Dog trainer took questions about your pet's problem behavior

Mar 21, 2013

Certified professional dog trainer Jamie Eaton joined us to give advice on common dog behavioral problems.

Hi everyone! I'm Maura, the reporter who wrote today's Local Living story about training my adorable but ill-behaved dogs. Check out the sidebar about the basics of finding a trainer or behaviorist. Jamie Eaton of D.C.'s Spot On Training has been working with Milky and Milou, my Coton de Tulears, and she's here to take your questions about dog training. Take it away, Jamie!

Hi. I have a wonderful greyhound that I adore. She is very well behaved, but we are in a transition period. My husband and I just had a baby. The dog has adjusted very well so far. The only problem is that she steals the baby's stuffed animals. She has always loved stuffed animals, and heretofore all of them in the house were hers. But now I want to teach her only some are hers. Right now it is just a little gross when she takes them, as both parties like to chew on them. But I want to be sure we're not setting up a conflict later on when the baby can assert his own will too. Step one is not leaving them alone together, I know. But what can I do to teach my dog some animals are hers, and some are not?

Hello! Thanks for your question and congratulations on the new addition to your family!!! Looking at the issue from your dog's perspective, it makes total sense that she thinks all the toys are hers. To modify her behavior you would use both management and training. You've already done some good management work making sure the two are not left unattended together. You may also want to put a baby gate up in front of the nursery, so that your dog doesn't have access to the room. On the training side, I recommend teaching the cues Leave It, Drop It, and Go to your Spot (with a Down/Stay). 

My 2 1/2-year old border collie mix dog is very nervous. She always has been wary of strangers (not aggressive, just "don't-touch-me"), even as a puppy, although she is very affectionate with my boyfriend and I and others that she gets to know well. We did our best to socialize her when she was young, but we were new to town and didn't know a lot of people, so it probably wasn't as much as it should've been. When she was about 9 months old, we were walking downtown and some really loud banging from a construction site startled the bejeezus out of her - I mean yelping, squealing, tugging on her leash as if the devil himself was after her. Ever since then, she's been TERRIFIED of loud noises. Buses, trucks, cars back-firing, car doors slamming, anything loud and sudden and (to her) unexplainable. And it's not the volume, because a car back-firing waaaay off in the distance is often more distressing than, say, a really loud motorcycle two feet away (she is not afraid of motorcycles at all). I've talked to a few dog trainers and no one really had any helpful advice beyond some vague suggestions for positive reinforcement, ie., giving her a treat every time something startles her. She's at the point now where she licks her lips and looks up at me every time she sees a bus, but she's still afraid of them, and it hasn't helped at all with the more sporadic bangs and pops of normal city life. Anyway, a few weeks ago, I was waiting outside a shop with her on a busy city street - she was cowering and shaking due to all the buses going past - and a woman passing by put her hand down for her to sniff and my dog snapped at her! She didn't break the skin and the woman was fine, said it was a very gentle nip, but still! I've been much more careful about keeping her away from people when she's nervous and telling people who ask that no, you can't pet her. But now I worry that her wariness of strangers is only going to grow and worsen. It's already a huge ordeal having company over because she is so nervous and territorial, and now I have to worry about her nipping too. Do you have any advice?

Hello! I'm sorry to hear that your border collie is having some issues. First let me say - good for you for being your dog's advocate by keeping her away from people when she is uncomfortable! She is definitely under some stress and interacting with people while under stress may push her past her bite threshold. This is a case where a behavior consultation is absolutely recommended. A behavior modification protocol would like include counter-conditioning and desensitization in a controlled environment to change her association about the things she fears. One element of that protocol would be to feed her meals while playing videos or mp3's of city sounds on the computer at a very low volume. You what her to notice the sounds, but not react to them. I also recommend trying some calming aids such as the Thundershirt or Rescue Remedy.

Hello. 1) Please tell me how to train my large, male, 120 lbs. Chocolate Lab not to jump up on me or company. He turned 5-years-old on Mar 8, 2013 and I thought he would grow out of it. 2) I also have a male Black Lab mix who is 11-years-old rescue. I had him first. He weighs only 60 lbs. The two do NOT get along, but appears to be only "inside my home". If we go to the vet, the veternary staff will bring them back to me at the same time! I was happy yet floored b/c at home I have to keep them separated or they would fight to the death of one it seems. It breaks my heart that I cannot allow them to play together. Thank you for any guidance/suggestions you have on these behavioral issues. ~Sheila Osbourne

Hi Sheila. Thanks for your question!

Jumping is a common issue for dogs. I recommend using both management and training. Manage the situation by not allowing the dog to practice the behavior. That means when a visitor comes to the door, the dog doesn't have access to the front door. You can achieve this by tethering the dog to a sturdy piece of furniture (or for a big dog like yours, possibly installing a tether in the wall), or even putting them in another room while the visitor arrives. The next step is training an alternate behavior. We like to teach Sit as an alternative to jumping. The visitor will approach the dog and if he jumps, the visitor turns and moves away. When the dog is no longer jumping, the visitor returns to give the dog attention as long as they are sitting nicely.

The second issue is much more complex and would require a behavior consultation to observe each dog's body language and behavior firsthand.

My dog gets along with other dogs, except when we're on walks. For some reason, he's started growling and barking at other dogs when he's on his leash. He is two years old and it hasn't always been like this. No major changes in environment, although some dogs do bark at him frist. Off-leash, he's fine. One trainer told me to give him treats as soon as we see other dogs approaching on our walks, so that he'll associate seeing other dogs with something positive. I've tried, but it doesn't seem to be working too well. Any advice?

Hello. There have been many questions on leash reactivity today. Many of our clients have this same issue. Many dogs are either fearful of being restrained by the leash or frustrated by it. In either case it can lead to aggression. It is also quite common for this behavior to become worse during adolescence and your dog falls into this category. We focus on 3 core areas when dealing with leashing reactivity: management, basic obedience fundamentals, and behavior modification. I agree that you want him to associate other dogs with something fantastic (meatballs and liverwurst are my favorite high value treats), but you have to make sure the dogs are far enough away that your dog is comfortable. Think of it this way, say you are terrified of heights. If I asked you to walk up to the rim of the Grand Canyon, that would be too stressful for you. But, if I had you stand 100 yards away from the edge, then it shouldn't be as stressful. This is the idea of counter-conditioning and desensitization. We want to change an emotional state, but need to be far enough away that the learning process can take place. So back to the Grand Canyon, I would have you look toward the edge and then I would hand you a $100. We would do this until you looked toward the edge in anticipation of getting that $100 bill instead of feeling trepidation. We would then gradually decrease the distance toward the edge, continously rewarding you with the $100 every time you looked toward the edge. We use the same concept with on-leash reactivity. We start far enough away that the dog is able to get the high value reward and slowly decrease the distance as the dog gets more confident.

My dog, who I rescued almost 3 years ago, is amazing. She's a quick learner and eager to please. Only one problem - She still uses the bathroom in the house. She knows she's not supposed to. When I'm in the same room as her and she has to go, she'll walk to the front door and scratch it to let me know she needs out. But if I'm not home, or not in the same room with her, then she'll just use the bathroom on the carpet. I try taking her our frequently and keeping an eye on her, and use positive reinforcement. Maybe related: Ever since I switched her to better food because of her allergies (Blue Buffalo) 6 months ago, she has to poop around 5 times a day. Lately, I'll take her outside, she'll poop, and then as soon as we get back inside she'll poop again, usually right in front of me. I'm at my wits end.

Hello, thanks for your question.

For a situation like this, I would rule out any potential physical issues. I would make a vet visit as a first step. If nothing is physically wrong, then I would start a housetraining protocol. A proper housetraining protocol requires confinement while you are away from home. When you are home, the dog should be physically attached to you to make sure they don't sneak off to another room to go the bathroom. The dog should be taken out to eliminate at regular intervals and a journal should be kept to start discerning patterns and times of day the dog is likely going to need to go out. Also, don't forget to clean the carpet with an enzymatic cleaner such as Nature's Miracle. We can't always smell where the dog has gone, but since their since of smell is so much stronger, then tend to return to the same areas to eliminate.

Good Morning, I am currently fostering a 5yr. old male neutered Boxer for a local rescue. Our issue is him greeting male strangers to our home by going for their thigh and genital area. Since I have no history of his past I need advice on how to curtail this issue so we can find a forever hhome for him. I have tried giving him treats and toys to distract him but that does not help. This issue has also hane not let me able to take him for walks or taking him places in case of coming into contact with a male. Any advice would be more than welcome. Thank you.

Good morning and thanks for your question.

I would need some clarification to properly answer this question. What does the going for the thigh and genital area mean? Is he just smelling (very normal dog behavior) or is he aggressively trying to bite those areas (not normal dog behavior)? If he is being aggressive, then a behavior consultation would be the recommended course of action.

Maxx, the bichon, rescued, + or - 6 yrs old. we've had him for 2 yrs. great dog, but anxious in car. runs between back windows, even when windows are open which is not always possible. on seat is his favorite large orthopedic pillow. was better in the beginning but terrible now. seat belt restraint no good as he gets twisted in it. can you help me? faith

Hi Faith, thanks for your question.

Many dogs have anxiety about being in the car and there  are many potential causes. Sometimes the reason is as simple as they get carsick. If that's the case, you could try giving him dog treats containing ginger to help settle his stomach.

Dogs learn through association, so my next question would be - what is his association with the car? Does he only go in the car when he goes to the vet or groomers? If so, then the car ride may predict additional stress for him.

Another possibility would be that there's simply too much stimulation in the environment for him. If this is the case, then a covered crate would be the best option. It would limit his visual stimulation and keep him safely confined.

My dog likes to bark. She'll bark at the bird on the deck and the dishwasher door being open and wind. I like that she barks when the doorbell rings, it's the other stuff that gets to me. Is there a way to train her that it's okay to bark at the doorbell but that the dishwasher is not a threat? If it makes any difference, she's a poodle and pretty dang smart.

Hello - thanks for your question.

Barking is one of the most common issues dog owners have. This behavior is a very normal doggie behavior and is used to verbally communicate both to you and other dogs, so to expect a dog never to bark isn’t a realistic training goal. However repetitive or excessive, nuisance barking can be a problem. To develop a successful behavior modification program, you should first determine the motivation (or the why) for the barking behavior. 

Dogs bark for a variety of reasons and the training plan will be different depending on the reason. It sounds like your poodle may be Alarm Barking, meaning : your dog barks at every noise and sight regardless of the context.


In this particular case, I would teach an alternate behavior. Another way of looking at it is that our dogs need jobs (especially smarty-pants poodles!). If they don't have a job to do, they create one for themselves. So in this case, an okay job is to bark when the doorbell rings, but not when the dishwasher door is being opened. The alternate behavior I would focus on is either a Leave It or Go to your Spot and then a Down/Stay. Both cues will redirect your dog so they know that their job is not to bark in that particular circumstance.

Hi. A lot of people tend to think of negative reinforcement as synonymous with punishment - but I think they are not. What is the difference and do you believe that negative reinforcement can be an effective adjunct to reward-based training, which is also, I believe, a kind of reinforcement training? Thanks!

Hi - great question! There are four quadrants in operant conditioning. Operant conditioning means that a dog can manipulate his/her environment through his/her behavior.

Positive Reinforcement: dog's behavior makes something good happen and the behavior increases.

Negative Reinforcement: dog's behavior makes something bad go away and the behavior increases.

Positive Punishment: dog's behavior makes something bad happen and the behavior decreases.

Negative Punishment: dog's behavior makes something good go away and the behavior decreases.

As a positve trainer, I stay in the positive reinforcement quadrant as much as possible, but there are times that I will employ negative punishment. Jumping is a good example of that. The reason the dog jumps is because the dog wants attention, so if you tether the dog to a piece of furniture and walk away from them while they are jumping - they consider it a punishment and the behavior will decrease. Conversely, once the dog stops jumping I will return to give the dog attention, which reinforces an alternate behavior to jumping (either four paws on the floor or the dog is sitting).

I don't commonly use negative reinforcement. 

Hello, I have a female, three year old, rescued Pyrenees mix who I am worried isn't getting enough stimulation throughout the day. She has no interest in toys or chewing bones. She might hold the toy in her mouth for a few seconds or try to chew a bone for a minute but quickly loses interest. She'll wrestle with my boyfriend for a few minutes at a time once or twice a day but then stop and try to get him to pet her. She genuinely just seems to want to cuddle all of the time. I'm worried that she must be bored out of her mind when we're not home to snuggle. Should I be concerned or just accept I have a 65lb lap dog and relax?

Hello - thank you so much for your question!

Mental stimulation is something I advocate for ALL dog owners. I'm a huge proponent of feeding only from puzzle toys like the Kong Wobbler or Premier Kibble Nibble. I haven't seen a dog yet that doesn't enjoy working for their food.

I commend you for trying to get her interested in bones and toys. Since she doesn't chew much, I would double check with your vet to make sure that her teeth are not causing pain for any reason. One trick to make chew items even yummier is to soak them in chicken broth. I also give my dog raw marrow bones, mostly beef and lamb. Raw bones are more porous and easier to consume. Cooked bones are more likely to splinter. I'm also a big fan of the Kong and making layered "parfaits" for dogs. I often use peanut butter, yogurt, applesauce, canned pumpkin, or canned food and layer that with my dog's kibble. I'll freeze it to make it take longer to work through.

Of course training is a key piece of mental stimulation as well. It's important to teach our dogs new activities. I love introducing tricks, and Kyra Sundance's book 101 Dog Tricks is a great intro to trick training.

How do you feel about the Clicker Training method? I have used it with a great amount of success with my dog. Thanks.

Hi! I'm taking this question while Jamie answers another one, but I can tell you about what she has taught my fiance and I about clicker-training our dogs. For those who haven't heard of it, the clicker (it's a little noise-making box like these) helps the dog associate good behavior with a treat, making them more likely to perform that behavior - like Pavlov's famous experiment. Our dogs' biggest problem was barking at other dogs when they were out for walks. Jamie had us introduce the clicker to them by using it on behavior they already knew, like sit and down. We click as soon as their behinds hit the ground, and then immediately give them a treat. Once they decided that they liked the sound (because yay, treats!), we could use it outside to get them to pay attention to us instead of barking at other dogs. I'm glad to hear that it has worked for you, too!

My adorable little Maltese puppy loves people food better than dog food. I admit I've spoiled her by giving her food off my plate. I know I should go "cold turkey" by stopping this, but she cries when only puppy food is placed before and it melts my heart.

Hi there - thanks for your question.

Those Maltese puppy eyes could melt anyone's heart! However, you must stay strong!!! This is a dog that has a long life span, and I'm sure you do not want her to be begging for food off your plate for the next 15-20 years.

You don't have to completely stop giving people food, but absolutely do not give it from your plate. My dog gets people food all the time, but she only gets it when we are training or in a mental stimulation food puzzle like a Kong, where she has to work to get it.

Also, note that when you are working on changing a dog's behavior, they will go through something called an extinction burst. This means it will get worse before it gets better. The good news is the behavior typically dramatically decreases right after the extinction burst occurs.

Our dog is a rescue whom we got as an adult. He knew and has learned all sorts of things, but left to his own devices, he's inclined to run away. Are there some dogs that can never be trusted off-lead? I'd love to take him hiking with me, but he's already lost one home, and we don't want there to be a second.

Hi there - thanks for your question.

I will be honest with you and say that I don't trust my own dog off-leash. I swear she's a hound trapped in a Newfoundland's body! When she starts tracking a scent, nothing else exists in the world. And this is a behavior I've worked on with her since adopting her 18 months ago. I would absolutely continue to work on recall skills with your dog, but I don't know that he can safely be off-leash in all situations.

Hiking is a wonderful activity to do with your dog, so I encourage you still to partake in the activity by using a long line. We recently discovered a fantastic company that makes synthetic long lines that we highly recommend - you can find them at

I am wondering what I can do to help my dog before my baby arrives. My dog is 5 years old and has had all of the attention in the household. How do I teach her that she has her own toys, that this new little person is not a dog or danger. My dog is a littler nervous around small kids especially if they get excited. She also dislikes anything on wheels. I want to start working with her now months in advance in hopes that things are little easier on her when the baby comes home.

Thanks for your question! It's fantastic that you want to start working on this now.  Drop It, Leave It, Go to Bed, and Down/Stay will be important cues for your dog to know. I typically try to place a dog bed right outside of the nursery and heavily reinforce the dog in this position. I would also desensitize her to the sounds babies make by playing videos or mp3's of crying noises while she's eating her food. The goal is to associate something positive (her food) with something that makes her a little nervous (baby crying). It will also be important to desensitize her to all of the baby gear. Set the car seat and stroller in different parts of the house and let her investigate them on her own. Gradually build up to moving these items around. Good luck and congratulations!

Our elderly rat terrier constantly licks. Anything. Everything. He especially likes to lick the couch and loveseat. There aren't any food remnants to tempt him where he licks. We're assuming anxiety, since we have a two year-old child and a one-year old puppy to stress him. Nothing seems to curb his licking. I have tried to give him more attention, but then he just starts licking me. Is there any way to at least redirect this behavior, if not stop it? Thanks.

Hello, thanks for your question.

The licking may be an OCD behavior or one just caused out of a lack of mental stimulation. Has it gotten worse with the addition of the puppy and your toddler? If so, it probably is stressed based. I would increase his mental stimulation by feeding from a food puzzle (separate from the other dog) and giving him opportunities to chew on appropriate chew items or toys. Daily training would be another recommendation. As I mentioned in another post, I really like trick training. Other types of fun training might be nose work or agility. I would also increase his physical activity.

Thanks everyone, for your questions -- and sorry that Jamie couldn't get to them all. For those who would like to follow up: Here are links to Spot On Training (where Jamie works), and the Local Living story about dog behavior consultations that inspired this chat. Good luck with your dogs!

In This Chat
Maura Judkis
Maura Judkis is a reporter for the Weekend section. Some of her other publications have included U.S. News & World Report,, ARTnews, the Washington City Paper, and the Onion A.V. Club. She has appeared on MSNBC, PBS, and numerous radio programs.
Jamie Eaton
Jamie Eaton has been a trainer with Spot On Training since 2012 and has been certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers as a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT-KA). She moved to Washington D.C. from Kansas in 1998 to attend graduate school at The George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs. She subsequently spent a decade in that field. Looking for a change, she chose a career in dog training after her rescue dog Bryn became highly reactive. As many of you know, it's not easy having a reactive dog in an urban environment, and she became inspired to do everything she could to make Bryn's life as stress-free as possible. As a result, she began studying with the Animal Behavior College in 2009 and then completed an apprenticeship with a local trainer. Jamie lost her Bryn in August 2010 to a rare immunological disorder, but she continues to inspire her on a daily basis. Jamie has also studied with renown positive trainer Pat Miller at her Peaceable Paws Academy and is a graduate of her Level 1 Canine Behavior and Training Intern Academy. She has an interest in TTouch and is working toward her certification. In her free time, Jamie enjoys spending time with her rescue dog Uka, a Landseer Newfoundland. They take daily walks in and around Arlington and are frequent visitors at local dog parks.
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