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A different perspective on the wide world of Fear Free

A potential for saving lives and driving pets back into veterinary practices

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My perspective in this magazine is unique. I am a certified animal behavior consultant, not a veterinary professional. I am on the radio and TV, I write blogs, and I contribute to popular press books about companion animals. My involvement in veterinary medicine spans just over two decades. I could write a book about how I feel about veterinary professionals. I cherish and revere them! By tending to the health of a pet, you are helping a loved and cherished family member. You not only save lives—you also support whole families.

Still, even the best veterinarians on the planet can’t save the pets they’re not seeing.

That’s why when Dr. Marty Becker approached me about three years ago, asked what I thought about this idea he was calling Fear Free, and wondered whether I’d like to help spread the word, I was ebullient. I saw its potential for saving lives and driving pets back into veterinary practices.

Consider your perspective as a customer. If you have a bad experience at a restaurant, you’re unlikely to return. It’s really that simple. And increasingly these days, loyalty doesn’t seem to matter; if people perceive their pet has had a bad experience at a clinic, they’re not as likely to return.

We know this to be documented fact, thanks to data from Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Studies and other research that documents why pet owners aren’t seeing you, particularly for preventive care. Other reasons include transport challenges (cats into carriers), perception of value and cost, and misunderstanding the need for preventive care. Fear Free touches all of these areas in some way.

How pets are treated in-clinic is important, too. Clients identify with their pets so closely; people take it personally when their dog is called “mean” or their cat is called “crazy.” Besides, those descriptions sidestep the truth—the pets are fearful. Every veterinary behaviorist I’ve asked about this issue—even Dr. Temple Grandin—agrees that these animals are so terrified they probably believe they are going to die.

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Fear Free Happy Homes

While Fear Free is certainly more than peanut butter cups or marshmallows, again consider the client’s perspective. When my pet is blissfully unaware when she gets vaccines or has an aspirate taken, I feel good. On the flip side, fear, anxiety, and stress are contagious and can grow like a runaway snowball. When clients are stressed, their pets often pick up on that, as do the veterinary professionals in the room.

Fear Free begins well before a pet enters that exam room or even the clinic. It begins at home. If the client has chased the cat around the house for hours before, finally snagging kitty from under the sofa and stuffing her into a carrier, and the cat is wailing all the way to the clinic, how can a proper exam take place?

The concept of Fear Free Happy Homes is this—a way to reach out to pet owners and suggest we do better. Simply loving our pets isn’t enough. We need (“need” being the operative word) to offer enriched environments; Dr. Tony Buffington for years has talked about how enriched environments are important to the mental and physical well-being of companion animals. We also need to consider how much and how we feed our pets. It’s no secret in the veterinary community that we’re loving our companion animals to death. Let’s not even get started on Dr. Google’s misinformation.

Of course, we won’t prevent pet owners from “consulting” Google. What we can do is alert them to websites and resources with appropriate content. One such site is Fear Free Happy Homes. The idea is to support all pet owners and veterinary professionals by offering credible content, and to drive veterinary visits and checkups.

It’s not just for veterinary professionals

A part of this public-facing effort is that dog trainers, pet sitters, and groomers are becoming Fear Free certified. This is brilliant for several reasons: It enhances communication among all professions, and regarding dog trainers in particular, it supports positive reinforcement training (far too many aversive trainers remain), and most important, it reinforces the idea that the quarterbacks of the pet care team are veterinary professionals. These days, 18-year-old kids working at big-box pet stores are lending advice along with random websites—it’s time to remind everyone that veterinary professionals are the true experts.

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The movement surges forward

Today, there’s a massive and engaged Fear Free community, beginning with a long list of supportive veterinary leaders/influencers and legends, including Dr. Buffington, Dr. Grandin, Dr. Stephen Ettinger, Dr. Brenda Griffith, Dr. Alice Villalobos, Louise Dunn, veterinary school deans, and most veterinary behaviorists. Fear Free has partnered in some way with myriad organizations, including the American Animal Hospital Association, the Morris Animal Foundation, the Winn Feline Foundation, the Human Animal Bond Association, and the Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

Most important, as of this writing, there are 23,000 professionals enrolled in the Fear Free course, with more than 13,000 already certified. Beginning later this year, practices will be able to earn certification; next year, the program will expand to include animal shelters, at no cost to the shelter professionals. Currently, veterinary and technician students also are being certified at no cost. Plans are in place to create a separate nonprofit to support clients who can’t otherwise afford care for their pets.

Change often stirs passion and controversy. Speaking for myself, my passion is to support and celebrate the human-animal bond, and that’s impossible without emotionally and physically healthy pets. That’s why I feel so honored and enthusiastic to be a small part of Fear Free. I’ve seen the change in pets and in clients, and in friends who are technicians or veterinarians. And everyone wins. And I like it when everyone wins.

Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant who speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. Visit his website at stevedale.tv. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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