Is Fear Free the Secret to Happier, Healthier Pets?

  • Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.

Dr. Marty Becker first learned about treating animals humanely as a young boy on his parents’ dairy farm in Idaho. One of his chores was retrieving eggs from the hen house. But the chickens pecked at him when he reached into their cubbyhole to lift them off their eggs. So he decided instead to scream at the chickens to scare them off.

One day his father caught him. “I’ve got to admit that’s efficient, but it’s not the way we do things here,” his father said. “We treat all these animals really well.”

Dr. Becker tells me he always wanted to be a veterinarian. When he was at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Leo Bustad, who is said to be the first person to coin the term “the human-animal bond,” had a profound effect. He introduced Becker to the concepts behind People-Pet Partnership, a public service program in the Center for the Study of Animal Well-Being (CSAW) at WSU.

“The next thing I knew, I was volunteering. So the dairy career that I went to vet school for lasted less than thirty minutes. Instead of looking for state-of-the-art medicine, I was looking for state-of-the-heart medicine. It was a different perspective.”

Dr. Marty Becker is the veterinarian who started Fear Free pet care practices. Courtesy photo

A Seed Is Planted

It wasn’t until Becker heard a speech in 2009 by animal behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall at a conference that the seeds for Fear Free began to germinate.

He was busy and didn’t intend to stay for the whole presentation. Instead, Dr. Overall changed his life with the very first sentence of her talk: “Fear is the worst thing a social species can experience.” Dr. Becker stopped in his tracks. “It causes permanent damage to the brain,” she continued.

Fear is the worst thing a social species can experience. It causes permanent damage to the brain.

Overall spoke about how veterinarians, dog walkers, groomers, and trainers can cause deep psychological damage to pets by their handling methods. Becker thought about what happens to a dog or a cat when the vet draws blood or administers vaccinations.

“I knew that all these signs of fear, anxiety, and stress were happening. The shivering, the shaking, the salivating, the panting, the lunging, hiding, biting, yawning, leaning away, the fixed stare, the furrowed brow, the tucked tail, the flat ears. I thought that was all collateral damage, and there’s nothing you can do.”

Animals don’t have the concept of time, he says. They can’t anticipate the relief of their anxiety, stress, or pain, even if it’s moments away. “We take an oath to relieve pain and suffering, but we’re causing it. So how can we change that?”

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Taking the Pet Out of Petrified

Dr. Becker consulted with animal behaviorists. “We spent five years from 2010 to 2015 on proof of concept. How do you actually take the ‘pet’ out of ‘petrified’ and put the ‘treat’ into ‘treatment’ so your dog wants to go voluntarily to the veterinarian, to the groomer, or to the trainer?”

Instead of the old school domination tactics, Fear Free programs provide professionals and pet lovers with the knowledge and tools to nurture not only pets’ physical health but also their emotional wellbeing.

Along the way, he assembled a large Fear Free advisory panel of 150. They created a Fear Free resource center for both animal professionals and pet parents; launched educational programs for veterinarians, animal trainers, groomers, pet sitters, and boarding and daycare services; and launched a site for animal shelters called Fear Free Shelters. These sites provide online courses and videos that can lead to Fear Free certification. They also offer numerous resources for pet owners called Fear Free Happy Homes.

As a result, the Fear Free initiative—described by the website as “education on emotional wellbeing, enrichment, and the reduction of fear, anxiety, and stress in pets and improving the experience of every human and pet involved”—was officially launched  in 2016. Instead of the old school domination tactics, Fear Free programs provide professionals and pet lovers with the knowledge and tools to nurture not only pets’ physical health but also their emotional wellbeing.

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State of the Heart Medicine

Since taking your pets to the veterinarian can be high stress for them, Fear Free practices are particularly crucial to a dog or cat’s emotional health. Because giving vaccinations, wellness examinations, diagnosing disease, and treating injuries is so important, veterinarians and their staff often use techniques like strong restraint to get the job done. But, as Dr. Becker notes, our pets have no idea how this benefits them—all they understand is that the injection hurts.

This often results in pet parents who feel like they’re hurting their animals by trying to help them, so they don’t take them to the vet except in emergencies.

But Fear Free practices are designed to make pets actually like going to the vet.

Fear Free techniques involve gentle, species appropriate handling designed to make the experience less stressful. Courtesy photo

“We really focus on using minimal to no restraint and positive reinforcement while we’re doing anything that could be considered aversive to the to the patient,” says Dr. Lindsey Wendt, who has a decade of experience working in her mobile veterinarian office.

These methods result in vet visits that offer high value rewards to pets so that they will associate the environment with yummy treats rather than fear and anxiety.

“I’ve seen how the approach you take with the animal can lead to them being more accepting of performing certain procedures or examinations,” says Dr. Wendt.

Fear Free practices can involve creating a quiet environment that limits negative scent associations (like powerful disinfectants) and reduces noises (like loud music and conversation).

Fear Free techniques include recognizing and working with the “Fear, Anxiety, and Stress Scale” (the FAS Scale) and “Considerate Approach,” a handling method that considers a species-specific point of view. Veterinarians learn a variety of other skills, such as how to set up waiting rooms to keep animals as calm as possible, and how to avoid negative associations with everything from white doctors’ coats (White Coat Syndrome) to scents (such as disinfectants) and noise (like loud music and conversation).

Dr. Becker practicing Fear Free techniques in a veterinary clinic. Courtesy photo

Fear Free also helps pet parents get their pets ready for a successful visit.

Pre-visit protocols include holding the pet carrier so that it doesn’t bang against anything, using species-specific pheromones before getting to the hospital, and keeping the pet safe and secure during transportation. If a pet parent can help keep their dog or cat calm from the house to the hospital, the potential for Fear Free examination increases.

Of course, some pets are just too stressed or frightened to have a successful visit. Veterinarians have a few choices when a patient registers too high on the FAS Scale. Vets can reschedule the visit for another day, sending the pet parent home with some oral medication to help keep their dog or cat calm before the next appointment. If it’s an emergency, an injectable sedative might be necessary.

Mikkel Becker offers Fear Free training to her clients. Courtesy photo

Setting Pets Up for Success

“Rather than waiting until dogs get it wrong and then correcting them, my way of training is managing the situation to set the pet up for success,” says Mikkel Becker, lead animal trainer for Fear Free (and Dr. Becker’s daughter).

“When I was around eight or nine, I had gone to a training class with my dog, Scooter, and she was set up to fail.” Scooter was reactive to other dogs, and the class trainer made dogs walk right in front of her. When Becker’s dog lunged at one, the trainer took Scooter’s leash and ripped her off her feet.

“She literally catapulted and cartwheeled in the air and fell down.” Becker refused to take her back. “Just a few years later, Scooter went on to be the Grand Champion in Obedience dog at our 4-H overall. And it came through methods that are now part of Fear Free.”

Adding punishment to a situation is just adding fuel to the fire, because the animal almost always feels fear, anxiety, and stress, which are contributing factors to that aggression or frustration.

Fear Free training methods use positive reinforcement, often in the form of attention, treats, play, or a toy, to reward desired behavior.

“We can help our pet in the moment when they aren’t making the best choice and redirect them to a better behavior. And by doing that, we help to protect and enhance their emotional wellbeing,” Becker says.

“Adding punishment to a situation is just adding fuel to the fire,” she adds. “The animal almost always feels fear, anxiety, and stress, which are contributing factors to that aggression or frustration.” All punishment does is increase any negative emotions and associations with a situation. “The pet may temporarily suppress or inhibit their behavior, but it doesn’t get better.”

Fear Free dog trainer Joseph Ryan (right) works with a client’s pet. Pictured on the left is fellow dog trainer Shauntay Shadrach. Courtesy photo

Establishing Standards in an Unregulated Industry

The Fear Free certification can help dog trainers stand out in an unregulated industry, says Joseph Ryan, General Manager of Enrichment & Training at Patrick’s Pet Care in Washington, DC., a Fear Free pet services business. “Technically anyone can call themselves a dog trainer.”

Ryan specializes in reactive and aggressive dogs. That’s how he came to work with Bear and Cora, two dogs who lived together but didn’t get along. It got so bad that not only did they cause each other injuries that needed vet care, but they actually sent their human to the hospital.

The owners were committed to making it work. They originally sought help from a trainer who used punishment methods.

“When Bear would growl or show her teeth to Cora, the trainer would punish her for it,” recounts Ryan. “Bear didn’t make the association with the behavior. She made the association with Cora.” The result was that the situation got worse. “We had to help Bear unlearn that.”

Ryan used counterconditioning involving “only positive things when they’re in the room together. And it really changed the way that Bear felt about Cora being there.”

The group worked together for about six months. Eventually, the owners cut back on weekly, and then monthly, training sessions. Now, the two dogs are able to co-exist. “There hasn’t been a fight since I started working with them,” Ryan says.

At one point, dogs Cora (left) and Bear (right) couldn’t be in the same room together without causing harm to each other, or someone else. Pet parents Kimberly and Brandon credit Fear Free training for helping everyone learn how to coexist. Courtesy photo

“You Must Evaluate Each Dog as an Individual”

While some of us might enjoy a day at the spa, our pets generally do not. Grooming is often a high stress experience for dogs and (especially) cats. Unfortunately, when dogs struggle, they sometimes end up getting a nick from scissors and clippers—or worse.

Grooming, like dog training, doesn’t require a license in the United States. “There wasn’t a teaching method available other than apprenticing (or becoming a dog trainer) that helped groomers with behavior issues—until Fear Free,” says Elsebeth DeBiase, a Master Groomer certified by International Professional Groomers, an organization that educates and certifies groomers for the safety of pets. With 22 years of experience in the pet industry, she’s Maine’s first Fear Free Certified Groomer.

The Fear Free program for groomers includes helping animals get comfortable with the dreaded nail clippers, the grooming table, the bathtub, the blow dryer, grooming shears, the groomer’s loop, and other elements. It teaches groomers the least stressful layout for a grooming shop, the entrance and exits, the waiting room, exposure to other animals, and sounds and smells.

Master Groomer Elsebeth DeBiase demonstrates a Fear Free grooming technique. Courtesy photo

DeBiase considers minute details in her space, from positioning the table against two walls so senior dogs feel safer, to using different spray nozzles for bathing depending on a dog’s or cat’s reaction. She might break down a groom into multiple visits for very stressed pets.

“Shampoo may be room temperature, but to an elderly dog, that might be cold. So I will warm that up or even use a shampoo bar,” DeBiase says. She also has different types of dryers that make different sounds.

She provides a “comfort groom” when a dog isn’t up to a long, complicated breed-specific haircut. “That means I’m going to make it look the best that I can, but we might have to change some things. Because your dog has arthritic hips, we may have to skip the Poodle feet to make it easier on your dog.”

“Every dog is an individual,” she says. “I think that’s probably the take-home message. You must evaluate each dog as an individual.”

More About Fear Free

To find a Fear Free pet professional, you can go to and search the Fear Free Directory for Certified Professionals or Certified Practices in your area.

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