Inc. in Indianapolis, speaks at workshops and seminars, and is also a Karen Pryor Academy faculty member.

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  1. Did you sneak into my house to copy that cartoon from my copy of the book? 😉 With my dog Orczy, I always give her the pill before giving her dinner. She has learned that the faster she swallows the pill the more quickly food arrives, so it’s rarely an issue now. 😀

  2. I notice that Laev is chewing the tablet. I read about someone who had this down pat with her dog, until one day they nicked a particularly foul tablet with a tooth and released the horrible taste. This apparently totally killed the behavior for months afterward.

    Any hints to avoid this? I’ve already considered holding out for the dog to just swallow it in a gulp, but I wonder if that would be reliable.

    • Good question! Laev doesn’t normally chew the pills — in this case, she took two large ones in a row (you can see the crossfade in the video; the second rep was the much more visible of the two) and got a little chewy with the second. Normally, she takes them in a hurry, ready for her treat!

      If I wanted to train specifically for this, I would use the presentation of the second treat to encourage gulping of the first — tossing the treat, or delivering it quickly or luring forward, or whatever worked with a particular dog. I would make “swallowing whole” part of my criteria from the beginning, and not move on to delaying the second treat until the dog was reliably gulping the first without fail.

  3. I just say “stinky cheese,” and our boxer mix sits and looks up to get his eye drops. Then his antibiotic caps. Hurray for Premack.

  4. Does this work with pills that taste really offensive (i.e., not capsules)?

    • I wouldn’t start with the nasty ones. When Laev was prescribed an antibiotic for an abscess (spider bite?) on her leg, I found I had to up the pay with better reward treats, but she would still take the (huge!) pills. However, the pill-taking behavior was already pretty solid by then, which helped. She had faith I’d make it worth her while!

  5. Wow! This is terrific. Wish I’d read this post several months ago. Just came across it via Eileen and Dogs. My dog just started on twice a day thyroid medication, which is best taken without food, on an empty stomach. I have also just started to get serious about sometimes using non-food reinforcers, so I want to try to train this with food and with toys, with the eventual goal of giving the thyroid pill for a good toy or play session.
    Any tips on this idea?
    Also, tips for “bland food items”? Barnum seems to view foods as either fabulous or icky, not much in between. Not sure what to use as the bland thing….

  6. Any tips for a small (8lb) dog that is very picky? I wish this would work on mine that needs heart meds twice a day and is incredibly picky about her food. She just snubs her nose at bland treats and even when trying to disguise the pill in the most delicious treats she can smell through them and won’t take them. I’ve even tried to crush the pill in her canned food and of course she can smell that too and refuses to eat it. Ugh!! I wish she was like her siblings who will literally eat anything!!

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