Why a Fear Free Veterinary Clinic Is the Only Way to Go


The wailing coming from the back of the clinic was piercing, so much so that I was frozen in fear just listening to it, and I wasn’t alone. The sounds were deafening and looking around I saw that other faces were sheet white, worried that this baby was as badly hurt as she sounded. Of course, we were all thinking, hit by car, attacked by a dog, or something else horrible. It seemed like hours went by before the door finally opened, with an adorable little Lab puppy pulling and sliding across the slick floor as fast as she could go. My heart raced with delight to see a healthy pup run to her mama, yet my gut told me that something had gone terribly wrong.

This 4-month-old pup, nothing but a hunk of pure energetic love, went in for a routine nail trimming and ended up being unnecessarily traumatized.

This story is unfortunately all too common. What goes on behind closed doors in some veterinary practices is not a pleasant topic to talk about, yet it needs attention. It needs attention because of the lack of education most veterinarians and their staff have in how to read and handle signs of stress and fear in dogs. There are no required courses in veterinary school that teach body language, behavior, or safe handling of animals, so they are not to blame. With limited time to get the veterinary tasks done, our pets suffer needlessly. Thankfully, though, as we continue to be a more aware and educated society regarding our dogs, veterinarians are being called upon to learn better practices.

A visit to the vet can be stressful. Image by Dog Decoder smartphone app/Illustration by Lili Chin.
A visit to the vet can be stressful. Image by Dog Decoder smartphone app/Illustration by Lili Chin.

Let me share Sadie’s story. Recently it was time for Sadie, my Golden Retriever, to be spayed. Having recently relocated to southern Oregon, I was concerned about finding a good veterinarian. The Fear Free movement is new in the veterinary world, but not new to me. I was in a new area and looking for a proactive vet hospital. After interviewing six veterinary practices, I wasn’t surprised at all that none had ever heard about the Fear Free movement. Not only had they never heard of it, they didn’t even want to discuss it. It was beginning to look like I may need to travel seven hours to my trusted vet to be sure Sadie was in good hands. Finally, I found a practice 45 miles away who really listened to me and was open to helping me help Sadie have a positive experience.

We visited several times before her surgery date, to meet the staff and walk around the entire hospital. This is part of the Fear Free movement. Acclimating your dog to a stressful environment can help relieve stress when they come in for future visits. The staff was wonderful. They gave her treats, got on the floor with her, gave us a tour with more treats and more love from everyone. By the fifth visit to the vet, the smells and newness were a non-issue, even more important, Sadie greeted everyone with a wiggly body, smiling face, and a happily wagging tail.

Surgery day came, and Sadie was so excited to see all her friends again at the clinic. There was soft music playing in the waiting room, thanks to Lisa Spector, canine music expert of Through a Dog’s Ear. They agreed to allow me to stay in the exam room with her while she was given the pre-anesthetic injection. Normally, your dog is taken away from you, to the back, stuffed in a cage alone and afraid. Glaring lights, sounds of dogs and cats, barking and meowing in stressful calls, medical equipment buzzing, people moving all about while your dog has no idea what’s going on — it all makes for a petrifying experience.

Instead, I sat with Sadie on the floor while the drug started to take effect. I turned off the lights and put a blanket over her, and together we snuggled as she began to relax. This would not have been the case if she were alone in a cold, gray cage. She would have been petrified.

Sadie and I got to stay together until she fell asleep. (Photo by Jill Breitner)

We remained together until they were ready for surgery, at which time I was allowed to walk her back to the treatment room, lift her onto the table where she would be prepped for surgery, and snuggle with her one last time before I would see her again later that afternoon. Being with Sadie right up to the last minute meant the world to me, and I know it made her feel safe and much less fearful. This is what the Fear Free movement is all about. Our pets need us to be their advocate and be with them in times of stress. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s exciting to see the Fear Free movement take hold because it means that fewer animals will go through the trauma that the little Lab puppy mentioned at the top went through just to have her nails trimmed. Vets will educate their clients on how to begin handling their pups at home before they come to the clinic. They will advise them to bring the pup in for treats and a weigh-in, while they meet and greet the staff. Veterinarians and their staff will learn how to read dog body language so that they can recognize the signs of stress before they reach a critical threshold of anxiety and fear.

While some veterinarians are taking this movement to heart, many have no idea it exists. I’m thrilled to say that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) established the Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines in 2015. It was written by a group of certified veterinary behaviorists specializing in low-stress handling and learning how to read body language. Even more exciting is the launching of the new Fear Free Certification Program for veterinary professionals to become trained in Fear Free methods and protocols.

Shaking off the stress. Image by Dog Decoder smartphone app/Illustration by Lili Chin.
Shaking off the stress. Image by Dog Decoder smartphone app/Illustration by Lili Chin.

It’s time for you to begin to dialogue with your veterinarian about these guidelines, dog body language, and low-stress handling, so that Fear Free visits become the norm for all practices. You too can have the peace of mind that your pet will be with you for all routine visits without having to go to “the back,” knowing that you, your veterinarian, and their staff have been trained to help your dog feel more comfortable.

Together, we can help our dogs feel less fearful and enable veterinarians do their job easier and better while we are assured our animals are safe and in good hands. A win for everyone.

About the author: Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life in southern Oregon. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page.

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