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Help, my dog is afraid of her own food dish!

Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions! This week, Garber answers questions about helping a frightened golden retriever, stopping a backyard barker, and dealing with a mutt who runs over her smaller animal housemates.

Q:I have a chow/shepherd mix who weighs about 45 pounds, and she has a tendency to run over our cat and mini dachshund. I don't think she's trying to hurt anyone, but she just doesn't pay attention to where she's going! How can I train her to go around the smaller critters, I don't want anyone getting hurt! — Amanda from Aurora, Colo.

Hiya, Amanda! 
That’s a tough one! Make sure you give the cat plenty of vertical space in terms of cat trees and shelving where he can seek refuge. I would also suggest having a room closed off behind a baby gate that has a cat door in it for both the cat and the dachsy. That will give them a place to go where your other dog can’t. 

What we want is for your dog to arc around another animal as she passes it. So what I would suggest is that you reward the times that she calmly passes one of your other animals, specifically marking with a “yes!” the moment that she deviates from the straight line to go around the animal, and give her a treat for that. Mark with an “uh-uh” the moment that she goes within a certain imaginary personal space around the little animals. You will have to keep sharp to capture as many of these opportunities for instruction as possible. 

The other thing I’d mention is that, if you play games with your chow/shep inside the house, you’re encouraging aroused, excited behavior in the house, behavior that might be more appropriately reserved for the yard. If your pooch were more calm in the house, she might not have as much of a tendency to run roughshod over the others. Just a thought…

— Laura

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Q: Our dog Kaiya is 2 years old and loaded with energy! She is a barker, and it's really bad in the backyard. There are dogs in both of the yards next door to our house. When one of the dogs is outside, she fixates on that dog, barks nonstop and runs back and forth at the fence line. If we are outside with her, the behavior is worse. We look forward to enjoying the backyard this summer, but it would be nice if there was less barking! If you have suggestions on how to prevent this, I would greatly appreciate it! — Kristy from Cincinnati

Hiya, Kristy!  Such a common problem! So here are some ideas:

  • If your dog and the neighbors’ dogs are dog-friendly, have they ever met and played? They might be less likely to bark if they knew each other better.
  • You shouldn’t leave Kaiya out in the yard on her own because she’ll be able to practice the behavior uninhibited, and practice makes perfect.
  • Do some training with Kaiya. If you go to my Online Training page, I have many articles that might give you some ideas about yard games, exercise and games you can do with your dog when you are out in the yard with her. This will keep her entertained and working, instead of leaving her to her noisier pursuits. Practice hand-targeting specifically so that you can call her to you when you need to.
  • Try employing time-outs when she starts to bark. Leave her leash dragging and, when she starts to bark and run the fence, first say “uh uh!” and see if she stops. Then say “too bad!”, grab her leash, and put her inside the house. She’ll learn that her behavior loses her access to the yard.
  • Until you get her better trained, you may need to have a chat with the neighbors about doing a time-share of the backyards. No doubt they’re as unhappy about their dogs’ behavior as you are about yours.

— Laura

Do you have a dog training question? Ask Natalie's trainer!

Q: We have a 9-year-old golden retriever who has always had anxiety issues (spinning, barking, fear of walking on hardwood floors, etc.). Recently she seems to be afraid of her food dish. She will not approach it. She moves away from it when it is placed in front of her. We have tried changing the dish, putting her food on a plate and adding chicken to her food to entice her. The only way she will eat is if we take a handful of food and place it on the floor. What can we do? Her vet says that she is beginning to get cataracts, but her vision seems fine otherwise. — Beth from Midlothian, Va.

Hiya, Beth!  Well, if she’s starting to have vision loss, she may be relying more strongly on her other senses. Perhaps her collar tags are ringing against the side of the dish and that alarms her.  Reflection may bother her, if the dish is metal or the porcelain shiny. You might also try putting the food on a higher platform to see if that makes her more comfortable. I think this one’s going to be a question of trial and error. In the end, I guess I might just resign myself to letting her eat from whatever surface she wants to. She’s earned it!

— Laura

Katie Quinn

Q: Abby (a cockapoo) is nearly 4 now. She is a happy, very loving, well-trained dog 99.9 percent of the time. We have had one little problem. She has bitten me six times and my husband once in the past two years. Never a stranger, but the ones that she loves the most. There is never a warning. She just strikes like lightning. The first time, I thought that she did it because I scared her with the tone of my voice. It hurt my feelings more than my hand. The second time, I realized, it was not the tone of my voice but rather that I was asking her do something that she didn't want to do, "get off the bed". She did not respond to my command and when I reached to pick her off, she nailed me. I responded with a very stern "NO! Bad dog." Immediately after, she jumped off the bed and went to her crate. All times since then, it was because she was not getting her own way. We are very careful with the tone of voice that we use with her because we know that she is very tone-sensitive. This is very rare and with no warning. What should we do when she bites? — Jackie from Interlochen, Mich.

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Hiya, Jackie!  
From what you describe, it sounds like your dog may have what’s termed “social aggression”: aggressive behavior that is usually directed toward family members and erupts over resources, when reprimanded, when moved from a desired spot, or when handled or restrained against her will.

First, I would suggest that you identify the situations in which your dog’s aggression is triggered and then avoid them. The more such situations occur, the more she is being reminded of her sensitivities and being allowed to practice them, with painful results for you. 

Institute a “Nothing In Life Is Free” (NILIF) lifestyle so that everything good that is granted to her — her meals, treats, going for walks, playing with you, being petted — is earned for good behavior.

I would train your dog to hand-target. Read my article for tips on how to do this. Hand targeting can lead your dog through space, so if she’s on a surface from which you want her removed, instead of challenging her to get off, you’re asking her to move elsewhere happily. You’re putting a positive spin on something she might otherwise take offense to.

Finally, I would suggest that you go to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website and find a certified trainer in your area who works with aggression using positive training methods. 

Hope that helps!

— Laura

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is a dog trainer and behavior specialist. She is the owner of

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