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Fear Free: When veterinary clients are talking about it, it's time to get on board

Posted in Client Service @ Mar 31st 2021 - By Gillian Shippen, Nurse Manager & Director Pets Need A Life Too
Fear Free When Your Clients Are Talking About It Its Time To Get On Board

If you think Fear Free is going away, you may need to think again.

First published in March 2019 & updated March 2021

It all started when....

As a child, I was a little different. I didn’t play with dolls and I preferred to read, my favourites, of course, being James Herriot and similarly themed books. Or go outside and watch ants, butterflies, ladybugs, stink bugs, caterpillars, birds, etc. all go about their business. As well as having chats with the local dogs and cats, who back in the day, were free to roam the neighbourhood.

In my high school years (well really all my school years – I really don’t have fond memories of my lower education) I was an outsider, a loner if you like, I didn’t really click with any lasting friends until my final year where I met the person who has become my best friend for life.

My high school was one of just a few inner city schools offering an Agriculture programme and I naturally gravitated towards the Agricultural centre. In our later years we were allowed to join the Steer Team programme, and as I was always hanging around the Agricultural Centre I was given permission to assist with the Led Steer Team earlier than most. I was in my element being around the animals; we had chickens, ducks, sheep, goats as well as the steers and I gained an affinity for animal handling. Although perhaps considering my activities in my even younger years, maybe I always had it but now I was able to put it to good use.

Even in the led steer team, the position of leading the steer in the show ring came down to a popularity vote amongst the team rather than ability. In my final year, I was finally given the privilege of being the team leader and leading our steer in the ring and this selection was made on aptitude, not popularity.

How do I know this you might well ask?

It's because no one else could get anywhere near our steer!

The poor creature was an anxious mess as a result of funding cuts we only had one steer instead of the usual two. He was an unhappy soul with no company all year, and there was a worn trail around the perimeter of his paddock where he paced.

In an effort to show him off better, the teacher decided to shave his coat. Coaxed into the crush he was still a hotbed of anxiety, bucking and trying to get away from the people around him. Our teacher asked for a volunteer to cradle the steer’s head to keep him steady and no one was game enough except me. I stood up, cradling his head, soothing his brow, whispering sweet nothings into his ear and the job of shaving him was finally completed uneventfully. After that incident the only person he would allow near him was me as everyone else was simply too frightened, he knew it and would respond accordingly. But he and I had built up a rapport; we worked well together, even getting a special mention by the judge on judging day as to our relationship.

And then I became a vet nurse

When I started out in my Veterinary Nursing career, I volunteered for all the public veterinary events such as Vets and Pets in the Park, Pet Expo, and the Million Paws Walk. I distinctly remember my debut event, the president of the then SAVNA (South Australian Veterinary Nurses Association) Brenda Wheeler, came to me afterwards, introduced herself and said to me “Well you certainly made an impact, all the vets are asking who you are and they’re raving about your handling skills”. I was (and still am) a shy person and was quite embarrassed as I didn’t feel I had done anything particularly special, I thought that all Veterinary Nurses were able to do what I had done that day.

As a Veterinary Nurse it is part of my job to handle animals in a manner that enables the Vet to feel safe and the patient to feel secure. I have always been able to handle the cats that even their owner says they cannot get anywhere near and the little dogs that the family is scared of. I can tell if the bigger dogs are going to be co-operative or not and can work with them just as well as any little dog.

I have never been able to explain why I can do what it is I do – to me, it just comes naturally. I try to explain to our clients how they can best interact with their pet but to be frank, even I think I sound crazy when I say things like “well, I ask permission first”.

I know this piece sounds like I am blowing my own trumpet but I am leading somewhere, I promise.

Now I know why it is I can do what I do.

It's all about Fear Free!

I recently decided to take a Fear Free Course online. I did it for me and because I recognised many of our clients knew about the Fear Free movement and it was something they wanted.

I didn’t even tell my boss I was doing it, although I did quietly place the certificate on my business Facebook page and a Fear Free logo beside my profile on the clinic website.

I was able to breeze through the first level of the course as I soon realised I had been doing Fear Free all along anyway, but there were other things that I was able to look at and recognise how I could do even better.

The course also gave me the tools to help our clients help their pets.

Fear Free - What courses are on offer?

There are two programmes promoting low stress and Fear Free veterinary visits and I can recommend that all animal professionals take the time to do one of them. There is, of course, an upfront fee to have your clinic 'accredited' as well as ongoing fees to maintain accreditation.

1. Low Stress Handling University

The first course I was aware of and I feel is the starting point of the whole Fear Free movement is Dr Sophia Yin’s Low Stress Handling course which can be accessed at the Low Stress Handling University at the following website link:  Although the Low Stress Handling Certification is mainly directed at Veterinary professionals, it is open to other animal professionals and companion animal owners.


The purpose of the Certification in Low Stress Handling® is to provide the teaching content needed to understand and improve the individual or hospital’s ability to create a low stress environment and handle animals in a less stressful manner. Coursework for this Certification goes beyond the teaching available from Dr. Yin’s book (with complementary DVD) Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats (GS:  this text should be required reading for all veterinary related students and clinics in my personal opinion) and related training videos. While these sources include improvements to the hospital’s design, to its preparation of and for the patient prior to a visit, and to its use of tools and sedative agents, a large portion of Low Stress Handling relies on the development of important hands-on skills.

Among these are the abilities to

  1. Recognize the overt and subtle signs of fear and anxiety in dogs and cats and identify the common mistakes people make when approaching and greeting pets that make the animals more fearful or aggressive. Learn to approach and handle pets in a relaxed, non-threatening manner.
  2. Learn how the sights, sounds, smells, and surfaces in your practice may be increasing the stress in your patients. Discover ways to create a calmer, safer, and more secure environment.
  3. Learn 5 methods for controlling the rear and 7 for controlling the front end of dogs. Determine which directions of movement (forward, back, right, left, up, and down) each hold controls. Evaluate which restraint hold is best for a given dog and procedure.
  4. Understand how every interaction – how you approach, pick animals up, move them from place to place, or restrain them – affects the animal’s perception of you and their willingness to cooperate. Learn how to position your body and adjust your movement to provide the direction and guidance the animal needs.”


Pricing for Low Stress Handling Certification

Individual certification cost is $US330.00.

Price includes $US40 certification fee and $US290 course fee which includes viewing access to all of the online videos that make up the course content as well as the online quizzes.

There are also group rates for Hospital Certification Cost which vary depending on the number of people being certified at that hospital/clinic/group:

  • Group of 4 to 14 people - $US305.00 per person
  • Group of 15 to 19 people - $US280.50 per person
  • Group of 20 to 44 people - $US264.00 per person
  • Group of 45+ people - $US246.50 per person

There is currently one level (Silver) which you have six months to complete and achieve at least a 90% pass score on each exam. If you don't finish in that time frame, you'll need to re-enrol. Certification for individuals it is a one-time process and hospitals must re-certify every three years. Two further levels are currently in the development stage.


2. Fear Free - Taking the Pet Out of Petrified

This is the course I have completed and you can find the website link here: The only reason I went with this course originally, is simply because I received a discount code through the Pet Professional Guild.

“Fear Free provides online and in-person education to veterinary professionals, the pet professional community, and pet owners. Their programs provide professionals and pet lovers with the knowledge and tools to not only look after a pet’s physical wellbeing but their emotional wellbeing, as well. We know we must feed the pet’s mind as well as the body, so we make sure that in-home enrichment and Fear Free training are front-and-center with pet professionals and pet owners alike.

Founded by Dr Marty Becker in the USA, Fear Free has become one of the single most transformative initiatives in the history of companion animal practice, with more than 43,000 veterinary and pet professionals committed to becoming Fear Free Certified®.”


Pricing for Fear Free Certification

1 - 9$279Full Price
10 - 19$13950% Off
20 - 29$12555% Off
30 - 39$11260% Off
40 - 49$10563% Off
50 - 99$9865% Off
100+$7075% Off

“Individual certification needs to be renewed annually to keep certification active, and to gain access to the next levels of the certification program – Level 2 and Level 3.

Note: At this time, Practice Certification is available only in the US and Canada. International professionals are encouraged to seek individual certification and keep their certification status active by renewing and continuing to take advantage of our ongoing CE offerings.”


Fear Free - something for your clients too

The great thing about Fear Free is it is something very tangible that you can cross promote with your clients. There are three components to Fear Free: 1. Veterinary Professionals, 2. Pet Professionals and 3. Pet Owners, encouraging a holistic approach to helping pets live a fear free life, starting in the home.

If pet owners already know about it, they'll want to see that you do too 

I have read about and understand the concerns and complaints from some veterinary practice owners and managers bemoaning that this is yet another fee to pay on top of all the other fees, registrations etc. that a vet clinic is required to pay just to operate. However, I can tell you that Fear Free is a growing movement, and if your clients do not already know about it they will soon.

The clients who have pets (usually dogs) with behaviour problems are the ones that know about it now and many are already pushing for Fear Free methods of dealing with their pets.

On the other side, I have also seen complaints on private Facebook Groups from pet owners who feel betrayed because veterinary staff have not treated their pets in a fear free manner. And specialists, in particular, need to take note. Unfortunately, because of the very nature of a specialist visit, there is no established relationship with a client and patient, and so these are the clients that feel it the most.

This is not a whimsical movement.

We have found that these clients who are aware of Fear Free handling are more than willing to pay the extra to sedate for a nail trim or ear exam. If we embrace Fear Free it can only make the lives of veterinary staff, client and patients so much better.

If you have any questions for Gillian about her experiences with becoming Fear Free Certified, ask them in the Comments below.

About Gillian

Gillian Shippen is a Nurse Manager and the owner of 'Pets Need A LIfe Too, a website that advises on and sells a wide range of environmental enrichment toys for animals including dogs, cats, birds, rabbits and horses as well as wheelchairs for dogs. She has spoken at conferences on the importance on environmental enrichment for all animals and has also written a book: 'Pets Need a Life Too - A Guide to Enriching the Life of Your Pet - Series One: Dogs'.

Click here to visit: Pet's Need A Life Too! Page in the Vetanswers Business Directory





Hay @ Apr 26th 2019 5:24pm
Hi Gillian, I am Hay, the Vet Operations Manager at PETstock and I really liked your article on fear free animal handling and was wondering if you would be available to speak at PETstock conference in August this year? Kind regards, Hay
Judy @ Apr 26th 2019 5:44pm
Hi Hay, Great to hear you enjoyed Gillian's post - I'll make sure she is aware of your comment. If you could email me on I'll pass on your contact details. Regards, Judy

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