An Interview with Dr. Marty Becker

"..a recognition that they have emotions and we have an obligation to look at both their physical and emotional well-being."

An interview with Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free movement, here with a dog having a Fear Free visit to the veterinarian

By Zazie Todd, PhD

An interview with Dr. Marty Becker about the Fear Free™ movement, Fear Free Happy Homes, and his new book, From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias, co-authored by Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Wailani Sung, Mikkel Becker, and edited by Kim Campbell Thornton.

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Zazie: I am absolutely thrilled to speak to you. I love your book, which is the choice for May for the Companion Animal Psychology Book Club and everyone’s been very excited to read it. So I’m going to ask you in a moment why you decided to write this particular book, but I wanted to ask you first of all how did the Fear Free™ movement come about?

Dr. Becker: I’ll give you the unvarnished, stripped down version of stuff that’s authentic. I’m 64 years old, and I’ve traveled to now, we just got back from Cuba so then it’s 84 countries, 7 continents, flown 5 million miles on Delta – real miles, not credit card miles. I’m at the highest level of Hilton, called Diamond Honors, I’m at the highest level of Marriott and them folks there’s only 1 out of 10,000 honoured guest members that are at a level I’m at called the Master level. So I’m tired. It’s really interesting, my daughter Mikkel is a well-known trainer, she’s 33 years old in December. And her first year alive I never, never, saw her. I left before she was awake and I came home after she was in bed. And then I read a book and decided to do a life change thing and started taking 3 months a year off. So for 32 years I’ve taken 3 months a year off. Not sequentially, but cumulatively. And then what I would do the other 9 months, I would just work twice as hard as everybody else. So I’d work 18 months-worth of work in 9 months, so it’s like ‘hell this guy’s gonna kill himself’. But nobody knows I have time off. So here comes Fear Free™. And I’m thinking, that’s interrupted my 3 months a year off.

The cover of From Fearful to Fear Free by Dr. Marty Becker et al

I was at a veterinary conference, and my whole life I’ve always sat at the back of the room. So if I could manipulate it in grade school I'd be at the back of the room. In college, where you had a choice, I was at the back of the room. In vet school, I was at the back of the room. And never one to ask a question. I never asked one single question in vet school. You know, those people at the front would ask questions all the time. And I was in the back of the room at a veterinary conference on Vancouver Island in Victoria, and a boarded veterinary behaviourist named Karen Overall gave this talk on fear, and how fear was the worst thing a social species could experience and how it caused permanent damage to the brain. So those of us that are veterinary professionals are causing repeat severe psychological damage to pets by what we were doing and not doing. That behaviour produces a physiological response, so behaviour is medicine. And that we are not only harming them emotionally, we’re harming them physically. And you know, before the best-seller was written about Leaning In, all of a sudden, you know I’m not distracted I’m leaning in, like “What the hell?! What?!!” And I realized, Wow. And then she was brilliant. She gave this description comparing what we were doing to the human health care system, those were her words. Not healthcare, healthcare system of the 50s and 60s, where the dependent beings in human health care are children. They are taken against their will for medical care, where they were man-handled, manipulated, threatened and abused. When she asked us to remember examples of that, oh hell, the old amygdala just did a download, like ‘oh god, I remember being held down to lance an abscess at the end of my finger, I remember being held down to get a shot in my butt, leaning over this doctor’s exam table, of antibiotics, and my Mom, when I started crying, jumping out of her chair holding her hand above her head and going “Shut up, Marty!”. Like, “Don’t embarrass the doctor!”, that’s all. I remember my sister getting her pony tail pulled to keep her mouth open at the dentist.

How do these people in the zoo world train a rhino to give you its hoof for a foot trim and we can’t get a 10 pound Pekingese or Chihuahua to give its foot for a nail trim?

And so then she toggles to the dependent beings in veterinary care, animals. They don’t seek healthcare on their own. And then, they are taken against their will where they are manhandled, manipulated, threatened and abused. And then I thought of my sister Cheryl. This was a really good dentist and that dentist did the whole area. I don’t know if you remember, I don’t know how old you are, but there was a little circular sink with some water going around the circle, and yet there was no dental assistant, you know they grind away and then they flush your mouth out and you spit, gargle and spit.  There’s a drill, and the smell of burnt enamel and the whirr of the fricken drill. Today if they had that smell of that stuff they put in your mouth, the smell is like cloves or something… But what happened is my sister is a physician and she didn’t seek dental services her whole life, she got freaked out. And my older brother got freaked out and was a very successful lawyer with poor dental health. So I thought well hell, this is why pets aren’t coming in. It just hit me like a thunderbolt. It’s not lack of money, it’s not the fact that they don’t have enough information, now that we’ve lost our monopoly and people don’t  have to come to us for information, products and services, it’s just much easier to go on the internet or go to a place that their pet enjoys going aka the pet store. So I thought okay, I love pets, I’m compassionate to pets, I sure as hell didn’t know I was causing repeat severe damage to pets. As for when, that was 2009.

Dr. Marty Becker and a dog, talking about the Fear Free initiative
Dr. Marty Becler

Zazie: Wow. I’m sitting here now having bad memories about dentists, so I think everyone will understand that.

Dr. Becker: And you know what too, I had other boarded veterinary behaviourists talk to me about this before. So some of them are upset at me, ‘why do you give Karen Overall credit, I talked to you about it before then.’ I go, you did, but it was one of those days, the way she communicated it I had an awakening. And before that I always just thought it was collateral damage. I saw them licking their lips and yawning and shivering and shaking and hiding. I mean that’s obvious there is distress. But I thought the quicker we get it done and out the better. And that’s just like collateral damage and I didn’t realize well hell, there’s a better way of doing this you know. And I also remember by the way, Zazie, when she went through the signs of fear, anxiety and stress, and I’m looking at shivering, shaking, trembling, whale eye, avoidance, in a C shape, furrowed brow, pinned ears, salivation, yawning, and then she got to shaking dry like they’re wet. And I thought, God I’ve seen that a lot, that’s weird, they’re not wet. Why would they shake dry when they’re not wet? And then the one that got me was dogs that would come in the exam room and lay down and close their eyes. I always thought those were calm. I thought that when they like it they’d be calm like that. I didn’t realize that they were collapsing in immobility. I’m sure you’re familiar with the defense cascade, and I didn’t realize that’s as bad as it got. So I’m thinking, ‘holy shit, the one I thought was the best was the worst’. What else don’t we know?!

It’s the fact that pets have a broad range of emotions that we need to recognize. 

Then I went back and started talking to boarded behaviourists. Came back and talked to everybody I know. Literally, I called everybody. I was like, I have found the answer, holy shit we’ve gotta stop this. We’ve got an obligation and an opportunity, we’ve got to stop this. So I went back to Gary Landsberg, Debra Horwitz, Wayne Hunthausen, and went back to the boarded veterinary behaviourists. And I really think, and I communicate this all the time, Fear Free™ is not me, Fear Free™ is we. The bedrock of Fear Free™ are boarded veterinary behaviourists. And another layer of bedrock are our Certified Applied Animal Behaviourists. And another layer of bedrock are the other people like you. There’s people been talking about it for decades. I’m a populizer, I’m a gatherer of resources. I’m doggedly determined, that’s what I bring to it.

A cute little white dog in the grass, to illustrate an  interview with Dr. Marty Becker
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

Zazie: That’s so important. And so now vets can train to become Fear Free certified™, and dog trainers, and practices as well. So what can dog trainers get from becoming Fear Free™ certified?

Dr. Becker: Well let’s go one step back. So Fear Free™, I came back and I ran around like I got my tail caught on a fan belt on a car. I was like, ‘we’ve gotta change this, and fast!’. But we didn’t launch until 2016. So we sat back, let’s figure this out. So we started … Everybody told me I was doing this the wrong way. I mean literally everybody. ‘You’re adding too many people to the Fear Free advisory group, why do you have so many people?’ Well what ended up happening, beyond boarded veterinary behaviourists, there are certified applied animal behaviourists. Beyond that, how do these people in the zoo world train a rhino to give you its hoof for a foot trim and we can’t get a 10 pound Pekingese or Chihuahua to give its foot for a nail trim? How do they get an elephant to have an odoscopic exam, and we do a pile of techs restraint to flush the ear out on a Lab? How do they get an Orangutan to willingly participate in its own healthcare for a cephalic blood draw, and we have a rodeo judo throw to hold this 10 pound cat down with 500 pounds of human? So we went to them. Then we went to animal cognition experts. And then we went to the Head of Ethology at MIT. And then we added some of these brilliant people like Patricia McConnell. And then we went to the training groups, you know Karen Pryor and Victoria Stilwell and Brian McMillan, and Marje Alonso and IAABC, and some people at APDT. And then we added the medical experts. So when Fear Free started, it was just going to be, okay, let’s reduce fear, anxiety and stress in dogs and cats. And then we thought, well if they have a great experience at the vet, what happens if they have a shitty life at home? So we’ve got to figure out the home. And then what about if the trainer doesn’t follow things to not only reduce fear, anxiety and stress but increase happy and calm and do enrichment? And then it went on to the next verticals we’re working on, we’re working on grooming, we’re working on dog walking, we’re working on boarding, we’re working on daycare. And we’re working on a shelter module.

We want people to not only look at reducing fear, anxiety and stress, but increasing happy and calm, and looking at enrichment.

So at the end of the year, you’ll be able to adopt a dog at a Fear Free shelter, which is complementary to all shelters. By the way Fear Free™ is also complementary to all veterinary nurses in school and all veterinary students in schools. So you can graduate as a veterinary nurse or veterinarian with all the levels of certification free. And then, you’ll adopt a pet at a Fear Free™ shelter, it’ll live in a Fear Free Happy Home, it will go to a Fear Free™ veterinarian who will refer to a Fear Free™ trainer, Fear Free™ boarding, Fear Free™ dog walking, Fear Free™ grooming. So it’s gone to ecosystem management really, where we take the pet’s emotional well-being and put it in bubble wrap. And then we have avian and exotics launches later in the year. Next year, there’s a group working on the equine modules for horses. And where this is eventually going, Zazie, is we will build and endow the Centre for the Study of Animal Well-being and Enrichment at Washington State University, probably a 75-100 million dollar gift inside ten years.

Zazie: That is so exciting.

Dr. Becker: And then we’ll look at emotional well-being in dairy cows, chickens, beasts of burden in third world countries… I just got back from Cuba you know, they’re whipping the shit out of the horses going down the road not realizing without emotional well-being you don’t have physical well-being.

So trainers are critical in this. I learned this from R.K. Anderson years ago. This is probably late 1980s. R.K. Anderson who's been called the grandfather of boarded veterinary behaviour. He’s the guy that developed the Gentle Leader. I don’t know if you’ve met R.K., what an icon. He said if you ask people if you have any behaviour problems in your dog they’ll say no. He said it’s like saying do you have any behaviour problems in your kids, or your grandkids, and you’d be ‘oh, no not really’. But if you say are there any behaviours you’d like to improve, then they’re like ‘oh God yes’. Barks too much, inappropriate elimination, leash aggression, blah blah blah. So for trainers I think every pet should start out, whether it’s a puppy or a kitten or a shelter pet, working with a trainer. Before what’s happened, let’s say they have noise phobias or leash aggression. First of all we’d never ask about it so we’d never know they had it. So they’re coming in for a wound, vaccinations, diarrhea, dental disease, ear that looks like a fire pit, epilepsy, we would never ask ‘Does your dog have noise phobias’, ‘Does it have separation anxiety’. We’d have never asked are there any pets at home that suffer from these things and could use improvement. And then we’d say the pet’s fighting back at the clinic, well you need to work with a trainer. Well, what’s a trainer? I mean anybody can call themselves a trainer, the public has zero idea, hell the profession has zero idea what APDT, CPDT, KPA, Victoria Stilwell, ABC, they have no idea. And so we thought we’ve got to work with a group of trainers, find 6 or 8 really good groups that train trainers, and then work with the trainers to integrate them within Fear Free™. We have zero desire to take people that love animals and they want to make a career and we’re going to train them to be a trainer. We don’t want to do that. We want to work with the ones that already do it well, integrate them, bridge into Fear Free™. So that they are, whether they’re going to the groomer, they’re going to Memorial Day, they’re walking down the street at night, it’s thunderstorm season, whatever it is, that they work hand-in-hand with the veterinarian and pet owner. Again this is ecosystem management.

Zazie: Brilliant. And so the book is very much aimed at ordinary dog owners and it covers every aspect of a dog’s life. Why did you decide to write the book?

Dr. Becker: Well first of all I would have rather had a root canal than write another book. I am so sick of books. And this sounds horrible from somebody that’s been blessed to sell over 8 million books and had three New York Times bestsellers and made a shitload of money over the years. I have books I’ve made a half a million dollars on. But books change. And so people didn’t want to read a book. They want to go online and read one tip. ‘I don’t want to read a book’. So when I wrote Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual and Your Cat: The Owner’s Manual, those are really good books but there’s also like a thousand other books that are really good on the subject. And you can find everything online.

A beautiful black Terrier.
Photo: Bad Monkey Photography

But when we got to looking, there really wasn’t anything designed for the pet owner that looked at emotional well-being and that. And I think we were smart, like I was like ‘oh God I don’t want to write another book’ because that’s hard, you know, it’s really hard. But I thought, okay, we’ve got to have it because there’s nothing out there to look at this stuff, so away we went. I have to say I’m pretty proud of the book. One of the only negative reviews on Amazon was somebody that didn’t like it chopped up as it is, you know they want it to read like a book where you read a novel. Well they might want to do it but 99 out of 100 don’t want to do that, they want little short bites with stories, illustrations, and I think we did that. I think we got what today’s reader wants with the information they need, in a way that that same information in the book is what you’re going to hear in the veterinary hospital and you’re going to hear from a trainer that’s Fear Free™ certified. So all on the same book, so to speak. And then the glory goes to the boarded veterinary behaviourists. I’m so tickled to be able to give people like Lisa Radosta, Wailani Sung, or individuals like you the limelight. These decades of education, training and experience you have, that you can manifest it on a wide audience.

Zazie: Thank you so much!

Dr. Becker: We have 260 people on the Fear Fear™ Advisory Group. Oh my god, they are brilliant. We’ve got the world’s probably number 1 medical expert, the best known veterinarian in the world Stephen Ettinger’s our chief medical officer. Gary Landsberg’s the board’s behaviourist, our head of research. Tony Buffington is the world expert in feline enrichment, our head of environmental environment. Robin Downing is our head of pain and clinical bioethics. That’s just the team. And then we have the head of integrated medicine at the Mayo Clinic. You think what the hell does that have to do with Fear Free™? Well they’re experts in patient-centred medicine and in integrated care which fits in perfectly with Fear Free™.

Zazie: Such an amazing team. And so, the book is a group effort, and it has all these lovely little bits like as you’ve just said you can basically open it and start reading little stories or tips anywhere. What was it like working as a group of people on the book?

Dr. Becker: It was a great experience. First of all it’s my daughter Mikkel’s fifth book. And so she knows the process. This is my 25th book. For Dr. Radosta and Dr. Sung it’s their first book. One of the things we did is we worked with a writer, and that makes it easy. Because I don’t know if you’ve written a book, but knowing how to sequence a book is really a gift. And working with her, she’d say ‘give me a story on this’ or ‘tell me how you do this’ and then she’d just whip it up in the kitchen and it would come out just brilliant.

Zazie: Fantastic. And the book is absolutely full of stories but I wanted to ask if you have a favourite bit or favourite section at all?

Dr. Becker: I think my favourite thing would be… I graduated from veterinary school being taught that animals didn’t feel pain. So I graduated 1980, 40 years ago, literally told by professors in Neurology and in Clinical Medicine that pets didn’t feel pain, and if they did it was good because they would be inactive and not tear the stitches out or walk on the leg we just fixed. And I’m thinking, how in the hell could I have thought that when we dehorn and brand a cow and they literally bellow, just scream. That’s not pain? Or you step on your dog’s foot and they cry? I mean how dumb was that? I think it’s just the fact that pets have a broad range of emotions that we need to recognize. You know I fly a lot and you go through first class and we used to call it the Blackberry prayer, it wasn’t my term, but when people had Blackberries their heads were all bowed looking at their phones as they got on. And now it’s the iPhone, Galaxy 9 prayer. But if a baby walks through and is crying, everybody looks up. Everybody. And ‘ooohh, what’s wrong? Is it an upset stomach, dirty diaper, diarrhea, nap, hungry, oh she’ll fix it, don’t worry.’ Well pets are like that. That impending thunder storm, 4th of July, separation anxiety, leash aggression, dominance aggression, with the cat you get attacked on the way to the bathroom, whatever you’ve got. So a recognition that they have emotions and we have an obligation to look at both their physical and emotional well-being.

Zazie: Absolutely, thank you. And then I wanted to ask you quickly about your website Fear Free Happy Homes and what people can find there.

Dr. Becker: That’s probably the place I’d most like to promote because people are the ones that are going to spend most of the time with a pet. In the course of a year if you stripped out how long they were at the veterinarian, the training and the grooming and stuff, what are we, one per cent or less? One tenth of one per cent? So we want people to not only look at reducing fear, anxiety and stress, but increasing happy and calm, and looking at enrichment. Today’s zoos do a better job of enrichment than most homes. And we’ve got to get to where these pets are not mentally bored or tired, they have these athletic bodies, with the minds that can find supper, and we’ve got an obligation there again to let them express their genetic exuberance.

Zazie: It’s great that you’re looking at enrichment as well. And I have to say that’s one of the things I loved about the book, that you do cover everything it’s not just about going to the vet.

Thank you so much for your time!

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list.

About Marty Becker, DVM

Dr. Marty Becker, “America’s Veterinarian,” has spent his life working toward better health for pets and the people who love them. In recent years, his realization that it’s impossible to provide for pets’ physical well-being without equal focus on their emotional well-being led him to found the Fear Free™ initiative.

Because the anxiety and stress of veterinary visits was preventing pets from receiving the veterinary care they need and deserve, Dr. Becker brought together veterinary behaviorists and dozens of other experts and leaders in the field to develop an educational program to train veterinarians in easing the fear and anxiety of their patients and clients. This training and certification program launched in March of 2016.

Dr. Becker was the resident veterinary contributor on "Good Morning America" for 17 years and is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the American Humane Association. He serves as an adjunct professor at his alma mater, the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine and practices at North Idaho Animal Hospital.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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