The top 10 objections to Fear-Free veterinary practice—overcome
John Talmadge, DVM, owner of Bigger Road Veterinary Center in Springboro, Ohio, has been doing Fear-Free in his veterinary practice for a long time. So he’s about heard it all when it comes to why Fear-Free and low-stress techniques “won’t work” from his colleagues in other veterinary hospitals. Frankly? The excuses don’t wash, he says. Here’s the breakdown.
1. My team won’t be on board.
Resistance from your veterinary team (common with any kind of change) starts to melt once people start seeing success, Talmadge says. Say your patient Max has been struggling with anxiety at your hospital for years, and then one day your technician doesn’t have to use a muzzle to trim his nails.
“You tell that story at a team meeting,” Talmadge says. “Everybody who knows how much Max hates having his nails trimmed says, ‘Wow!’ And then they think of Lola or Sophie. They think, ‘Maybe we can do this!’ It becomes contagious.”
2. I’m an associate; I’m not in charge.
If you’re an associate who would like to try Fear-Free, Talmage has a plan for you. Sit down with your owner and say, “I’d like to try this.” Describe what you’ll need to get started, the people who will be involved and the training you’ll all need. Then tell the boss, “You don’t have to do anything other than be supportive. We’re going to come back to you and show results.”
“If you come with an idea that’s supported by a detailed plan, I think most bosses—even if they don’t believe in the idea—will say, ‘Fine. Go do it,’” Talmadge says. “Then, when you come back with results, they say, ‘That wasn’t a bad idea. I’ve been thinking we should do that for a long time!’’”
The key is to decide what success looks like and track those changes. Will you track new clients who come in because of the initiative? Will you come up with a way to measure lower patient anxiety? “This is really just putting together a small business plan,” Talmadge says. “If you’re ever going to be a practice owner, it’s great experience.”
3. Fear-Free doesn’t pay off financially.
Talmadge says he tracks new client visits, and Fear-Free is one of the drivers of the growth Bigger Road is seeing. “I have not had a free appointment time for weeks,” he says. “We’re increasing new client visits to the point where we’ve hired a new veterinarian, which we haven’t had to do for a while. Clients know we care about their pets, and it’s that caring attitude they’re looking for.”
4. Clients won’t want to come back for a separate appointment.
If a patient is having an extremely stressful experience during a wellness visit, the team at Bigger Road will often cut the appointment short. The doctor or technician will tell the client something like, “We got blood today; we can’t do the nails—it’s going to take him to a whole level of anxiety and we don’t want that.”
“We’ve found that the majority of owners are not inconvenienced by that; they appreciate it,” Talmadge says. “We tell them we are trying to keep their pet as calm as we can so that when they come in it’s not a horrible experience for them. Occasionally an owner protests, but that’s the extreme exception.”
5. Fear-Free takes too much time.
Putting a ThunderShirt on a dog. Letting a cat decide when it’s ready to come out of the carrier. Doesn’t it all add up to a two-hour appointment? No, says Talmadge. The more you do it, the better—and faster—you get.
“In fact, with some anxious pets it ends up saving you time,” he says. “You’re not trying to fight the pet; you’re not trying to get a muzzle on it so you can do what you need to do.”
Plus, as you start to learn what helps calms specific patients down, you can go to that strategy immediately. “We make notes on what works,” Talmadge says. “Maybe we tried two other things and then discover that this pet loves peanut butter. We put that in the chart.”
6. I can’t change the way I’ve done things for so many years.
“When I started in practice, you just wrestled dogs to the ground,” Talmadge says. “I came out of the cattle industry, and that’s just how you handled it.”
But that’s not a rewarding way to practice, he continues, especially when most people go into the profession because they love pets. “With the way we feel about pets today, it’s not the way I’d want my pet treated,” he says. It’s not easy to change, but it can be done.
7. I’ve tried Fear-Free strategies and they don’t work.
“Not every technique works on every pet,” Talmadge says. That’s why his team refers to a “black bag” full of Fear-Free techniques, treats and toys to try with patients. ThunderShirts work on perhaps 60 percent of pets. Some animals aren’t food-motivated but they do like toys or tennis balls. The key is to keep pulling tools out of your bag of tricks until you find the key to that patient’s happy (or at least less scary) place.
8. Clients have been taught not to feed pets people food—now we’re giving them cheese?
Talmadge says he tells clients he’s trained over the years that he’s changed his thinking. “Now I say, ‘Don’t feed pets from the table,’” he says. But those high-value treats—peanut butter, cheese, hot dogs—are essential when you’re trying to reinforce a desired behavior or create a positive association with a certain experience—like coming to to the veterinary clinic.
9. Cats aren’t food-motivated.
It’s true, Talmadge says. Cats are harder to bribe than dogs. “Some are food-motivated, so we always try,” he says. But he and his team also experiment with catnip, use pheremone dispensers and spray, have a cat tree in the feline exam room, and break out the feather toys. The key, again, is to keep trying.
10. I just can’t.
Talmadge becomes philosophical about this attitude—whether in relation to Fear-Free or any other change in personal or professional life. “Whatever you say, you’re right,” he says. “If you say you can, you can. If you say you can’t, you can’t. It’s that simple.”