When Natalie Morales met an adorable mutt up for adoption on the TODAY set last fall, it was love at first sight, pure and simple.
But incorporating a rescue dog into her family of four was more complicated.
Zara the puppy was fluffy, friendly… and totally untrained.
“I think she had been a shelter dog pretty much from the moment she was a puppy. And I really had to deal with a dog who needed all the basics,” Natalie explained as she sat in the kitchen of her Hoboken, N.J., home, while her two sons played with Zara in the living room.
The first priority was house-training. “I don’t think she even knew what grass was,” Natalie said — much less where she was supposed to do her business. There were many accidents in the house during those early days.
And while people-loving Zara was instinctively gentle with kids, especially with 3-year-old Luke, she needed to be taught to keep her natural exuberance in check — especially with 8-year-old big brother Josh.
“One of her bad habits which we had to deal with in training was that when she gets too excited, she’ll nip on his clothes, or she’ll just grab at anything. And so one time, she did leave a tiny little mark on him,” Natalie said. “She didn’t mean him harm, it was just that she was just trying to grab him and say, ‘Hey, play with me.’”
So Josh learned some commands and behaviors to get Zara to calm down, Natalie said: “But they still love to roughhouse, as all boys and their dogs do.”
The whole family worked with dog trainer Laura Garber, who taught them the power of positive reinforcement. For example, instead of shouting “no!” when the dog is jumping around and barking , wait for a moment when she’s sitting quietly and reward her with a treat. With Garber’s help, Morales and her family graduated from basic house training and sit-stay commands to other useful behaviors, like getting Zara to wait for the “OK” before lunging out the door for her walks.
Even though Natalie grew up with dogs, she said getting a trainer paid off. “You really get the help of somebody who has done it and can kind of read your dog’s cues and really tell you how to do it right. … Things had changed since I had dogs last.”
Getting Zara to stop jumping up and giving “hugs” is still a work in progress, but they’re getting there.
“She’s coming along beautifully,” Garber said. “She started out as a diamond in the rough. Having the kids involved in teaching her tricks and commands was very valuable for building their relationship.”
Garber also works with shelters to evaluate dogs and train them out of bad habits, like barking or being afraid of strangers. Zara, she noted, was at a kill shelter in Georgia before being rescued by the North Shore Animal League no-kill shelter in Long Island, which brought her to TODAY.
“These shelter dogs deserve a second chance,” she said. “Very often people just don’t realize with some training and exercise and attention, that (shelter) dog can be a fabulous family companion.”
Training Zara has truly been a family affair. Natalie’s boys are eager to show visitors the “tricks” their dog can do, like shaking hands and lying down. Josh helps put Zara to bed every night in her crate, in his room. Both boys help feed the dog, and they love to walk her — although that duty often falls to mom, especially in bad weather.
“It’s like, ‘OK, who wants to go for a walk with Zara?’ Me, me, and it’s a big me. But you know, I actually like it. It’s sort of my peace and quiet at the end of the night,” Natalie said with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s a walk with the dog (when) you get your little mommy time.”
Between romping in the family’s backyard, playtime with the kids and frequent runs with Natalie and her husband, Zara has plenty of outlets for all her energy. And though training continues to have its ups and downs, it’s clear the rescue pup has found her forever home.
She “really is the little girl I never had,” Natalie said. And Zara’s “brothers” think that’s just fine.
“I love her,” Luke said, snuggling against her soft, white fur. “She’s my best friend.”