Going Fear Free? Dont get derailed

FirstlineFirstline January/February 2019
Volume 15
Issue 1

Change is new and exciting. It can also be hard and terrifying. Here's how to get everyone on board when making the switch to Fear Free in your veterinary clinic.


The Fear Free train rolls into your clinic, wheels squeaking, and everyone's expected to pick up their luggage and climb aboard. Of course, there will be trepidation-you're about to leave something behind to embrace something completely new-and with doubt comes resistance. In many regards, instilling a Fear Free culture is a top-down initiative. Let's figure out how to make it stick from arrival to departure.

The conductor

One of the greatest concerns when it comes to changing protocol is lack of clear leadership.

“The boss, whether he or she wants to be or not, is the default leader of the team,” says Michael Hargrove, DVM, owner of North Shore Veterinary Hospital, a Certified Fear Free Practice in Duluth, Minnesota. “If the boss isn't passionate about the need for a Fear Free approach to veterinary care, that's going to be clear to the rest of the team and it's going to be much more difficult to get buy-in.”

In other words, to help others succeed, we must first help ourselves. This is a self-care tool called the Oxygen Mask Theory, and it applies to your professional life just as well as your personal life. Louise Dunn, owner and CEO of Snogoose Veterinary Management Consulting, describes it this way: “One must first be able to understand their own resistance and how to sustain their motivation before helping others on the team.”

Dr. Hargrove agrees completely: “I see this over and over, when a staff member is passionate about change, but there's not the same passion from the leadership team ... in most cases, the staff member gets frustrated and burned out and often ends up leaving because of the lack of support.”

The passengers

The resistant staff may be pushing back if the reasoning for the change didn't connect in a way that was personally meaningful and motivating.

“It's important for the staff to understand what success looks like,” says Dr. Hargrove. “What's the end result of all of this training? What are the benefits to each of them personally? What's the benefit to the hospital?”

It's also important for the entire team to recognize how change can disrupt individual team members' perceived sense of value and role on the team.

“That lead technician might have been the ‘star' of the team previously,” Dr. Hargrove says. “She had the experience and knowledge that gave her a great deal of comfort in her job. As the team implemented Fear Free concepts into the practice, she was no longer the one who had all the answers. This is a major change to her comfort level and a threat to her position in the hospital, and she's rebelling because of it. It's a totally understandable reaction to the situation and one that frequently occurs when we change the way we do things.”

When one team member feels off kilter, it can become an easy slide downhill for the whole team. Ongoing training is important for all team members to continue reinforcing the new training and increase confidence with the new methods for a more successful implementation.

“Staff meetings should be used for group discussions about Fear Free concepts and how they're implemented in the practice,” Dr. Hargrove says. “You can't simply have everyone do computer-based learning and magically expect that the staff procedures and the staff culture will just naturally and seamlessly change.”

Along with regular check-ins, one of the most important aspects for success is the continued positive reinforcement of what team members are doing right.

“The owner and management need to regularly present to the team stories about small wins and celebrate those wins,” Dunn says. “Client feedback is also important to let the team know that the clients are watching the change.”


Say, “All aboard!”-and mean it

Lastly, rather than ignoring ongoing issues with team members who remain resistant to change, these issues need to be directly addressed.

“Having the practice owner or manager sit down individually with the team members who are less motivated to let go of the old ways of doing things can be revealing,” says Dunn. “It can also provide an important opportunity to address underlying myths and misconceptions that may be standing in the way of moving forward with Fear Free.”

While change takes time and ongoing support will be needed during the transition toward a different way of doing things, there are also hard lines that need to be drawn regarding outdated practices like forced lateral restraint of fearful dogs or scruffing of cats.

“This is where the owner needs to have backbone,” says Dunn. “It needs to be said that those forms of restraint are no longer acceptable. Discuss with those who use it why they choose that method and what they need to learn to stop using that restraint.”

And don't forget to figure out whether specific team members are resisting change because of some of the above issues or because they don't really believe that a Fear Free approach is the best standard of care.

“If they truly don't feel that the changes being made in the hospital are in the best interests of the patients and the practice and they're going to continue to do it the old way,” says Dr. Hargrove, “then I would seriously consider letting them go.”

Mikkel Becker is the lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets. She is a certified behavior consultant and trainer who specializes in reward-based training that's partnered closely with the pet's veterinary team. Mikkel is the co-author of six books, including From Fearful to Fear Free, and was the featured trainer on Vetstreet.com.

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