How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

Clara, a sandy colored dog with a black face, is trained to swallow a pill

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.

Swallow a piece of kibble, then get a piece of chicken!

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

two sizes of gelatin capsules that are great for training a dog to take a pill

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]Note that every situation is different, and there may always be a time when we have to force a pill, or even an animal for whom that might be the best solution. 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.
sandy colored dog with black face opens her mouth to take a pill

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


1 Note that every situation is different, and there may always be a time when we have to force a pill, or even an animal for whom that might be the best solution.

12 thoughts on “How I TRAINED My Dog to Take a Pill

  1. “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.”

    LOL. I love these little mind shifts.

    1. That’s one of life’s best moments for you, right there 🙂

      I’ve trained my dogs to do all kinds of cool stuff!

      They really are some smart creatures, much smarter than we think of them in general.

      Have a good one, eh?


    1. Do you know that I first wrote it that way? I immediately thought of the pun, but didn’t realize I was spelling it that way. Great minds!

  2. I am going to try this. Nina is on Prozac, and I have never been able to hide the pill in food–she sniffs it out, licks it off, and drops it. The best I have been able to do is stick the pill to my thumb with spray cheese and poke it down that long Flat-Coat muzzle. This at least delivers the pill and the reinforcer together, and she presents herself willingly every morning, but yes, there is compulsion involved, and it clearly lacks elegance. Onwards to better things.

  3. Peanut butter is the best for pills! I dip a short stick in the pb, then dip it on the pills and my dog licks the whole lot off! I used to have to coat each pill in the pb but now he doesn’t need to, and as long as there is enough pb to keep him licking, he’ll swallow it whole. He likes to chew his food and treats and has burst a couple of capsules (which he then spits out) so I don’t think giving it to him without pb would work for him. Great post though. Anything is possible!

    1. Melanie, you bring up a good point that has come up in discussions on Facebook. If a dog bites into a pill, using whichever method, that might put them off the whole process. Maybe it’s less likely to put them off when using the method I describe if one really gives the dog some practice with icky tasting things. (Hard to make oneself do that!)

      But it is something to keep in mind, especially if one is giving meds that should not be chewed up. This training has been a plus for me, to give us an additional method for giving pills. But there are times when other methods can be better, depending on the dog’s history and behavior, or the type of meds involved.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Huh! This is a fascinating idea, and well-explained (as always). Our dear departed Habi took a daily Prozac in cream cheese, and we got in the habit of training Pill Time (a little ball of cream cheese) for Obi as well, just to make sure he had a solid behavior of gulping it down without thinking. Since Habi died, we’ve dropped that husbandry habit. I bet we could pick it up, go the next step and train The Gulp as you describe. A good challenge!

  5. Love it!

    My dog will take anything hidden in food so I don’t have this particular problem but I have used the gel caps frequently for my cat. The only difference is that I put the regular tablet pill inside the capsule (splitting it in half or quarters if necessary) so that he doesn’t HAVE to taste the bitterness of it. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone but for me personally I don’t think I would want my dog to learn to tolerate the bitterness of pills because unfortunately my husband has a bad habit of dropping things like ibuprofen on the floor. The one time I failed to see it first my dog picked it up and spat it out, I assume because it was bitter. Phew! Nearly had a heart attack. So anyway, I generally think this training method is awesome but that is just one thing to think about; maybe just stop the training at the gel cap stage and put the pills inside those.

    1. This is a good reminder, Jodi. I almost talked about the “pill on the floor” issue since Clara has actually picked up her own pill after dropping it. In her case, I’m not worried about the behavior generalizing since she has a general default leave-it for dropped objects, and also, the antecedents for this behavior are pretty clear to her. But it’s good to point out that anything we train needs to fit sensibly into other behaviors of the animal!

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