I was able to train my shar-pei mix to enjoy pilling for many years, although later in life it became less fun again. My cattle dog mix never cared for the pilling, but she is happy to get it out of the way because I always reward her with a meal afterward.
The most important rule when pilling a dog is that the dog should be happy to have participated by the end. Praise her each step of the way for even the slightest bit of cooperation. For a dog, praise is an excited, happy tone. The words you use hardly matter. Praise especially when you're done.
The corollary of this rule is that pilling a dog should not be a fight with the dog. You may have a brief struggle, but if the pill doesn't go down with little struggle, it's best to take a break, praise the dog for trying, and then try again a few minutes later.
Holding the PillThe technique presented here has a few variations. The first step is to pick up the pill. There are two ways to hold the pill. Initially, when the dog isn't willing to open wide, I hold the pill between my index finger and my thumb and lift my other fingers out of the way. The hand should look like a deer with antlers, as in the following photo:
As the dog gets used to being pilled, you might relax your fingers and hold them more like a fist, as in the following photo:
The illustrations below show the hand with free fingers in a fist in order to reduce the size of the images (and the effort required to draw them). The deer antler posture is probably easier at first.
Positioning the DogFor this procedure, I find that the dog must sit in front of you facing to the side. If you are holding the pill in your right hand, the dog faces to the right, and if you are holding the pill in the left hand, the dog faces to the left. The procedure does not work if the dog is facing you or facing away from you. Here is what this looks like:
The dog must be sitting. It is hard to notice in this photo, but the dog's tush abuts my knee. This keeps her from scooting backward. The dog can also sit against a wall or anything else that's handy. I have many pills to give my aging dogs, so I usually put the pills in a little dish, position the dog as you see above, and then grab each of the pills in turn.
Opening the MouthOnce the dog is in position and you have a pill in hand, holding the pill using one of the above techniques, place your hand over the dogs muzzle as you see above. Press the jowls or lips of her upper jaw into her mouth, below her teeth. This causes my dogs to open their mouths just a little, because they don't want to bite themselves.
If pressing the jowls into the mouth causes the dog to open her mouth enough for you to slip your index and thumb in, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, slip one or two of the free fingers of the hand that holds the pill into the front of her mouth. She may then quickly open. She may require that you place a little downward pressure on her lower jaw to get her to open.
PillingWhen she opens her mouth, quickly perform one of two possible procedures: pilling down the middle or pilling along the side. Pilling down the middle works for one of my dogs, and pilling along the side works for the other. You'll need to experiment to see which procedure works best for you and your dog.
To pill down the middle, move your hand into her mouth straight-on, with the index finger and thumb that are holding the pill moving straight in. The fingers and pill move in the direction from nose to throat, as show in figures (1a) and (2a). In step (2a), you have the pill in the dog's mouth somewhere between the rear molars. In this position, if you are making deer antlers with your hand, were you to close your free fingers, you'd be wrapping them around the dog's lower jaw.
Once have the pill in as far as you can go, slip either your thumb or your index finger forward in order to flick the pill toward her throat. Figure (3a) illustrates thrusting the index finger forward to flick the pill in. Remove the hand straight out the way it came, as shown in figure (4a), and proceed immediately to the next step: holding the nose up.
Holding the Nose UpAs soon as you have placed the pill at the back of her mouth, immediately move your pilling hand to under her chin and gently point her nose up to the ceiling. She should be sitting to make this easier for you to accomplish and more comfortable for her to experience. Holding the nose up helps the pill to go down, and waiting a few seconds helps ensure that it stays down.
Hold her in this position for a few seconds, speaking nicely to her. You don't want to excite her too much now, because you don't want her jolting away. I'm told that with some dogs, gently stroking the throat helps the pill to go down, but I've never noticed this making a difference in my dogs.
Do what you can to make this an enjoyable part of the experience. One of my dogs likes kisses and face time, so I kiss her muzzle and look into her eyes. She also seems to like me rubbing between her eyes. My other dog just likes to be spoken nicely to, so that's all she gets for this.
One of my dogs usually licks her chops when the pill has gone down, so when I'm unsure, that's my clue that she's done. I can sometimes see my other dog swallow.
If you failed to get the pill at the back of the throat prior to this point, I find that holding the nose up rarely makes the pill go down. Instead, the pill just dissolves during this time, tastes really bad, and makes the dog less cooperative for the next attempt. Better to retry a false start sooner than later.
Praising and RewardingNever forget to praise the dog after you're done, particularly as you're getting them used to the process. Give her the kind of praise that she registers. They also love treat rewards. I often pill before feeding, so the meal serves as a reward for enduring the pilling process.
If you are administering multiple pills, I find it necessary to withhold the lavish praise until after the last pill, because the praise seems to mean, "Yay! You did it! You're free now!" Don't pill too fast, as it may take a number of seconds for each pill to go down.
Summary of StepsFor your convenience, here is a summary of the steps of this technique:
- Hold the pill between index finger and thumb in one of the above two postures. Pose the hand like a deer with antlers if the dog won't open far or you hand is too big to fit in her mouth.
- Sit the dog cross-wise in front of you, facing toward the side whose hand has the pill. Block the dog's tush so that she can't easily stand or back away, such as with your knee.
- Praise the dog for her cooperation, and speak to her as if this were going to be fun.
- With your other hand, gently press the dog's jowls under her teeth to get her to open her mouth.
- If the dog doesn't open her mouth far enough for you to slip your pill fingers in, slip the free fingers of your pilling hand into the front of her mouth, possibly with a little downward force.
- When the dog makes a quick move to open her mouth, quickly slip the index finger and thumb that hold the pill into the back of her mouth, between her rear molars.
- Flick the pill toward her throat by thrusting either your index finger or your thumb forward. Or press the pill forward with your index finger to slip it along the inside of her molars at the back of her mouth, between the teeth and the tongue.
- Remove the hand straight out of the mouth to avoid getting fingers between the molars.
- Immediately move the hand that inserted the pill to just under her chin and gently—but quickly—point her nose toward the ceiling. She must be sitting for this.
- Do something that the dog likes while you're holding her nose skyward, whether it's talking sweetly or giving special rubs or kissing her where she likes to be kissed.
- Praise her lavishly when you are done, possibly reward with a treat or a meal.