According to Temple Grandin, Professor of Animal Science, consultant to the livestock industry and advocate for the humane treatment of animals, the absolute worst thing we can do to an animal on an emotional level is to cause it to feel fear.
If you had to choose between fear and pain, you would probably choose fear, right? Because you have control over your fear. Animals don’t have that same control over their fear. Consider a dog, afraid in your practice; it goes into a state of non-function, it can barely walk, barely move. And it goes further than an inability to function – a frightened dog becomes reactive and dangerous, and you may end up with a bite for handling the fear inappropriately. An animal in pain, on the other hand, is still very capable of function. It will mask its pain, often seem completely fine, and its actions will be fairly consistent and predictable.
Is fear in the practice normal?
We should never accept fear in our patients as the norm – we need to do all we can to address its causes and to diffuse the fear completely. Fear can have a negative impact not only on the treatments being applied, but on the long-term health and wellbeing of the animal, resulting in a shorter lifespan (Dreschel et al., 2010).
We’ve all been taught to recognise fear, both in the big, obvious signs and the subtle ones. A low, crouching posture and a reluctance to walk or move should throw up immediate red flags and cause us to back off, change tactics and diffuse the situation. Lip licking, stiffening, changes in breathing, yawning, averting the eyes, etc. are all part of the subtle signs we see daily in our practices, and we should never ignore them. Appropriate, calming responses will go a long way to open dialogue and foster trust.
It is a good idea, too, to teach owners to recognise these subtle signs in their dogs. The fascinating thing is that owners are often very good at recognising obvious and subtle signs of fear in other dogs, while missing them completely in their own dogs (Flint et al., 2018).
Here are three things you could incorporate into your practice to reduce fear:
Just as we do, dogs respond to music. Liza S. Köster et al. (2018) demonstrated that playing classical music can have a positive effect on the heart rates of dogs during a physical examination in a clinical setting. The study looked at the effect of classical music only, but it is likely that any calm, soothing music will have a positive effect on the heart rate. Such music will have the same effect on the examiner and owner, increasing the chances of a calm and relaxed patient.
Encourage Natural Behaviour
C. Duranton et al. (2019) show that dogs who do nosework and are encouraged to use their olfactory sense have a more positive and optimistic outlook on life. This may be linked to the fact that their work enables them to do what comes naturally to dogs. The more we can get our patients to behave in ways natural to dogs, the less the likelihood of fear.
For instance, encourage owners to allow the patient to spend ten minutes outside the practice sniffing and getting to know the environment. Once in the consulting area, let them do exactly the same thing; let the dog walk around sniffing and investigating at its own pace. You’ll be amazed at how allowing time for this simple, natural behavior results in a happier, more optimistic patient!
Allow the Patient to control his Movement
When introducing a dog to a new environment or new objects, it is important to allow them to control their movements. Restricting them or forcing them to approach an object or person they’re unfamiliar with will immediately increase their stress and fear. Stellato et al. (2017) demonstrated that in scenarios where dogs were allowed to control their exposure to fearful social or non-social stimuli, signs of fear were infrequent and brief.
Take another look at the physical arrangements in your practice. Does the environment encourage the patient to behave in a natural manner, to move naturally? Or do they need to be kept on a short leash because there are patients and people all around? Can you safely give them an opportunity to explore their environment while you touch base with the owner? Is your treatment area calm and quiet, or do you have a noisy swimming pool or underwater treadmill disturbing the peace? Is there an overload of social stimuli (people and other dogs) and non-social stimuli (equipment, underwater treadmill, scary exercise equipment) in your treatment area?
Let’s aim for a fear-free practice. Every single one of our patients, without exception, should be jumping out of the car and storming into the practice with tails wagging, tongues lolling, ready for some wonderful TLC. With a little thought and consideration, we can prepare our physical environment and our own responses so that our patients and their owners enjoy their times with us!