From Fearful to Fear Free is a breath of fresh air. It’s a new book by Dr. Marty Becker, DVM et. al. and available exclusively from Dogwise. The book was motivated by the lead author’s insight after listening to a talk given by Dr. Karen Overall. She discussed the damage being done in veterinary clinics by dogs who were terrified, if not traumatized, by veterinary procedures. Dr. Becker left the talk shaken to the core. As much as he loves dogs, and as experienced as he was as “American Veterinarian” on Good Morning America for 19 years, he had never thought about how much damage standard medical procedures can do to the health of the dogs who are frightened by them. Fear changes a dog’s physiology and how it presents in the clinic. It can suppress a dog’s immune system and exacerbate many medical issues. It can traumatize a dog such that his or her brain is changed significantly, and in some cases permanently.
I heard about the book, and Dr. Becker’s commitment to “Fear Free” during a delightful dinner with him, the night after his talk at the recent APDT conference in Richmond, VA. He’s a wonderful dinner companion, warm, friendly and exuberant in his passion to change the world of veterinary medicine to become “fear free.” But he’s not stopping there; his new book is written for the general public in hopes of convincing all dog owners to use positive reinforcement to eliminate as much fear and distress as we can from the life of a dog.
It’s a great book for the general public. (And it comes out everywhere next April, watch for it in the news.) It’s attractive and colorful, with lots of easily digestible information and stories. It actually had 4 authors: Dr. Becker, Dr. Lisa Rodesta and Dr. Wailani Sung, both board certified veterinary behaviorists, and Dr. Becker’s daughter, Mikkel Becker, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA and a graduate of the Karen Pryor Academy and the San Francisco SPCA Academy. That’s a lot of hands-on-experience as well as academic knowledge–no wonder it’s a valuable addition to one’s library.
Do I agree with everything that’s in the book? Of course not. I barely agree with everything I’ve written once it’s published. But I would push back on the quote from Dr. Overall that says “Fear is the most damaging emotion a social species can experience. It causes permanent damage to the brain.” All fear is not equal, and being momentarily frightened by someone in a Halloween costume is not going to have the same effect as being attacked without warning at the dog park or years of abuse. I worry too a bit about the section on Socialization, that lists dozens of people, places and noises (among other things) to which to “socialize” your dog. In my experience, many people overdo “socialization” (the term many use for desensitizing at an early age). I see as many dogs overwhelmed by trips to the farmer’s market than helped by them.
But these concerns are easily countered by so much that is great about the book. There’s an excellent two-paragraph section on why punishment doesn’t work that will be far more effective than any explanation of the science behind positive punishment versus reinforcement. There’s actually an entire chapter on the power of positive reinforcement, including short stories from dogs the authors have worked with that help to make the point. (One of my favorites is actually about changing human behavior–a piece by Dr. Radosta about how her husband persuaded her to get on his motorcycle by finding the right reinforcement. Love it.)
One of my favorite chapters is “Visiting the Veterinarian”. This, after all, was the motivation for Dr. Becker’s Fear Free movement–making visits to the veterinarian less stressful by teaching veterinarians and clinic staff how to, as the website says, “Take the pet out of petrified”. Of course, Dr. Becker and colleagues are not the first to make this effort. I consider Dr. Sophia Yin’s work to be the gold standard, and her book Low Stress Handling has changed the lives of thousands of people and animals both. However, the more the better, and Dr. Becker, after 19 years on network television, has a broad and powerful reach. Good for him and his colleagues to make the most of it. Fear Free has already certified over 9,000 individuals in veterinary clinics around the country, so good on them. We need all the voices we can find to keep making the argument that so many of us have made for so many years… Physical force and intimidation might make some animals obedient some of the time, but it comes at too high a cost. Every addition to the work of organizations like The Association of Professional Dog Trainers and The Pet Professionals Guild is welcome indeed. Yeah for Dr. Becker and colleagues for adding their powerful voices to the chorus.
I’m curious: Have you ever talked to your veterinarian about force free or low stress handling? Do they have a copy of Dr. Yin’s book? Do they use those methods? Have they heard about Fear Free and considered being certified? I know my veterinarian will be open to it; we’ll talk about it next time I visit. You?
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Our return to seasonal weather was quite a shock, after basking in the 70’s for much of October. Much of our weekend was spent like squirrels getting ready for winter. No nuts were buried (although we keep tripping on the #%#^ walnuts…) but we got half of a lasagna garden done, I weeded and mulched one of my favorite gardens, “winterized” my closet by putting away T-shirts, and replaced them with turtle necks, and worked Maggie as much as was healthy. She’s a bit out of shape after her spay and our trip, so I am gradually increasing her work outs to ready her for two training clinics by Gordon Watt this week and later in November.
Next week I leave for New York City to give a talk to… can’t say. Honest. It’s a secret. I’m not allowed to say where or when I’m speaking until after I’ve given the talk. No kidding. I promise I’ll tell you as soon as I can. Yes, I hereby acknowledge that it is cruel to tease you, but you’ll notice I’m doing it anyway.
Here’s a photo of the first half of our new lasagna garden for the garden nerds out there,. It’s called a lasagna garden because its layers of “green and brown” material over cardboard, which cooks over the winter into rich, healthy soil. We’ve layered cardboard over clay soil full of weeds (cut to their base), then 3-year old mulch that’s become what I’d call “almost soil,” then 3-year old hay that is no good for the sheep anymore. Soon we’ll add on a few inches of aged manure from the sheep, then another layer of old hay and top it off with all the mulch I have left from the mulch pile (which is double shredded oak). Apologies to those of you who don’t garden for this blatantly boring photo.
The world is turning brown all around us. Not much color left anymore, which is why I am so grateful for these ridiculously hardy roses. Bless them.
I thought it only fitting to add a photograph of real life in the garden. As many do on social media, I usually show photographs of everything–dogs, cats, sheep, garden flowers–looking their best. But then, there’s reality. Here is the peony garden as I write this, which has lovely flowers every spring but succumbs eventually to a raft of disfiguring diseases. I’ll cut everything down as soon as I post this, throw the vegetation away and hope for next year. Truth in gardening. You saw it here.