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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!)
* 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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