From Fearful to Fear Free

Photo Courtesy Patrick Danforth Photography

Does it surprise you to know that too much fear, anxiety or stress can cause health problems in dogs? Some dogs are terrorized frequently, such as attending inappropriate aversive dog training classes, or even a sick dog who needs to see the veterinarian frequently. Some caretakers have no clue their dog is even fearful.

“From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears and Phobias” is definitely the most important pet book of the year, and likely of the decade.

At the start of the book, there’s a quote in giant block letters, from a giant in veterinary behavior Dr. Karen Overall, “Fear is the most damaging emotion a social species can experience. It causes permanent damage to the brain.”

We know exactly why veterinary visits are down, and there are several contributing factors, including not understanding the need for checkups and cost can be an issue. Pet caretakers check Dr. Google – and if all seems okay, they assume that the dog is okay. However, the principal issue is that if our pets are unhappy at the vet, we’re not likely to want to subject our babies to this unless they absolutely need care. As the human-animal bond has grown it’s no longer acceptable to allow our “fur babies” to feel so fearful.

How fearful is that dog panting and whining in the vet office waiting room? Or the dog shaking at the groomer? Or a dog excessively barking at a training class? Here’s how fearful these pups are: They likely think they are going to die.

It doesn’t need to be this way, which is what the core of the Fear Free movement exploding on veterinary medicine is all about.

The primary author is Fear Free creator Dr. Marty Becker, with co-authors certified veterinary behaviorists Dr. Lisa Radosta and Dr. Wailani Sung, and certified pet dog trainer Mikkel Becker.

So why is this topic SO important? For starters, veterinarians can’t help pets they’re not seeing. Early diagnosis generally means better prognosis (as well as a financial savings). Veterinary check-ups have tremendous value.

Also, while of course pet parents know their dogs, they may be unaware of many signs of fear. For example, a “tight-lipped” dog may not be trying to keep a secret but be afraid. Yawning can mean a dog is tired, or just got up from a nap but also might be a sign of anxiety or fear.

It turns out there’s increasing scientific evidence to substantiate that socialization and training are incredibly beneficial. However, that’s only the right kind of training. Discussion includes use of equipment, like shock collars, and the truth regarding a price dogs might even pay for a lifetime when punishment-based methods are used. Or methods we might not even know aren’t beneficial, such as flooding, which is explained in the book. So, what techniques are proven to work, to motivate dogs rather than instill fear, anxiety and stress?

Lots of behavior disorders are explained. For example, separation anxiety.

First, people sometimes assume their dog suffers from this problem, when the real issue is that dog was never taught to be home alone or is simply bored. A proper diagnosis is required.

For the dogs who truly do suffer from separation anxiety, we don’t know what these distressed dogs are really thinking. Could it they are thinking their beloved people are never coming back? We don’t know. But we do know that there are all sorts of tools than be used to help, from pheromone products (like Adaptil) to behavior modification to drugs. That’s right, drugs, and Radosta explains that for some dogs phsycho-pharmaceutical drugs really do improve quality of life. In fact, it’s the most humane thing you can do for your beloved dog.

Dogs and humans evolved together, and it’s always wonderful to behold and witness a child growing up with a dog. There are so many advantages – on both sides – when it’s right. And an entire chapter, “Dogs and Kids: Building a Fear Friendship” is devoted to this.

Our dogs have that same neurochemistry soup in their heads as we have in ours, so addressing emotional health is as important (and intertwined) with addressing physical health. This sounds so simple and logical – and it is – but it’s not been done this way before. Fear Free is transformational.

It’s an easy to read book, written for pet parents in mind.

Fear Free can begin in your home, aside from the book, you can learn more at

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Positively Expert: Steve Dale

Steve is a certified dog and cat behavior consultant, has written several books, hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, and has appeared on numerous TV shows including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "National Geographic Explorer," and "Pets Part of the Family." Steve’s blog is


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