Fear Free Success Stories: Making Good Things Happen

Kim Campbell Thornton

Being left for boarding, interactions with new people, encountering weird veterinary equipment: all of those things are challenges for pet patients. Fortunately, Fear Free Certified Professionals stand ready to help them gain trust and confidence whether they’re at a boarding kennel, veterinary clinic, or other care provider. We’re inspired by the stories they share about helping pets overcome fears and how they’ve implemented Fear Free in their practices.

Making Friends

I am the manager of our 24/7 medical/regular boarding facility at VCA Flannery Animal Hospital. We recently received a new boarder, a 6-month-old Chihuahua named Milo, who would not let any member of our staff go near him. I was off duty, so he had to sit in his kennel for the night until I came in. When he was brought to my attention, I approached his cage slowly, kneeling. His reaction was to lunge and bite, but I had tossed him a treat, which made him stop. I then opened the door to his kennel and walked away from it, waiting for Milo to approach me. I slowly rolled treats toward him and sweet-talked him until he came to me. I didn’t move but let him walk around near me and sniff the floor. I then let my hand down to let him sniff and he started jumping all over me. Since that initial interaction we have been best friends. After we established a relationship, I began to introduce other staff members to him. It took some time, and there were a few growls, but he is now approachable by most of our staff. It’s my goal to make our caution signs for FAS patients disappear. I have made an “anxiety suite” for them: an entire ward of cages behind a closed, soundproof door with classical music playing 24/7. Milo was a huge success story for me, and I couldn’t be prouder of him and the progress he has made. I can’t wait until he comes in again.
Kimberly Jo Del Basso, VCA Flannery Animal Hospital, New Windsor, New York

Snuggling Is His Jam

Smuckers started coming to our resort two years ago when we first opened as a Fear Free-based boarding, grooming, and day care center that shared the same values as our veterinary hospital. Shortly after Smuckers started coming to us for doggie day care, her owner noticed a huge change in her behaviors. We use positive reinforcement and lots of treats to help acclimate her to unfamiliar places and things, but what she responds to most of all is one-on-one physical attention. She loves snuggles. Mary, who is Smuckers’ mom, provides regular feedback on her dog’s progress. Here’s what she said recently: “Because of coming to Compassion to play, she was so much calmer and kinder during her visit to the vet. She was always very stressed and acting up around different people and other animals, but this time she was calm and well-behaved. We are sure it is because she comes to Compassion and is more socialized and less fearful of strangers. She even has started walking up to our neighbors wanting them to pet her. I can’t thank everyone enough for making her less stressful and enjoying her life more, plus she loves seeing everyone during her visits.”

Beth Chinnick, CVT, Practice Manager, Compassion Pet Resort & Training Center, Thomasville, Pennsylvania

Romancing Murphy

Murphy is a 4-year-old Heeler mix whose owners adopted him when he was 8 months old. From the beginning, he was a little nervous while he was here but has always loved treats. As he got older, he got a little wary of new procedures and being handled. He didn’t like it when the stethoscope was placed on him or if we reached over him to scan his microchip or do anything else. Since he was young when this started, we talked to his owner about trying an anti-anxiety medication called Trazodone with him. This commonly used anti-anxiety medication can help to relax patients while they are here. When pets are more relaxed, we are able to better judge their health and get more accurate lab work results.

His mom was willing to try the medication and start Victory Visits with him. For his Victory Visits, we started slowly by introducing him to a specific room kept consistent throughout his visits. He was most nervous of the stethoscope, so we worked that into our plan at every visit. He was always given tasty treats when he greeted people and when approached by “scary” instruments. He began allowing us to place the stethoscope on him for short periods, and we worked our way up to touching down his back and legs and even his paws. At each visit, we achieved new milestones while strengthening the gains we’d made previously. While he is still wary of certain procedures, we have been able to build up trust with him, which allows us to keep his fear, anxiety, and stress at a minimum.

But don’t just take our word for it! Here is what Murphy’s owner, Mrs. John, has to say about her Fear Free Victory Visit experience:

“I would like to say how much I appreciate the care, effort, and patience everyone at the clinic has put into working with Murphy. I think the Fear Free approach really shows dedication to the total wellbeing of my pets. Murphy is so highly sensitive and sometimes anxious and afraid that if he was not participating in Victory Visits it would be extremely stressful for him to visit the vet. The Victory Visits have instead taught him to be excited to go to the vet, and the progress he has made is amazing. He has gone from being extremely nervous, defensive, and almost biting to being relaxed and excited and wagging his tail. The team is skilled at reading body language and working with Murphy within his comfort zone. They turned what was a scary experience for him into a positive one through the victory visits. I was so nervous when we had to do a blood draw after about a year of working with him, and he was such a super star, he hardly even noticed the procedure. I am truly thankful that Murphy can have positive experiences through Victory Visits so he doesn’t have to be afraid of going to the vet.”

Emily Andrade, Certified Veterinary Assistant, Fear Free Level 3 Certified, Gamble Pet Clinic, Fort Collins, Colorado

Fear Free, Of Course

I have taken on the challenge of not only getting all of our faculty and staff Fear Free Certified but also making Fear Free Level 1 a requirement for all students graduating from the Pierce College veterinary technology program. I want to spread the word to our students that Fear Free is best practice and that is integrated into all of our coursework.

Angela Killips, RVT, Los Angeles Pierce College Veterinary Technology Program, Woodland Hills, California

Foreign Currency

For the German Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates), becoming a Fear Free Certified Practice is not currently an option for geographical reasons, so we aimed for the next best thing: for everyone working in the clinic to become Fear Free Certified!

Our Fear Free story has two heroes. One is Dr. Katrin Jahn, owner and head veterinarian, whose vision it was, as Fear Free so perfectly ties in to her holistic approach to veterinary medicine. The other is head nurse Nora Shackleford, who took Dr. Katrin’s vision and made it happen.

Nora energized the team and planned an eight-week Fear Free focus that culminated in our Fear Free launch day – the day the whole team would be certified and a day of celebration for both team and clients to recognize the benefits that the Fear Free approach brings to our wonderful furry families and friends (and us humans, of course).

Each week leading up to the launch date Nora added a new Fear Free action to the way we, as a team, delivered our veterinary and pet care services. We started with treats (to the delight of many very happy cats and dogs) and moved through the following:
• reading body language and behavior cues
• how best to use Thundershirts
• Fear Free communication for clients and pets
• implementing Happy visits for our doggie friends
• considerate consults – doing as much as possible where the pet is most comfortable
• nonslip surfaces for all consultations
• using pheromones effectively
By the final week everyone was fully immersed in the Fear Free culture. We weren’t just practicing; we were living Fear Free!
With Nora’s energy the vision became reality and by June 21, four veterinarians, seven nurses, three receptionists, two pet relocation specialists, and one business manager were all Fear Free Certified.
We toasted our Fear Free journey with our customers and have made the Fear Free way the foundation for all that we do.

Mike Kitchen, Business Manager, German Veterinary Clinic, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates




This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Kim Campbell Thornton is content manager for Fear Free Pets and is a Level 3 Fear Free Certified Professional. She has been writing about dogs, cats, wildlife, and marine life since 1985.

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