Mikkel Becker is one of the lucky ones—for her, work seems more like play, taking her back to the enjoyment she felt as a child over connecting with animals. Now, as lead trainer for Fear Free Pets, Becker has found a way to live her passion everyday, improving the lives of pets and their humans in the process.
“The Fear Free mission is preventing and alleviating fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them,” Becker explains. “I’m so proud of my father, Dr. Marty Becker, for fathering the movement that has led to improved emotional wellbeing for thousands upon thousands of pets.”
Fear Free started with veterinary professionals and has expanded its teaching to include other professionals and pet parents. Pet owners can access information on www.fearfreehappyhomes.com, while pet professionals (veterinarians, animal trainers and others working with pets) interested in becoming Fear Free-certified can learn more on www.fearfreepets.com. Other certifications will soon be available, including those for shelter professionals, groomers and pet boarding/sitting services.
In addition to her work with Fear Free, Becker—who lives in Lake Stevens, Wash.—also offers private training sessions, behavior consultations in partnership with vets, and teaches dog training classes.
Although she works primarily with dogs, Becker has trained other species such as cats, primates (the orangutans are a favorite), pigs, chickens, horses, even rats. She’s also co-author of From Fearful to Fear Free. Written with her father and two veterinary behaviorists, the book provides information on how dog owners can enhance their pets’ lives. In the following, we introduce you to this compassionate animal advocate, getting to know her a little better.
SitStay: At one time you expected to have a career in journalism and in fact counted Diane Sawyer as one of your mentors. How did this happen?
Becker: She was my hero and role model after I got to know her when my father, Dr. Marty Becker, was the resident vet on “Good Morning America” (GMA) for 17 years. In fact, my dream was to become the next Diane Sawyer. But even from a young age I was enthralled with the video camera and tape recorder. At age four I was recording my own interviews, creating my own news out of events like my mom changing my little brother’s diapers.
SitStay: What happened to redirect you?
Becker: I was attending GMA’s 30th anniversary party with my father and Diane walked up to us to tell me a message she must have had on her heart, having known my career aspirations were to follow along her path in broadcasting. She essentially told me “Mikkel, you’re too nice for this business; it’s cutthroat and you’re too nice of a person. Do something different with your life.”
I was stunned; this was a hard revelation to handle. I had chosen my college because it had a well-known school for broadcast journalism. So hearing that broadcasting may not be a fit for me, made me feel a little lost. But this was all happening at the same time I was starting to feel my passion for journalism starting to weaken.
That’s when my dad came up with what I thought at the time was a crazy idea. He told me he couldn’t stop thinking about how good I have always been with animals and that I should do something with that gift. I had honestly never considered the possibility of a career with animals but just like events fell into place to take me away from broadcast journalism, so too did events fall into place that led me to realize animal training as a very true possibility.
SitStay: What are some of the misunderstandings you’ve seen that people have around training their pets?
Becker: People need to understand that animal behavior is so complex. For that reason I’m not going to promise someone that his or her dog with separation anxiety or with house-soiling issues is going to be ‘fixed’ in one session. In order to create lasting change, it oftentimes takes hard work. People should beware of quick fixes—especially involving punishment-based methods—because in most cases, these only temporarily stifle the behavior.
A major mistake is expecting the animal should know better or that they’re doing a ‘bad’ behavior out of spite. Animals do what they do because in large part, it’s what is normal for their species. Many of the expectations we place upon animals are unnatural and unfair. We have to teach and reward animals for the behavior we want. It’s inhumane to punish animals and create fear. Dominance-based training, punishment-based braining, correction collars—including choke chains, prong collars and shock collars—impair trust and bonding and can create serious negative consequences.
SitStay:So what are some of the best training tips or techniques people can do on their own?
Becker: Pay attention to the unwanted behaviors that you’re perhaps inadvertently reinforcing and to those behaviors you like that you may be letting pass by unrewarded. Then, make changes to ensure you’re rewarding the animal for the good behavior they do, while setting them up for success by arranging situations in such a way that the animal will want to choose the response that can be rewarded.
And skip the prong, choke and shock collars. Instead, try out a treat bag and a front-clip harness, one that has the leash clip onto the dog’s chest. You’ll be on your way to a better-behaved dog with just that little change.
Since 1995, SitStay has been helping working dogs and their humans get the job done with a full range of equipment and specialized accessories like vests, collars and leashes, training toys, beds, supplements and treats and much more. For over 20 years, we’ve taken pride in offering unbeatable customer service and hand-picked, high-quality products you can count on—why we’re trusted by thousands of working dog owners, handlers and pet parents across the country.