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Why choose Fear Free vet care & training?

Dr Chantelle McGowan, BVSc MANZCVS (Behaviour) & Elite Fear Free Coach

Cute tabby cat with species-appropriate soft elizabethan collar

A debate rages among (primarily dog) trainers about effective methods of training, and many veterinary teams believe that there is no quicker way to get a job done than getting 3 or more people to pin down and traumatise a distressed patient that might be lashing out.

There are many ways of describing Fear Free veterinary care & training: self-described as "force free", "low stress", "stress free", "positive reinforcement", and "R-plus". Some of the less flattering terms we may hear from folks who don't know how to train or restrain without force or fear refer us as "cookie pushers", "treat trainers" and "those behaviour vets *eyeroll*".

Adopting a Fear Free mindset is certainly not a ‘free-for-all' anarchy without boundaries that many “balanced” trainers would have you believe.

It’s about respecting that the animal in front of us as a living, sentient being that deserves respect and autonomy; dogs, cats, bunnies, birds, reptiles, wildlife and humans flourish in environments that are calm, predictable and nurturing.

Rational learning doesn’t happen in a hyper-aroused or worked up state that is caused by punishment or aversive methods. This can include forceful restraint, raising your voice, yelling, growling, hitting, collar snapping, checking, pinching, prong collars, alpha rolling, ‘e-collars’ (shock collars) and anything else the animal finds negative or scary (1). Science tells us that elevated cortisol (stress hormones) can cause hippocampal cells to shrink (a part of the brain used in rational memory)(2). In a very fearful situation, the amygdala attaches strong emotion to a memory that becomes fragmented and easily triggered, not the logical, methodical storage of memories obtained in a neutral or positive environment. Fear memories and experiences solicit strong physiological changes and reactivity out of even the most placid creature.

This video is a (very) technical look at fear learning, but also touches on therapies that humans can consent to. Although this video promotes it, fear extinction is controversial in Veterinary Behavioural Medicine because the animal cannot consent to this fear-inducing procedure (making it unethical & inhumane). Additionally, fear extinction attempts are often performed incorrectly in the real world by unqualified individuals, where context is less rigid, making the fear worse. A much preferred, ethical alternative to fear extinction is to avoid the traumatic event in the first place, and if unavoidable, to be treated with counter-conditioning combined with desensitisation, a process that is often enhanced by using anxiety-relieving medication in the animal.

Fear learning is why one negative experience at a vet clinic can stay with your pet for life, even if it is followed by multiple positive experiences. Especially since puppy and kitten brains are still developing, a negative experience at the vet can have devastating effects (3). Taking a Fear Free approach is scientifically validated by many studies demonstrating the learning capacity and performance of animals under stress or punishment, and directly compares them to animals learning in a calm environment.

Spoiler alert; Fear Free interactions with animals shows superior performance, longer lasting learning and results that stick (4,5,6).

Fear Free pays equal attention to the animal’s emotional wellbeing which is intrinsically linked to physical health. This is achieved through interpreting body language and behaviour – a skill that must be learned, just like any other foreign language 7). It understands an animal’s natural instincts and needs, and accommodates this in the interaction. Respecting an animal’s boundaries, reading their behavioural cues and working with them instead of being combative avoids stress and mitigates the potential for defensive or aggressive behaviour (8). This is important given the number of injuries that happen to veterinary teams, one study documenting injuries in 71% of veterinarians over a 10 year period thanks to dog bites, cat bites & scratches, as well as back injuries from restraining animals (9). Becoming Fear Free is essential for any clinic that is serious about safeguarding the health and wellbeing of their staff and patients.

A husky joyfully bounds across lush green grass with his tongue out

Calm Pet Vet is committed to minimising the fear and stress animals experience with veterinary care, as well as providing counselling & treatment for your pet’s behavioural problems. We also offer training & upskilling for veterinary teams wanting to take the modern, scientific approach to their patients’ care.

If any of this resonated and you would like more information, drop us an enquiry!

While intended to help any pet parent with an anxious pet, this article is no substitute for a consultation with firstly, a veterinarian to ensure no physical ailments, and secondly, a qualified veterinary behaviour professional to assess your pet(s), their unique triggers, thresholds and capabilities, to offer a treatment plan tailored for success.


1. Overall KL. Why electric shock is not behavior modification. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 2007;2(1):1-4. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2006.12.006

2. Dutta. The Limbic System and Long-Term Memory. News-Medical. Published 2018. Accessed June 14, 2021.

3. Anseeuw E, Apker C, Ayscue C, et al. Handling cats humanely in the veterinary hospital. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 2006;1(2):84-88. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2006.06.003

4. Overall KL. Beware the misdirection offense: the truth about shock, aversives and punishment. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2018;25:iv-vi. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2018.04.005

5. Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2009;117(1-2):47-54. doi:10.1016/J.APPLANIM.2008.12.011

6. LeDoux JE, Pine DS. Using neuroscience to help understand fear and anxiety: A two-system framework. American Journal of Psychiatry. 2016;173(11):1083-1093. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.16030353

7. McConnell P. The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs. Random House USA Inc; 2003.

8. Bykowski MR, Shakir S, Naran S, et al. Pediatric Dog Bite Prevention: Are We Barking Up the Wrong Tree or Just Not Barking Loud Enough? Pediatr Emerg Care. 2019;35(9):618-623. doi:10.1097/PEC.0000000000001132

9. Jeyaretnam J, Jones H, Phillips M. Disease and injury among veterinarians. Aust Vet J. 2000;78(9):625-629. doi:10.1111/j.1751-0813.2000.tb11939.x

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