The “Fear Free” veterinary movement was started by veterinary behaviorists more than 15 years ago with programs and resources to educate veterinary professionals about pet behavior and handling techniques that focused not only on human safety but on animal comfort. The movement gained traction among general practitioners in 2015 after the death of one of the movement’s founders, Dr. Sophia Yin. Since then, Dr. Marty Becker has promoted the movement under the official name “Fear Free.” What does it mean to be a “Fear Free” practice or practitioner?
Under the “Fear Free” umbrella, there is an educational program that can be completed in modules, at the end of which the participant earns the “Fear Free” designation. The modules include segments on reading and understanding pet posture and behavior, the use of positive reinforcement and counter-conditioning to decrease stress during visits, and handling techniques that allow us to work with the pet rather than on the pet.
Is there an advantage to “Fear Free” practice?
Yes, there absolutely is. When visits are less stressful for the pet, they are also less stressful for the owner and more fun for the veterinary team. The veterinarian can get better information from the pet during the physical exam because the pet exhibits more normal behavior, and procedures like nail trims and blood draws are faster, easier, and less aversive for everyone involved. Taking the time and effort to achieve “Fear Free” certification reflects a commitment to relate to each pet as an individual and to take the time necessary to handle each patient appropriately.
Why does my “Fear Free” veterinarian want me to give my pet drugs?
Some animals are either constitutionally anxious or situationally anxious enough that gentle handling and a non-threatening approach are not enough to “break the ice” and gain some trust. In these cases, the judicious use of medications such as gabapentin or trazodone can defuse anxiety and allow the pet to accept a friendly approach in the clinic or during a home visit. The goal of medicating a pet prior to a “Fear Free” visit is never to sedate the animal into compliance, though “Fear Free” handling may dictate using injectable sedatives for nail trims, radiographs, or procedures that are anticipated to be scary or panful.
Why isn’t Dr. Mills certified “Fear Free?”
When I graduated veterinary school in 1998, I made it my mission to have a practice full of dogs that love to come to the vet. I think that I have been pretty successful – the majority of the dogs who have been coming to my practice since puppyhood are happy to come through the door and ask for treats. A lot of patients who started coming to me as adults also like coming here. (There are a few dogs who I have accidentally taught to play “come out for a treat and then hide again to get another one” – I’m working on that!) Now I’m working on the cat population… They are a little more challenging, more difficult to bribe…
I have been a career-long consumer of all information related to behavior and handling, and have made a point of attending every behavior and handling professional education event that has been available to me, especially life-changing talks by Sophia Yin, DVM. I do learn something new at each event, and from most of the articles relating to the “Fear Free” movement that I read. At this point in my career, I think there are other areas in which structured study would be more beneficial, in part because I have been one of the earliest adopters of the “Fear Free” handling philosophy.