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Help, my black lab gets anxious and sick in the car

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Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's answering your questions! This week, Garber offers advice for a black lab who gets anxious on car rides, how to handle 'accidents,' water lick issues, a territorial Jack Russell and how to train off-leash.

Q:I bought a water lick for our 3-year-old terrier mix to use when he stays outside during the day. I've tried placing peanut butter on the tip of the spout as an encouragement to use it. As long as I'm holding the spout, he's happy to lick the peanut butter off. When the spout is attached to the wall, he doesn't want a thing to do with it. Am I on the right track? How can I train him to use the water lick? — Emily from Ruston, Louisiana

Hiya, Emily! 
Yes, I think you are on the right track. Whenever a dog is having an issue with translating a behavior (i.e. from one context to another), I suspect that there need to be additional approximations between the starting and the ending criteria. So, more simply, if he can lick the spout when you’re holding it, then move the spout gradually closer and closer to the spot you intend to mount it, each time waiting for him to lick it with fluency. Ultimately, the step before the last step (finally mounted) should be with you holding the water lick in the place you intend to mount it. 

Another means to the same end might be to teach him to target the water lick:

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"TARGET": Start by reinforcing Fido for paying attention to an object such as a water lick, whether looking at it, sniffing it, licking it, putting a mouth on it, whatever. When the behavior becomes predictable and consistent, slip the cue “target!” in front of it, and then mark and treat for performing the behavior. Gradually increase your criteria so that you reinforce for nudging/licking it at a different location (closer to the mounting point). Gradually move it until it’s finally mounted, cuing “target!” for him to lick from it.

As an aside, for a dog spending long periods of time outside alone, make sure that he has plenty of water and shade so that he can escape the heat of the day. Also, depending on the size of your dog and your location, some dogs can be at risk from wild animals and predatory birds. He needs to have some protection from these threats as well.

Hope that helps!

— Laura

Q: I have a black Lab who gets carsick. I have tried many things, not feeding him prior to our trip, giving him ginger, giving him Benadryl, having him sit in the front seat, the back seat, having windows open and even feeding him in the car. He is so afraid, that his whole body stiffens when he has to get into the car. I believe the car gives him anxiety. My husband and I travel back and forth on the weekends to the beach and we always take the dogs with us, but the lab always vomits. My vet prescribed medication but it is $50.00 for 4 pills. That is way too expensive. Can you help us help him? — Janis from Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Hiya, Janis!  This is not uncommon. Here’s the treatment protocol I send to my own clients when they’re working on this:

If your dog is anxious about traveling, simply getting into the car will become stressful to him.  We have to give him plenty of experiences of being in the car and everything not only being OK, but actually being really fun! To do this, pick treats and games that are your dog’s particular favorites. Save these reinforcers only to be used in the proximity of the car. Let’s say your dog particularly enjoys playing with squeaky toys. Start by playing with squeakies outside of the car with the door open. Put several squeakies into the back seat of the car, where he is to travel. Then toss one into the car, inviting him to chase it in. Treats can also be used. At this stage, leave the doors open and invite him to come and go freely from the car, tossing squeakies in and having him follow them. Encourage him to stay in the back seat for a little while by playing or giving him special treats while there. 

The following are approximations of the next steps in the process. Continue playing games together and having treats with each step. Repeat each step until Fido is showing happy, relaxed behavior before going to the next step:

  • Close the doors to the car with Fido inside. Get in and out of the car.
  • Have someone climb into the driver’s seat with Fido in the back seat. Get in and out of the car.
  • With someone in the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition and turn it only part way, where the electricity in the car comes on but the motor does not turn on. Get in and out of the car.
  • With the car on, use electric windows, radio, seats, lights, etc. Turn the car off.
  • Now put the key in the ignition and turn the motor on, but do not move the car. Stay idling for a little while, then turn the car off and get out of the car. (Make sure that gas fumes do not build up which might make Fido feel sick.) 
  • Turn the car on, move a few inches, stop and idle. Turn the car off.  
  • Now that you’re moving, take gradually longer trips, maybe around the block, maybe to a favorite park that’s close by so that Fido gets a very special surprise from the trip. 

- Don’t keep increasing the length of your trips. Randomize: Make sure that some trips are still very short.

- Have the first short trips take your dog someplace he loves to go, like the dog park or over to play at a best friend’s house. 

- Feeding too much during early trips around the block can cause motion-sickness, so try to rely on toys, very occasional treats, and lots of verbal praise. 

- It’s best to have two people for these sessions, one driving while the other attends to Fido.

Note: At each step, watch your dog’s body language. Is he getting comfortable in the car, looking relaxed? Is his tail wagging or is it low and tucked? Don’t move to the next steps until Fido looks happy and relaxed. Should his stress spike, indicated with such signals as panting, a tucked tail, salivating, etc, take a step back and work up more gradually and thoroughly.  Remember to not require too much in any single session. Quit while you’re ahead and while things are traveling in a positive direction. 

— Laura

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

Q: I have a 9-10 year old, female Jack Russell terrier who was rescued from a puppy mill and has been in our home since January. She has never had an accident in her crate since we brought her home but she has a habit of peeing in the house every so often when we are home, even shortly after using the bathroom outside and going for a walk. It was only recently that she had her first accident in the house while we were at work. Why does she only seem to have accidents when we are home with her?
— Stacey from Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania

Hiya, Stacey!  When we’re at work, our dogs are often curled up somewhere taking a nice nap, especially if they’ve had a good bit of exercise at the start of their day. When we’re home with them, dogs become more active, and activity can move things through “the pipes”, so to speak. Just as we can hold it longer over night, when we’re active during the day, we need to go to the bathroom more frequently. I think this is the probable cause for her accidents when you’re at home.

As for brushing up on the rules of potty-training, check out my handout "Housetraining 101". Maybe you’ll find some hints in there that will ease your way.

— Laura

Q: I have five rescue dogs, and the newest one is the youngest (2) and the smallest at 43 pounds and has a rather odd personality. She is shy and loving with me, and prefers to lay in her crate by choice when everyone is just relaxing, but she is very food aggressive, and aggressive to the other dogs when they come in from the yard. She will stand at the sliding door and growl, barring her teeth as if to block them from coming in until I snap my fingers and tell her to stop. Also, all around the general dog food area, even with an unopened bag of dog food she does the same thing, patrols the area, sort of crouches down, growling at the other dogs if they approach, but in either situation she never snaps or actually tries to hurt them. It’s very strange, any thoughts? — Casey from Cocoa, Florida

Hiya, Casey! 
What is not strange at all about the story you relate is that she never snaps or hurts anyone. That is indeed wonderful! What you are seeing is ritualized behavior that animals who live in social packs will use in order to communicate their limits while causing no harm. This is the equivalent of a human verbally warning someone without coming to fist-to-cuffs.

The dog you describe sounds like she’s very insecure about her ability to keep her resources and her space and so she overreacts when she feels a threat from the others. Whether they actually are threatening her or not is immaterial; she perceives threat and responds to it as she does. 

What I would suggest is that you need to do some tight training with all the dogs in your family pack. The larger your family becomes, the more essential training becomes so that you can communicate your expectations to each of the dogs. With training, you can start to establish limits and behavior for everyone in the pack — orderly entrance and exit into the yard, eating when they’re released to their bowls and staying in their spot while they do eat. Multiple dogs definitely add complexity. 

— Laura

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

Q: My family rescued a golden retriever/spaniel mix and we LOVE her. She's approximately 3 years old. We went to basic obedience and she is doing great BUT I would love to know how to work with her off leash. I would like to take her to the park and allow her to run and play with other dogs that are off leash but she tends to roam and push the limit, she doesn't take off but doesn't come to me right away. I have a 20-foot lead that I keep her on so she has some freedom and work on calling her to come. She does fine when called then 'cause she knows she’s on the leash. Off leash she will come to me a few times when called, treats given etc. but then she pushes the limit. What's the quickest way to train off leash? FYI she is not very food motivated, so treats haven't been very successful. Eventually after I get closer and closer to her she will sit and let me put the leash on (sometimes I try to not put the leash on right away because I don't want her to feel punished for sitting and waiting for me). Any suggestions? — Katie from Glen Rock, Pennsylvania

Hiya, Katie! 
It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the right things. Here are some ideas off the top of my head:

  • You have to build distraction. You can’t go from training a recall in the living room to expecting it to work in the dog park. You need to make step-wise approximations, getting greater compliance as you gradually increase distractions all along the way.
  • Make sure that, when you first start to do recalls in the midst of playing with other dogs, you are doing it when she’s fairly close to you and not actively engaged in play. Give her lots of love; then release her back to play immediately.
  • One mistake a lot of people make is to call their dog only when preparing to leave the dog park. That will surely punish her instincts to return when called. Practice many recalls where you immediately let her return to play. 
  • The treats that she might work for in the house with no other distractions are not going motivate her out in a big field. When I talk about treats, I mean cheese, hot dogs, bacon, boiled chicken, even a McDonald’s hamburger off the dollar menu! With some jackpots like that, your dog may sing a different tune!
  • Make a list of reinforcers or rewards, starting with the strongest. It needn’t only be treats; for a toy-motivated dog, it can be favorite games or toys, too. Use these for practicing recall.
  • Finally, practice my “windshield wipers” exercise:

THE WINDSHIELD WIPERS EXERCISE — Building a Strong Long-Distance Recall: In order to excite a stronger behavior, especially over a longer distance and in greater distraction (i.e. outside), you’ll need to be very motivating and interactive. One great way to do this is to run away from Fido as you call him! So, start by having someone hold Fido and positioning yourself at a middle distance from him. In a loud, excited voice, yell “Fido, COME!” Then run away from him, yodeling or making otherwise exciting whoops as you go. Stop running before he reaches you and welcome him to you with a fabulous party of treats! Some dogs are further excited by the party of treats being thrown in a small shower upon arrival; others prefer to get the treat party delivered one after another in a generous succession. Try both ways and see which turns Fido on more. 

Now have your training partner do the same thing, starting at the middle distance and running in the opposite direction; go back and forth between you, like windshield wipers.

Gradually you will need to make less of a production to excite this exuberant kind of response.  You will be able to call at a distance rather than having to run away; you won’t need to make as much noise along the way to keep his movement on target. But, whatever you do, make sure that you keep Fido’s response to this command strong; there is no greater measure of a close, bonded relationship than the strength of the recall!

— Laura

Do you have a dog training question for Laura?

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

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