A Calming Touch — A Fear Free Approach
Using Fear Free techniques in practice changed this veterinary nurse's approach to fearful animals — and her life.
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Summer Brooks, MS, RVT
Grand Animal Hospital
San Diego, California
I was the world’s worst at patient restraint. Somehow, no matter how hard I tried, the patient would continue to struggle or slip out of my grasp. When the doctor would ask for assistance in the exam room and I answered her call, I often saw her shoulders slump when she saw it was me. My coworkers also tended to scold me about “not holding tight enough” or “being too emotional” when I was restraining an animal.
Although I was following the techniques I had been taught on the job (the same ones my coworkers were using), I always seemed to fail. But somewhere in my soul I knew that the way the veterinary community tended to approach restraint wasn’t what was best for the animal. Yes, if we had four people holding down a struggling dog for a nail trim, we would end up “getting it done.” But what if we could approach the dog in such a way that we didn’t need to meet struggling with force? Also, how could we make a cat feel more secure so that it didn’t feel the need to scratch, bite, or flee?
Although I kept trying to improve my technique, and tried to become more assertive, I was still seen as the “timid” one when it came to animal restraint.
As a technician, I have always had a deep interest in behavior medicine. Dr. Sophia Yin was one of my professional heroes. I loved her blog and had attended her lectures at conferences, and I hoped to someday intern with her to learn more about applied animal behavior in the veterinary setting. On September 28, 2014, when I heard the terrible news that she died, I signed up for her Low-Stress Handling™ certification course that very day as a way to honor her memory.
As I started the course, I realized…this was it! This was the guidance I needed to be more confident at patient handling! Her low-stress techniques showed me how to use calm control to reduce fear and to eliminate struggling.
I became well versed in multiple towel wraps for cats and how to examine or treat fearful and aggressive cats in the carrier. I learned how to restrain dogs with a myriad of hand and body holds that help them feel safe and secure, which allows us to restrain with minimal force. I also learned how to be flexible and modify restraint techniques and diagnostic procedures to help keep the animal calm. Through this training, I was no longer the “timid” one when it came to restraint. I had new tools to help keep patients relaxed, which allowed us to complete low-stress procedures like nail trims, ear flushes, and blood draws. I was amazed at the difference…both in my ability and in the positive change I saw in our patients’ behavior.
In 2016, the Fear Freesm certification course debuted, and I knew it would be the perfect addition to my low-stress handling knowledge. Through this course, I learned to look at the veterinary experience from the patient’s point of view and how to minimize fearful triggers throughout the visit. I learned how to help owners begin the visit with stress-free transport from home, and I realized that there are many small modifications we can make in the waiting room, exam room, and treatment/hospital areas to minimize fear in our patients. I also became adept at communicating the fear-free and low-stress philosophy to clients and staff. Fear Freesm also provided me with resources to share with the veterinarians about previsit anxiety medication and sedation protocols.
Because of this training, my confidence has gone through the roof. When I first offered help, I could see that my coworkers were still dubious. But now the doctor and staff often defer to me with a challenging patient because they know I have the training and tools to help in a calm and confident manner.
Now, any time a “CAUTION” animal is scheduled, I am excited to be the lead tech on the case—and help the pet, owner, doctor, and staff have a successful visit.
What Moves Me?
We have a canine patient with recurring ear infections. He has been notorious for bucking and “alligator rolling” during exams. He used to become frantic from the moment his owner brought him in and snapped on the (much needed) nylon muzzle. Now, with the use of a basket muzzle and a towel wrap, he stays calm for thorough otoscopic exams and ear flushes. No more alligator rolling!
One of our new feline patients had a history of needing sedation for exams and blood work at other clinics. On her most recent visit, we ushered her into a quiet room with treats and Feliway-sprayed blankets. The doctor examined her in the carrier, which kept her calm and comfortable. When it was time to draw blood, we wrapped her in a blanket and the doctor drew from the medial saphenous vein. We completed all the diagnostics in the exam room so that we did not have to disorient her by changing to a new (and busy and loud) location. The owner was amazed that her cat did not “flip out” like it always had before!
After a low-stress nail trim using gentle handling and high-value treats, it is gratifying to hear an owner say, “Bringing my dog for a nail trim used to be so stressful that I would avoid it. Now I can’t wait for next time!”
It moves me to pass on these techniques to other staff members and see the ripple effect that these techniques have on patient care as well as staff morale and safety.
Knowing that I can help to make a vet visit low stress and fear free makes me excited to go to work every day. I want to shout from the rooftops how this training has changed my life. Sharing my experiences here is a great place to start.