I began my journey with Fear Free in 2017 and have since completed 3 levels of certification, become an Elite Certified Professional and truly embraced Fear Free techniques in my daily veterinary practice. I was fortunate enough to be the owner of the first Fear Free Certified Practice in the state of North Carolina and now as a relief veterinarian I have the opportunity to bring Fear Free care to multiple clinics and expose hundreds of owners and pets to this type of care. Fear Free care takes time, persistence, patience, LOTS of treats, love and a gentle touch. It is not something that is done quickly and is not fully embraced by all members of our profession - however I hope that this will change with time.
During a recent shift at the ER hospital I encountered a very fearful patient. Fear Free care in the emergency setting can be a bit trickier - most patients are presenting for sudden illness or injury so their owners can't fully prepare for vet visits, nor can they consider giving their pets a pre-visit medication to reduce anxiety. By it's nature, emergency medicine is more stressful and anxiety ridden for the patients and the owners. The hospital itself is noisy, phones are always ringing, dogs are barking, cats meowing and lots of people are scurrying from place to place. I try to approach all my patients with a Fear Free method even in emergency medicine - that may mean taking my time to do my exams on the floor with the owners present, or simply offering treats to scared pets or even sedating pets who are very anxious and painful.
The dog I saw this past week came into the hospital wearing a basket muzzle - if you are unfamiliar with these, they are a great alternative to traditional cloth muzzles and are my preferred muzzle for anxious dogs. This patient had a history of being fearful at the vet and the owner knew he would need to be muzzled so he came with his already in place. He was coming to see me for a bandage change due to a recent laceration that had been sutured and treated by my colleagues several days prior to the visit. My technician brought this patient to the treatment area to get his vitals and allow me to take a look and determine a treatment plan. Upon entering the treatment room, this poor dog was already shaking and growling - not out of aggression but out of fear. Anyone who can interpret body language in dogs could see this boy was terrified - his pupils were dilated, his tail tucked, his ears flat against his head and his legs were trembling. As soon as my technician touched him he started growling and fighting against her - this is where most people would consider a dog 'bad' or 'fractious' and would try to force a pet to submit to what they want them to do. However, for those of us trained in Fear Free and who have spent time working with anxious, fearful pets, we know that these pets need the opposite treatment. This dog is trying with all his might to tell us 'Please stop....I am uncomfortable with what you are doing'. Much like when I had a panic attack during my MRI - and all I wanted was for someone to administer something for anxiety; this poor pup was trying to say the same thing.
Instead of pushing forward, instead of forcing this sweet young dog to do what we wanted...we stopped. We stopped all touching, all examining, and all treatment at that time. A quick conversation with the owner and we had permission to sedate this pup to relieve his anxiety. Often owners, and unfortunately some veterinary professionals, associate sedation with a negative connotation. It has quite the opposite meaning however - if you were placed in a stressful situation, in which you were extremely uncomfortable, wouldn't you prefer a slight anti-anxiety medication instead of being held down and forced to behave? This sweet boy seemed to understand that I wanted to help him - I truly believe pets can sense when someone is trying to help and wants to relieve their stress. This guy scooted right up next to me and wouldn't leave my side - he allowed me to pet him and even give him a quick injection to sedate him. I sat there with him next to me and once the drugs started taking effect, this previously fearful dog sat in my lap with his ears forward, no longer trembling. After 10 minutes he allowed my technician to remove his bandage and place a new one, all while sitting with me and getting lots of pets. After spending 30 minutes in the treatment room with us, 90% stress-free, I am hopeful that this pup will have a different memory of the vet's office this time. Dogs have amazing memories and associate stress with certain situations. This dog is a long way from being able to trust all vets and from being able to be examined without his muzzle present however I am hopeful that my short time with him has desensitized him slightly to veterinary care.
Fear Free techniques can work wonders for dogs and cats who normally don't like coming to the vet or groomer or have anxiety over certain situations. I am passionate about teaching pet owners how to advocate for their fearful pets as well as discussing how to diminish stress at veterinary visits.