All posts by Mikkel Becker KPA CTP, CPDT-KA, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CTC

Becker Family 1980s with Scooter

How a ‘problem’ dog changed the world for a little girl

A post from Dr. Becker’s daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker, on how her childhood dog Scooter’s “bad behavior,” and the abusive approach taken by the trainer she reached out to, helped make her the trainer and dog lover she is today.

That photo brings back memories of not only rocking the 80s hair and denim, but of my childhood love of animals that was cheered on by my veterinarian father, Dr. Marty Becker. And the first time I experienced that love was with my first dog, a Wire Haired Fox Terrier named Scooter.

Far from being the sweet, cuddly lapdog my 5-year-year-old self dreamed of when I was saving up my money to buy her, what I ended up with was a dog full of personality, spunk, and trouble. But God knew what he was doing when he gave me Scooter, as it’s through her that I ultimately started on the path of animal training.

Somewhat ironically, my experience with how a training instructor tried to address my dog’s issues with harsh punishment is what drove me to make a vow as a young child to never train again, because I didn’t want to hurt my dog. Thankfully, what I didn’t recognize as “training,” and simply expressed through love for her, ended up being the type of training I do today — training built on trust, empathy, and the human animal bond.

Scooter’s behavioral issues were seemingly endless. Thankfully, my love for her was endless, too, as she caused quite the ruckus in our neighborhood and in dog class. Scooter was an infamous escape artist and door dasher, bolting at top speed as she pushed past or through legs at doors, fences, or escaping off her leash any chance she’d get. She’d run for all she was worth with me racing behind her, uncontrollably sobbing and unable to even see through my tears. I’d relive the fear over and over every time she’d run away that I’d never see her again.

At home, Scooter embraced her terrier side and was a notorious barker and a chaser of anything even remotely resembling a critter. She even bit the head off a Barbie doll I was holding in my hands after just taking off the birthday present wrapping. She took off with it, leaving me in shock and horror as I looked at the headless Barbie left in my hands! Our backyard also looked like it had landmines with all the holes she dug.

Scooter was also highly reactive and aggressive toward other dogs, which was very hard for me — still just a little girl in school — to deal with. I will never forget the trainer who came up after Scooter growled, barked, and lunged at another dog in class. The trainer grabbed the leash out of my hands, took Scooter right next to another dog, and as soon as Scooter got stiff and growled, the trainer did a leash correction so hard that it ripped Scooter off her four feet and caused her to spin in the air.

It happened so fast, and I felt immediately sick at what had happened. It was then and there after that class that I remember vowing as a little girl to my mom in the car that I would never, ever train dogs again if it meant that I had to be mean and make my dog hurt and feel afraid. And that was the end of us ever going back to that class.

Regardless of Scooter’s issues, she was my best friend and none of that mattered. We did nearly everything together, with her racing alongside my bike that I pretended was a horse, Scooter standing in as my make believe pony. I also taught her to be a show pony, and she’d perform her tricks like jump through the hoop and roll over, pulling a red wagon like she was a horse (or alternatively her loving to sitting in it while I pulled her on my bike. She also let me practice being a veterinarian and examine her, place vet wrap, and do everything my veterinarian dad might do during an exam. She seemed to love the attention and occasional treats that came along with all our fun together.

As our relationship deepened, my “problem dog” blossomed into an obedience champion, and we did it all without corrections or harsh treatment. Instead, we were able to accomplish it through the depth of our trust and love we shared with one another.

I will never forget when Scooter grew with me into my teen years and how I decided to give training and competition another try. Scooter actually went on to being grand champion of the 4H dog show not only in our age division, but as the overall grand champion dog in obedience out of all the participants there. It was a teary-eyed moment for me to accept that win with Scooter, as I felt so in awe that my dog with the label of “problem dog” was now shining as the “super dog” she always was.

Thankfully, Scooter’s other issues took a turn with time, too. When we moved up from southern Idaho to North Idaho, Scooter never again felt the need to run away or to even really patrol our yard. She got along with the barn cats, she always stayed close beside when we were outside even when she was off leash, she stopped digging, and she only barked momentarily when visitors were at the door.

When I walk beside people today as a certified trainer and behavior counselor, I do so with Scooter close to the surface of my memory. Having taken back my vow to never train again after I found a better way to motivate through love, trust, and rewards instead of fear, pain, or force, I now know training has the power to impact the lives of pets and people for the good.

The blessings, unconditional love, and support animals have the power to bring into our lives never ceases to amaze me. If you have a story or name of a‘life changing animal who made an impact on your life, I would love to hear about him or her in the comments below. Blessings, my friends!

Photo: State Farm

Why one homeowners’ insurance company doesn’t hold your dog’s breed against him

Most American households have pets, and nearly 90 million of those pets are dogs. Very few of them will ever bite or injure anyone, but any type of dog — regardless of breed or type — can bite or otherwise cause an injury. Mikkel Becker recently spoke with Heather Paul, a public affairs specialist from State Farm Insurance, about why they don’t discriminate on the basis of breed when offering homeowners’ insurance, and the company’s participation in the Kindness is Powerful program, which promotes healthy, safe, loving relationships between people and dogs.

“Dogs are our companions, protectors, and family members. The best way to show our pets the love and respect they deserve is to be responsible.”

Those might not be words you’re used to hearing from a homeowners’ insurance company, but they’re the words Heather Paul of State Farm Insurance used when we discussed dog bite prevention, the relationship of breed to dog safety, and their non-breed discriminatory policy. “State Farm does not refuse insurance based on the breed of dog someone owns,” she went on to say. “When writing policies, we do not ask the breed of dog owned, and we do not track the breed of dog involved in dog bite incidents. We also believe that educating dog owners about being responsible will reduce dog-related injuries because under the right circumstances, any dog might bite.”

She also stressed the importance of owner’s taking responsibility for their dog’s training, and also being aware of and helping them with their emotional state. “Any dog, regardless of breed, will react when scared, stressed, or protecting their space,” she said. “State Farm does not ask what breed of dog owned when providing homeowner or renters insurance because breed is not an adequate factor when determining risk. What can be controlled is how pet owners manage their dog, and avoid putting their dog in a position where he feels threatened or fearful.”

Mikkel: Have dog insurance claims gone up steadily in the recent years? If so, is the increase a recent trend?

Heather Paul: For State Farm, the number of dog-related injury claims has remained steady over the past decade. The same cannot be said for the amount paid for those claims. In fact, the amount paid has continued to increase over the past decade.

Over the past decade (2008-2017), State Farm has paid over $1 billion for dog-related injury claims. We have experienced a 57 percent increase in amount paid for dog-related injury claims over the past decade (2008 compared to 2017). Just in the past year, the number of dog bite liability claims for State Farm has decreased slightly – 42 claims – while the amount paid for those claims increased by over $10 million.

There are a number of factors contributing to this increase, including large legal settlements and an increase in the cost of medical expenses. Severity of injury is another factor that will increase the cost of a dog bite claim. An injury doesn’t need to be teeth to flesh for a liability claim to be filed. An excited dog may jump up onto a person, knocking them down the stairs and causing an arm or leg to be broken. This is paid as a liability claim. There will be much more cost associated with this than a simple bite, because there may be surgery or physical therapy involved in the recovery. Severity of injury doesn’t just equate to mauling or a dog attack.


Mikkel: What do you think are the main factors behind dog bites?

Heather: Dog-related injuries are one of the most preventable accidents in our country. Like most accidents, dog bites tend to happen in the home or neighborhood. One common mistake people make is they believe that dogs they’ve seen or interacted with before will always interact with them in the same way. Any number of things could cause the dog to act out, even if there haven’t been any prior problems with that dog. People assume all dogs are nice, or assume because a dog is friendly with someone else, it is safe for them to approach and touch. Also, just because you’ve had a positive interaction with a dog before doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to happen that way again. Remain alert to risks in dogs, even those you think you know.


Mikkel: Have you seen negative trends associated with the occurrence of dog bites, such as a link between aversive methods and aggression?

Heather: Aversive training methods that use fear or physical punishment do more harm than good. Dogs who are raised and trained humanely are more confident and less likely to bite than dogs who are trained using punitive methods or equipment designed to intimidate and cause pain. Positive and Fear Free dog training results in a more confident dog who trusts their owner and is less likely to bite.

Mikkel: Can you tell us about the Kindness is Powerful program?

Heather: Kindness is Powerful is a program created by dog trainer Victoria Stilwell that teaches children about the value of kindness and respect for animals and people. State Farm is a sponsor of Kindness is Powerful because an important step to reducing dog bite incidents is understanding the importance of respecting dogs. The program also teaches children how to understand dog body language, how to properly approach dogs, and how dogs have many different jobs. Finally, children are encouraged to be ambassadors of kindness and to share the message with their peers and parents.

Mikkel: Are children the most at risk for dog bites and are children most often the ones bitten in the claims? Is there a difference that you see in the types of situations or bites that children get? Are there certain ages of children more at risk?

Heather: Educating children about safely and positively interacting with dogs is critical to reducing dog bite injuries. Children make up more than more than 50 percent of all dog bite victims. In fact, half of all children age 12 and younger have been bitten by a dog. Dog bite-related injuries is highest for children ages 5 to 9 years, with almost two thirds of injuries among children ages four years and younger are to the head or neck region. The elderly and home service people like letter carriers and package deliverers, meter readers, and food delivery services also are high on the list of frequent dog bite victims. The United States Postal Service (USPS) reports that 6,244 employees were bitten by dogs in 2017. This is a decrease of 511 dog attacks compared to 2016 (6,755 U.S. postal carrier dog bite incidents reported).

Mikkel: What are the main ways that State Farm advocates protecting children from bites?

Heather: The important thing to remember is that any dog can bite. Use proper judgment, ask permission before touching or playing with a dog, and make confident, slow movements. Being smart about your interactions with dogs can help prevent bites and can make a positive experience for both you and the dog. To protect children from the trauma that comes from a dog bite or injury, State Farm encourages teachers and parents to teach children how to properly interact with dogs. An important step is reminding children to ask their parent or responsible adult if they can interact with a dog before moving into the dogs’ space. Understanding dog body language is also important to know when a dog is stressed, scared, or happy. Finally, it is incredible important that parents never leave a child alone with a dog, including the family dog.

Read more about the Kindness is Powerful program and dog bite prevention.


People and pets caught in domestic violence: A personal story

It’s a terrible truth that many victims of domestic abuse and violence are kept in danger because their abuser threatens to harm the family pets. This truth is all the more terrible because that’s exactly what happened to Dr. Marty Becker’s daughter, Mikkel Becker. In recognition of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, she shares her story, and a new hope for other women in abusive situations and their pets, here.

Alone. Abandoned. Without hope. Those are the feelings I grappled with in those vile, disturbing, distanced moments when I forgot who I was – faced with all that I had become, and all the while afraid I would never again find myself and the real heart that had hidden beneath the hurt.

The relationship didn’t start out bad. But, little by little, the more entangled I became, the worse it became. Lies, manipulation, twists of truth, and shifting blame all held me captive to confusion and a state of overwhelm. I didn’t see the danger coming.

I’ve always been a “Pollyanna,” constantly looking for the best in people. Maybe that’s why I held on for too long to the hope things weren’t really the way they were, and the idea that things could change. I wanted them to change. I needed them to change.

Thinking back to who I was in those moments, I was held in the trap that many women in domestic abuse face: a vice of manipulation, control and unpredictability. Nothing made sense anymore, including my own feelings, my own thoughts, or my relationships. The core relationships that once held me strong were peeling away, one by one. I was powerless.

I kept trying to avoid the emotional abuse. To escape. To fight back when I could. I did… but then I didn’t. I gave up. I stopped trying. I stopped moving. I stopped being who I was, giving it up for a state of in-between where I wasn’t really anyone at all – or at least, not a person I could relate to.

I felt like I was facing ever-mounting, terrible consequences that I wanted to escape. But the more I tried to change, or the more I wanted things to be good, the worse things became. When without rationale or reason he would go back to being the charming, vulnerable, funny man that I once knew and trusted, I would begin to let down my guard in hopes that this time he really was the person I could trust; after all, I married him, right?

Dogs and other animals can feel the same exact thing that I felt then. It’s called learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is a state where the person feels they can’t take action, because nothing they do works to stop the pain or fear. Why do people or animals give up rather than get on with their life? Well, for me, as it is for many dogs and animals trapped in an unpredictable, seemingly unending cycle of punishment and nonsensical tyranny, it’s the feeling of being completely out of control. It’s feeling powerless over what happens to you, unable to predict what’s going to happen, and unable to change the situation to get life back to the place you want it to be: safe and happy.

For many victims of abuse and domestic violence, threats against pets keep them from leaving, either because they fear what will happen to their pets if they leave without them, or because the abuser threatens the pets in order to control the victim. I know this from personal experience, because the fear of harm befalling my Pugs Bruce and Willy, or having one taken from me if I refused to submit or ended the relationship, kept me emotionally handcuffed to the person I most needed to escape.

I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: I wasn’t alone in remaining imprisoned in an abusive relationship for reasons that included fear of what would happen to my pets.

Starting in 2013, the Urban Resource Institute (URI) and Purina began working together to create and expand safe emergency housing for victims fleeing domestic violence and their pets in New York. The research that ultimately drove the launch of URIPALS (URI People and Animals Living Safely) revealed a terrifying pattern:

  • 85 percent of women residing in domestic violence shelters reported that a pet was harmed by their abuser.
  • 71 percent of pet owners entering domestic violence shelters reported their batterer had injured, maimed, killed, or threatened their pets out of revenge or to assert control over them.
  • Up to 65 percent of domestic violence victims and 48 percent of battered women remain in abusive homes out of fear for their pets.
  • 76 percent of animal cruelty in the home occurs in front of children, who frequently are themselves harmed in their efforts to protect their pets.
  • Only around 5 percent of U.S. shelters have any kind of housing for pets of domestic violence victims.

Because of my helplessness, depression, and fear, I stayed imprisoned in my abusive situation. I was resigned to my fate and in fact, had come to believe that I deserved nothing more. I likely would have remained in that emotional desert and stayed subject to his unpredictable changes of mood and anger were it not for the threat to my dogs.

The incident was over in an instant, but I remember all of the details down to the twisted rage on the man’s face and sheer terror in my dog Bruce’s eyes when it happened.

It began while I was in my bedroom and suddenly heard a screeching, shrieking scream. I bolted to the hallway and found him with a clenched fist raised over Bruce’s face while his other hand pinned him helplessly to the ground. He appeared locked and ready to deliver another blow before my presence intervened; his violent plans were likely thrown by the unanticipated scream of Bruce, who didn’t take the abuse in silence.

What I felt in that moment was a myriad of devastating emotions: from heartbreak, to terror, to repulsion, to fury, to shame. I grew up with an understanding that anyone who mistreated or hurt an animal was full of evil. And in that moment, I had the shocking revelation that I was in a relationship with a person whose inner character was dark enough to hurt a helpless, innocent animal.

I knew he had major problems, but never did I realize just how dangerous he was until that instant. No longer could I make excuses for him, give the benefit of the doubt, or cling to a seed of hope that one day he’d morph back into the good person he once seemed to be, or on rare occasion briefly became again. Then and there, I knew without a doubt he would never change, and that the real man was right there before me in all his darkness.

I swept Bruce up into my arms, cradling him like a baby, ready to defend him. As weak as I had been before, I was strong in outrage then. In my fierce anger and protectiveness, I set the first firm boundary I’d ever established in the relationship: I told him that should he ever threaten or touch either dog again in a harmful way, I was calling the police and leaving for good.

For me, taking such a strong stand was major, because my confidence and inner voice were increasingly depleted to the point it was difficult to access them any longer. But as positive as the change was, to this day the greatest regret of my life is that I didn’t call the police to report him and what he’d done. I feel I failed my dog for not doing so, and for that I feel grieved. I’ve forgiven myself now by the grace of God, but I also have pledged that should I ever again see abuse, I without question will take legal action to report it.

I also should have left, but I didn’t. At the time, I naively felt false responsibility for my role in the relationship. I responded to his tearful, pleading remorse by giving him another chance. And I feared what would happen if I did take action, anxiously anticipating the great likelihood he’d use his infamous charm and sweet as honey lies to weasel his way out of trouble. What I’d be left with would be fiery retaliation – a side of him I was terrified to face.

He made good on his agreement to never again harm the dogs, but I also gave him little opportunity to do so. From that point on I was ever-vigilant, living out a survival scenario in my own home where I was constantly on guard for any threat against my dogs or myself.

Thankfully, life with him didn’t get better for me, but little by little worsened. I say thankfully, because had it not gotten worse, I may have put up with the emotional abuse and neglect for many more years. The new level of heartbreak gave me the impetus to break my silence and speak to loved ones who I’d distanced myself from out of shame and fear.

My family begged me to leave the relationship, and I wanted to, but my great hesitation was the unsettled worry of what would happen if he somehow got one of the Pugs. I was especially distraught at the prospect of being unable to physically protect my boys should I no longer be there to keep watch and keep the man’s hand from again delivering abuse.

When the worsening situation left me with no choice, I finally acted. Driving away, I was in hysterical sobs, partially from relief, but mostly in grief and fear of the potential loss of one of my dogs, and the danger they faced as a result of my departure.

Despite my distress, deep inside of me I felt a reassured calm that God was going to take care of us and would work the situation out for good. My constant prayer during those days of separation and the resulting legal battle was to please, please let me keep my two dogs, and for him to surrender any claim he wanted over them.

The untold number of prayers for my dogs in the end did result in only a short term separation. By the grace of God they were both given to me in what was the rainbow at the end of a years-long storm of suffering. The Pugs who devotedly held me up during the devastation and whom I’d suffered to protect were finally safe and free; the three of us together beginning our healing and new lives together.

Not everyone is so lucky, or has a family to support them both personally and legally – without that help, I’m not sure I’d have been reunited with my dogs. That’s a terrible choice faced by so many who can’t find one of the few shelters that allow pets.

Thankfully, in addition to the groundbreaking URIPALS program in New York City, there are increasing numbers of domestic violence shelters across the country that are open to all members of the family. I hold everyone trapped in abuse in my prayers, and also pray for a day when shelters like the one started by the URI and Purina in New York are in every community.

My life began anew the day I drove away. My daughter, Reagan, and I still live with Willy as well as my new husband, Ben, who is a loving and wonderful partner. Bruce is with God now, but was blessed to live out his years surrounded by the love and safety we all deserve.

That’s my hope for every person trapped as I was trapped for so long: That they can find a safe haven that supports both pets and people, giving the human and animal family members to comfort and support each other as they begin a journey to healing.


Quora: Saying goodbye to our angel dog

Heaven gained another four legged angel last week: Our Miss Quora.

Despite taking every measure possible, our family was unable to save her, and she died at the age of 14 after unsuccessful surgery for hemangiosarcoma at Washington State University.

The loss of Quora is truly heart-wrenching as she’s a treasured member of the family; to me, she’s always been more like a sister than a dog.

Quora was special from the moment we met, and she’s the one who chose us to have as her own in a meeting that was divinely appointed.

I met her at an adoptathon. As I knelt down to say hi, she crawled up onto my lap, looking up at me adoringly with what my Mom called “tootsie pop” eyes: big, round, bright, and dancing. Then she lifted all of herself gingerly onto my lap as she leaned into my chest to get as close as possible to me.

I was appalled to learn that Quora prior to that day had been living outside in a cage with her siblings for over a year once she and her litter mates grew out of “cute puppy stage” and were replaced by younger pups. It was striking to me hearing that, as here sat the most cuddly dog I’d ever met who literally couldn’t get enough love and physical touch.

In that moment on my lap she chose me, chose my family, as our own. Yes; in that instant I knew she’d picked me and there was no way in hell I could leave her behind. And after hearing her story, I wanted nothing more than to give her all of the love she’d been missing and was so desperate to give to others. I called my Dad and told him that I knew I had found the perfect canine companion for my mom’s dog Quixote. He said, “I trust you, get her, and bring her home!”

The first day my Mom met Quora was a surprise that my Dad and I planned out. We were at the Davenport Hotel and my Dad met me just before to have the dogs meet. Then we playfully decided that Quora looked so much like Quixote that we actually dressed her up in Quixote’s sweatsuit and did a switch-eroonie, much like the movie The Parent Trap.

We then opened the door to her hotel room while one of us held Quixote. We sent Quora in, and she went running up to say hi to my Mom.

My Mom said, “What did you do to Quixote?! Did you shave him?!” Then Quixote was released and she stood there looking at the two dogs in confusion and then it turned into an uproar of laughing and Mom gladly accepting kisses from her new dog.

The match between Quora and my family couldn’t have been more right.

Quixote and Quora were as in love as an old married couple; him letting her have access to anything she wanted despite him not doing so for any other dog, even letting her share all of his food. They would both bathe each other in kisses repeatedly throughout the day as they’d curl up close together.

Quora was one of those heart dogs who wanted nothing more in life than to snuggle, to be held close (she was a dog who truly loved hugs) and to eat lots of treats; all things she relished and was pampered into doing on a daily basis.

She also had her quirks: like loving shoes and loving to chase!

One day we left her at my Grandma’s house for a quick lunch. When we’d returned she’d packed out every single shoe from Grandma’s closet and carried them into the living room; each pair perfectly laid out in order, the right by the left. That day she was given the name Imelda-Barkos for her shoe fetish. After that she started stealing our family’s shoes and would always stack them side by side, the right by the left in order as if waiting for the person to put them on.

That girl had good taste and only chewed the more expensive pairs, chewing the upper heel out of my dad’s Merrills and the tongue out of my mom’s Sorrells. But mostly she just wanted to take them, admire them, and lie by her cherished possessions that no doubt were a symbol of some of her favorite people. Her most common nickname to celebrate her shoe affection was Shoebacca (like Chewbacca from Star Wars), or for short, just Shoe.

Quora was an infamous wild turkey chaser and bunny herder, never once hurting one, but smiling grandly as she raced after them with her cheetah-like long legs. This was the one reminder she was truly a dog; otherwise she was such a lady, earning her name Miss Quora as she never liked to get dirty like the other dogs did.

Quora heaped on love to all of my family, and especially Mom who she shadowed everywhere. My brother, Lex, was like her human boyfriend. She looked up at him as if he was a walking jerky treat, and it was rare to not find her on his lap from the moment he came home to visit.

My Dad woke up on Friday morning knowing something was very wrong with Quora, now 14 years old. He rushed her to the vet school at WSU, his alma mater and the nearest veterinary college to us. They performed a transfusion and surgery to remove her spleen, but she barely made it through the surgery and the surgical team did not believe she could survive, even with every possible thing they could have done.

My Dad was there with her alone as my Mom and I were in Arizona when this happened, but he put Quora’s needs first, just like he always does. As he prepared to let her go, he told us he was petting and her and telling her with each pet, “Remember how you always loved to eat… or how you….”

The way he said those things was so eloquent and made me cry hearing them.

Mom and I sat on the bed in Arizona, looking out at the quail and bunnies — mom and a baby — who came up right by our window, eating happily as we reminisced about Quora and laughed and cried.

Dad has always been the one to reassure us, to be strong and to care for us. It hurts me so much to hear about him telling Quora those things in her final moments as he petted her and reminded her how she liked to chase bunnies, how she and Quixote liked to kiss each other all made her, re-telling her life story  from the moment I got her and brought her home, to when he and Mom met her.

He told her what we felt about her, each dog and person, and how we loved her and what she personally meant to each one. He said this as he stroked and examined her; nose to toes, mouth to tail. He recounted stories to her about her life, including how Quixote was so lonely without her and how she came in and made him happy again. He went over her last full day on earth and all the great treats and fun she had that day, how it was as perfect as it could be.

Our entire family is at a huge loss without her steady companionship and unrelenting affection. Quora to me is a symbol of love, God’s love, and she will be so missed.

Last night my dad had a dream that woke him, of her running through tall, wet grass looking back at him repeatedly as she ran.

He wanted to stop her, but his arms felt stuck to his sides as she kept running off into the tall grass. We all think it was Dad getting a glimpse of her passage into heaven, to he rainbow bridge, where she’s now with all the animals we’ve loved and lost who are waiting at heavens gate for us.

Last night as my Dad said goodbye to Quora it was 5:59. It hasn’t rained in in months, but at exactly 5:59 it started to pour.  Auntie Kate, who was taking care of our other dogs while Dad went to WSU, said she knew it was like heaven was crying in that moment over the loss of our sweet girl.

Until we meet again, may Jesus hold you, Quora. You deserve a special place right in someone’s arms, and until we can do that again, we hold you in our hearts and will never, ever let you go. We love you, Miss Quora Shoe!



How and why to take the fear out of brushing your dog’s teeth – for both of you!

How many things would you rather do than brush your dog’s teeth?

If you’re like most pet owners I talk to, that’s a long list. But not only shouldn’t it be that way, it really doesn’t have to!

First, let’s get one misconception out of the way: You don’t need your veterinarian. Just as you need a professional dental cleaning to remove problems the toothbrush can’t reach, so do your dogs. That means, just as you have to see the dentist, your pets need to see the veterinarian. That’s because the real problems are below the gum line, and your dog will need to be anesthetized so that area can be completely and painlessly cleaned. Skip that step, and serious problems including pain and tenderness with chewing, foul-smelling breath, and infection can take hold.

Beyond veterinary dental care, the other essential component in caring for a dog’s teeth is to rid the teeth of built up tartar and plaque. There are numerous ways to keep teeth clean, but as always, follow your veterinarian’s guidance first and foremost.

The gold standard of at-home dental care is brushing a pet’s teeth. If that makes you shudder, please believe me when I tell you it’s possible to make tooth brushing fun for your dog, which should make it fun for you, too. Start by finding a pet specific tooth brush or pet wipes that can be used to clean teeth, such as my favorites, Earthbath Tooth and Gum Wipes.

If using a toothbrush, place peanut butter or a soft treat on the toothbrush and let your pet lick this off the toothbrush to begin with. Next, get your pet comfortable with her mouth being touched by gently touching it and feeding a treat. Each time the mouth is touched or lip gently lifted up, feed a tasty treat.

Once she’s comfortable both with the sight of a toothbrush and her mouth being handled, combine the two by lifting her lip and bringing in the toothbrush with the soft treat smeared on it. Wipe the treat against the outside of the teeth, and then let go of the mouth for the dog to lick the treat off her teeth.

Practice moving to different areas of the mouth and opening it from above to get the inside teeth as well. Continue with rewards given on the toothbrush, or giving loose treats, depending on the dog and situation.

Once the dog becomes comfortable, a pet-specific toothpaste can be used and treats given as you brush or immediately after brushing. My father, Dr. Marty Becker, is a veterinarian who not only advises at-home preventive dental care, but he and my mother daily brush their dogs’ teeth. The dogs are excited at getting their teeth brushed up and will line up for their turn, because teeth brushing earns them special praise and a dental chew, or what my dad calls an edible toothbrush.

Another way to clean the teeth is with pet wipes that can be swiped on the tooth using a finger. These are a great option for dogs that are more sensitive to an object being moved towards them, but they are more comfortable with petting and touch by their person. They can be wrapped around a finger and then the finger can be used to glide and feel along the teeth to clean.

To get a dog accustomed to the wipes, do the training in a similar manner to the toothbrush with a spreadable treat on the surface of the wipe that the dog can lick off when it’s left on her teeth. This associates opening the mouth and having teeth and gums touched with getting a reward. If the dog is mouthy with fingers, do this in small steps of lifting her lip or gently touching the outer part of her muzzle.

If she stays calm, reward with a soft treat. Then gradually work up to using the teeth wipes and cleaning different parts of her mouth, treating as often as needed to keep her calm.

Other methods for cleaning teeth are using a dental formulated diet made with special ingredients and composed in a shape that works to keep the tooth surface cleaner. Dental chews can also scrape buildup off teeth to a certain extent, and some have enzymes that work to break down plaque and tartar on the teeth. Talk to your veterinarian about his or her recommendations on how to best protect your pet’s dental health.