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Have a ‘dogging’ problem? Natalie’s trainer offers advice

Dog trainer and behavior specialist Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog, Zara. Now she's tackling your dog training questions, from biting to barking.

Wondering why your dog can't sit still? Need to make your dog stop biting your guests? Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions!

Q:I have an 8-month-old Jack Russell/mini Pinscher mix who goes wild and jumps on the leather couch every time someone comes over. How do I stop her from going crazy and risking a rip in my leather couch? — Stacey from Howard Beach, New York

Hiya, Stacey!
This is a great question and one that plagues a lot of dog owners! Your pup needs to learn impulse control to help her manage her arousal levels and exuberance when visitors arrive. 

Start by having her leashed and stepping on her leash (what I call control position) so that she can sit or stand comfortably but not jump up. Wait for a “sit” — be patient! If necessary, cue the “sit”, but eventually wait for it to be offered. As the visitor approaches, if your pup breaks her “sit,” the visitor should back up. Only when she’s back in the “sit” should the visitor move forward again. All of this is preferably without verbal direction. She will understand the consequences simply from the visitor’s movements. With repetitions, this will get better.

Start with less exciting people (like family members who repeatedly “arrive” in a single practice session) and work towards more exciting arrivals. Have them start pretty low-key, then get more animated as she's doing better. See if she starts offering a "sit" rather than having to ask her for one. Note that dogs are often better taking treats than being touched by the visitor, which can cause extra excitement. So start by simply having the visitor give her treats; it will be easier for her to keep the "sit." Gradually have them pet her a little while offering a treat from the other hand. 

Final Detail: While you’ll initially use a leash as a management tool to prevent your dog from jumping up, you will begin to notice that the leash will no longer be necessary, that your pooch is learning that polite behavior gains her the attention she craves.

Hope that helps!

— Laura

Q: I have a 12-year-old golden retriever with very weak back legs. I recently bought a doggie ramp for him to go down our 3 back desk steps. I have tried treats and walking up and down it myself with him on his leash trying to get him to follow me but he wants NO part of it. Do you have any suggestions on how I can help him see the ramp as “friendly” so he will try to go up and down it? — Fran from Pasadena, Maryland

Hiya, Fran!
I think you’re on the right track by trying to entice your pooch with treats, but his reduced mobility may mean he’s a bit uneasy with the incline of the ramp. If possible, try laying the ramp flat in your yard and lure him from one end to the other with a trail of treats. Once he’s comfortable with walking the length of the flat ramp, then elevate one end of the ramp to the height of the first step.  When he’s comfortable traversing such a mild incline, increase it by another step. In so doing, you are helping him get accustomed to each gradual change.

Hope that helps!

— Laura

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

Q: We’re having our first baby in about 4 months and we're concerned with making the transition from parenting two dogs to parenting two dogs and a baby girl. Our dogs, Noonan (7) and Penny (3), both rescues, are super loving, but also VERY full of energy. We've worked with trainers and use commands to help calm them down and communicate our expectations, but neither dog has ever been around a baby before. Any tips for introducing dogs and babies? — Kristen from Monroe, Connecticut

Hiya, Kristen!
Congratulations! I’m so glad you’re thinking ahead to prepare your pooches for the huge life changes in store for them rather than waiting until the last minute.

I’d like to point you to a couple of articles I’ve written that might help you.  One is called "Preparing Fido for your New Baby" and the other is called "Harnessing the Power of Pavlov," under the heading of Expectant Parents

Good luck with everything!

— Laura

Q: We have a 12-week-old male mini poodle. He has been very good about training, however he tries to eat every rock, stick, piece of dirt, etc. every time we take him outside. Any suggestions to stop this? — Jeanmarie from Richmond, Virginia

Hiya, Jeanmarie!
It is very common for puppies to explore their environment with their mouths. What you need to do is encourage him to develop the right walking habits and inhibit his ability to practice the wrong habits.

To get your pup to walk with you, use happy, repetitive noises and thigh slaps to excite some forward movement. Once your pooch starts to move forward, use happy chatter and highly rewarding treats to encourage and reinforce his walking behavior. Gradually you’ll be able to fade the reinforcements, as you will have built good walking habits, but when you first start out, be generous!

Note: Try not to pull on his leash, especially from the front — this very often causes stalling behavior for a dog who is not used to the feel of the leash yet. 

Also, for dog-social dogs, including another dog on walks with them can offer them a role model for walking while also making walks a fun, social activity. 

Hope that helps!

— Laura

Story: Natalie's rescue dog tale: Sit, stay, love

Q: When out on walks, my dog will allow people to approach and pet him, but when they walk away he begins growling, barking and lunging after them. That also happens sometimes when a visitor leaves the house. What is up with this?— Anne from White Plains, Maryland

Hiya, Anne!
Without having much detail or being able to see the behavior first hand, my speculation is that your dog is not entirely comfortable with people approaching and petting him. It sounds like he’s not a terribly confident dog and, while he feels forced to tolerate these interactions when someone reaches for him, intimidated by their frontal approach, he feels more empowered to voice his discomfort when they turn their backs to walk away. This is the epitome of a shy dog.

You are your dog’s agent and guardian. It is your responsibility to protect him from situations that make him uncomfortable. So, instead of expecting him to tolerate these interactions, teach him polite alternative behavior.

As you approach someone on the street with whom you’d like to stop and chat, stop a bit short of them, step on your leash (again what I call control position), and ask your pup to sit. Reinforce your dog with little tidbits of high-value treats for sitting quietly as you chat with your neighbor. Then train him to heel as you move away, all the while delivering treats.   Gradually, over time, you will put greater distance between the treats until at some point you needn’t use treats at all — he’ll have learned appropriate behavior for visiting with neighbors. 

Growling and lunging is a pretty serious signal from your dog, though, that he’s uncomfortable. If, after trying my suggestion, your pooch is still showing signs of discomfort, I would suggest that you go to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers website and search for a certified trainer in your area. 

— Laura

Do you have a dog training question for Laura?

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