Take a Fear Free Approach to Sharing the Fear Free Approach with Colleagues

By Linda Lombardi

Introducing Fear Free techniques to colleagues who aren’t familiar with them or who may be resistant to change can be daunting, but Fear Free principles apply to people as well as pets. Here’s how they can help.

Tabitha Kucera, a veterinary technician, has learned a lot from her experiences teaching Fear Free to other veterinary professionals, and maybe the biggest lesson is the importance of using the same principles on people as you do on animals.

“Positive reinforcement encourages initiative and creativity, it forgives mistakes, it creates enthusiastic learners and accelerates learning,” she says. “It’s the same for people.”

Build a Constructive Culture

The benefits should seem obvious once you’ve worked with animals that way. But applying these methods doesn’t always come naturally, she says. She recalls a class she attended at the Karen Pryor Academy. Most of the students were trainers, along with Kucera and two other vet techs. At one point, each person did an exercise in front of the class and then fellow students were asked to talk about what they thought had been done well.

“For the techs it was harder than for the dog trainers, and that was an epiphany for us,” she said. “We talked about it later—it’s that we’re not used to getting constructive feedback.”

Not only was it more difficult to give positive comments, it was also frustrating at first to get them.

“We were like, why don’t you tell me what I did wrong? Just tell me what I did wrong so I can fix it.”

But if you’ve studied behavior, you know all the reasons why “Just tell them when they’re wrong” is a bad way to train. One is that just saying “no” to the wrong behavior doesn’t tell the learner what the right behavior is. If you want staff to use less stressful techniques, saying “Don’t do this,” while well-meaning, doesn’t communicate the desired alternative.

“If you’re used to scruffing, I can’t just tell you not to scruff, which is what I see a lot of,” she says. “I hear a lot of ‘less is more,’ but what does that mean? You need to define the behavior you want.”

Say No to No

Maybe even more important is the effect of all those “nos” on the recipient.

“With positive reinforcement, the biggest difference is we focus on the good,” she says. “The way some other training techniques work—and the way people often work with each other—is we focus on the negative: I’m going to tell you what you did wrong and completely ignore all the good stuff you did. That creates an environment where people are afraid to make mistakes and afraid to ask questions.”

Being told that you’re wrong is essentially a form of punishment, and learners who are afraid to make mistakes because of repeated punishment soon shut down and are afraid to try anything. That makes it impossible to learn something new. And imagine the frustration of doing the same thing for years and then being told it’s wrong. We wouldn’t do that to an animal, but we often don’t realize we’re doing exactly that to our fellow humans.

“You can’t punish them when this is how they were taught,” she says. “I say, ‘You’re not wrong in what you’re doing, but fortunately medicine progresses, and we’ve learned a lot of great new ways to handle animals that make it easier for us and for them.’”

Be careful, too, of how interactions can convey the message “You’re wrong” without saying exactly that out loud. “You can’t run over and say, ‘Let me take over,’ because then you just insulted that person,” she says. “When I see things that are concerning, I’d just say, ‘Hey, you guys need some help?’”

Show, Don’t Tell

Simply using the techniques and letting people see what happens can be the best way to start. “First thing first, wherever I am, I use these skills, and people notice,” Kucera says. “Soon they’re coming to me and asking if they can learn this.”

It’s important to remember that trying something new can be anxiety-provoking, especially if you’re invested in and comfortable with techniques you’ve been using for years. Make it clear that it’s okay to try and fail. “I also don’t say ‘It’s do this or die,’” she says. “Try it one time, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do it the way that you’re comfortable.”

Another thing that we know for our animals but often forget for our fellow humans is that different reinforcers work for different individuals. When she’s trying to persuade people of the benefits of Fear Free, Kucera says, everyone cares about decreasing fear and stress in the animals, but other motivators can differ by role. For a practice owner, she’ll talk about the business advantages, while for a tech who restrains animals, she’ll say, “You’re in your 30s; you need to go home and not be in pain every day.”

Set Realistic Goals

When Kucera talks to people who are excited by her presentations, she often has to talk them down a bit. “I say, ‘I love your enthusiasm, but I don’t want you to go back to your shelter or hospital and say we have to do all this right now,’” she says. “Because I did that in the past, and it shuts people down.”

Remember that new skills need practice. “I set realistic expectations for people: I don’t expect you to do this perfectly tomorrow,” she says. And start slow, just like you would with a pet. “Pick one or two things for your practice or shelter and start there, because from there it’s going to spread like wildfire but not if you don’t set your staff up for success.”

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