Helping Dogs in High-Rise Living Situations: Beyond Skills Training
For the past decade, I have been training dogs in Chicago’s busy South Loop and the surrounding neighborhoods. Year after year, it seems like the city is growing—new construction, a larger population, and more dogs—all of which makes life increasingly tough for dogs who prefer to keep a comfortable distance between themselves and other dogs, people, cars, and so on. In many parts of the city, you cannot leave your home without encountering a distraction of some kind, whether it’s a person trying to pet your pup, a dog trying to play with or lunge at your dog, or a new item on the ground for your dog to pick up and swallow. Surely, we can continue to follow the common protocol of adding distance between the dog and the distraction until the dog learns self-control, but as the city closes in on us, this becomes less and less feasible. I spent much of my time helping my urban clients and their dogs with this challenge—then went home and faced it again with my own dog.
The truth is, the bigger the city gets, the greater the burden of stress on its dog population. I believe our dogs are a reflection not just of who we are but also of their environment. When I meet a dog who suffers from hyperactivity, I can see him carrying traffic, bikes, strollers, strangers, dogs, construction noises, screams, the sound of the barking dog across the hall, the sound of people coming in and out of the elevator, the squirrels and rabbits, and the sounds of children and people talking, laughing, and running nearby. It’s a heavy load for such a small creature.
A dog can only be responsive to owners’ cues for so long before the physiological effects of all that accumulated stress will take over, eventually (sometimes quite quickly) resulting in a dog who is unable to behave as trained. The stimuli that surround the dog are greater than the dog himself.
Troubled by this situation, I started to spend a tremendous amount of time devising ways to help urban dogs “shake off” the city (in addition to the usual skills training). I identified two important factors that need to be addressed and achieved in order for an apartment- or condo-dwelling dog and their owners to succeed with training: an overall calmer lifestyle, and getting the entire building on board. Having now spent many years experimenting with clients and my own dogs, I have learned that even a small change in these two factors can lead to a happier, better-grounded, more obedient dog. If you are currently working with urban clients who—in spite of their skilled effort and your own—aren’t making the progress you hoped to see, I hope you’ll try introducing some of the following changes.
A Calmer Lifestyle
One of the major elements often overlooked by dog owners is sleep (the dog’s). Sleep is an integral element of a healthy and balanced life. The average dog spends 50 percent of the day sleeping. According to sleep.org, the average adult dog sleeps for 12 to 14 hours a day; puppies and seniors sleep more. During sleep, dogs’ brain patterns are similar to humans’, and both go through the same stages of electrical activity. Humans spend 25 percent of their sleep in the restorative sleep state known as rapid eye movement (REM), but dogs have shorter sleep cycles and spend only about 10 percent of their sleep in the REM state. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “the result is that they [dogs] need more total sleep in order to log enough of the restorative kind that they need.”
If dogs don’t get the proper amount of sleep, their physical and emotional wellbeing suffers, as does their ability to learn (Kis et. al, 2017). Good, high-quality sleep allows the brain to restore and rejuvenate itself, along with the rest of the body—the hormonal, psychological, and other neurobiological effects of sleep have been extensively studied in humans (van Cauter et. al, 2018; Han et. al, 2012); dogs are considered to be a good model of the effects of sleep (Kis et. al, 2017), so we can assume that many of these findings apply to them too. Most dogs don’t have time to rest between stimuli during the day, so sleep and naps are extremely important for our city dogs.
A recent study by Hungarian researchers found that dogs spent more time in REM at nighttime and after an active day (Kis et. al, 2017). That is no big surprise, as stimulation is low at night and, we can imagine, most dogs feel safe (knowing owners will be asleep for some relatively consistent number of hours allows dogs to go “off duty” and rest).
Owners’ behavior can disrupt dogs’ sleeping patterns (Adams and Johnson, 1993). In order for the brain to recharge, the body should be reaching deep, uninterrupted sleep. If your dog’s sleep is constantly interrupted during the day by environmental distractions, they probably aren’t getting the deep sleep they need.
This is why I highly recommend crate training for my urban clients’ dogs. I strongly believe that a crate is the best place for most dogs to nap. It allows the owner to remove the dog to a calm(er) spot if the dog is unable to handle the environmental distractions. These distractions might be sounds (neighbors, phone pings), sights (the owner’s movement inside, people visible outside, a bird in the tree), smells (someone cooking, an unfamiliar human or animal in the building, a new cleaning product), or even physical feelings (large trucks rumbling by, parking garage door opening and closing). These factors overstimulate dogs and keep their brain waves active. I always recommend placing the crate in the quietest area of the home and using it with some calming music, such as the Through a Dog’s Ear program. I recommend that clients establish a routine for naps each day, preferably so that the dog’s naps occur after each walk in the busy city.
Adequate and appropriate exercise and play time are also critical factors in preventing behavioral problems. Owners without a fenced back yard face the challenge of a lack of safe exercise space. In most cases, the only safe (and free) place to exercise their dog is a dog park (Lee et. al, 2009). Dog parks are popular additions to “dog-friendly” condo buildings, but they can be stressful and even dangerous for dogs.
Most of my students and clients want to know: Why not play at dog parks? In Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, which is rapidly transitioning from blue-collar manufacturing to luxury loft condos, there are a few dog parks. The largest and most popular of these opened four years ago. It’s a large park divided into two separate areas: a smaller section for smaller dogs, and a larger area for larger dogs. Not long after the park opened, owners started to complain about dogfights at the park, and today, some owners who initially loved the park now avoid it completely.
In speaking with local dog owners, I ask them to look at the neighborhood surrounding the park and note all the high-rise buildings. I ask them to imagine how many of the dog-owning residents of those building are going to the dog park and thinking the same thing: “My dog has been home alone while I was at work all day, so I am going to the dog park to let him run around and get tired out for the rest of the evening.” Of the dozens of dogs arriving at the park, how many are over-aroused and paying minimal attention to their owners who, in turn, aren’t constructively engaged with their dogs and mostly just want the dog to run around and get tired? This is a setup for bad experiences and poor play quality. Dogs might return home exhausted, but not from the physical play so much as the stress of trying to stay safe while trying to engage in dog-dog “play” at the park. (I put play in quotes because it is generally defined as a voluntary activity that is positively reinforcing—that is, the players find it pleasant. I’m sure this is not the case for many dogs at many dog parks.)
I also believe that using dog-dog play for exercise at the expense of owner-dog play misses a great opportunity for a dog and owner to bond, which is why I now always teach new clients with puppies how to play with their dogs at home and outdoors. In the very first class, I teach owners how to engage their dogs in play and how to use play as a reinforcer. We also discuss how to create play opportunities outdoors—anything from physical play like quick little games of fetch, to mental games like bringing interactive treat puzzles outside. I also encourage them to invest in long lines to keep their dogs safe and prevent them from taking off. I recommend that they buy high-value toys and only use them outdoors to increase motivation and drive, much like how we explain that bigger distractions outdoors require higher-value treats for working in that environment.
Aside from providing physical and mental exercise, play has many other benefits. A 2008 study by Adam Miklósi and his colleagues examined the role of play in the reduction of stress. They examined Hungarian police and border guards and their dogs. First, they measured the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the dogs’ saliva. Then, they asked the handlers to spend a few minutes playing with their dogs, after which the dogs’ salivary cortisol was measured a second time. What they found surprised them: The cortisol levels in the border-guard dogs decreased, but the cortisol levels in the police dogs increased after play (Miklósi, 2008).
The researchers took a closer look to try to figure out why. What they found was that the quality of play made a difference. The police officers were commanding their dogs to play, while the border guards were engaging their dogs in play with body language and petting—these dogs were volunteering to play, because it was fun.
Which brings me back why it’s so important to teach owners how to play with their pups: inviting them to have fun by getting them excited, not commanding them. Almost anywhere can be a good place for a quick game so long as everyone is safe—at home, out on a walk, in a park on a long line—I encourage owners to build play into everything they do with their dog.
Get the building on board
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a building to help train a dog. Living in a home with a homeowners’ association and nearby neighbors does take away some of the owners’ decision-making power when it comes to their dog. The dog not only has to live up to the owners’ standards, but their neighbors’ and the associations’, as well. A couple of complaints to the association by a neighbor can put owners in a very tough situation. It is extremely important that we stress to our clients the importance of being proactive when it comes to training and keeping our neighbors happy. If I am working with a puppy or a recent adoptee who is suffering from separation anxiety, for example, I encourage my clients to write a friendly note to their neighbors explaining the situation and assuring them they are working with a (qualified, professional, private) trainer to help the pup transition, and also noting how thankful they are for their neighbors’ patience and understanding. A little gift—like a small plant or a bottle of wine—usually doesn’t hurt the cause, either. Have your client ask the building manager who would be most likely to hear the pup from their unit. While many newer buildings have cement walls, they still share bathroom vents from the floor above and below, so it’s important to reach out to those neighbors, as well. (This is also why I often advise against leaving the dog confined in the bathroom.)
Clear communication is the key to any success, and this includes communicating with the neighbors. In particular, when working with either shy or reactive dogs, I provide my clients with a list of phrases to use with their neighbors. This helps all of those clients who—like many trainers—have gotten frustrated by well-meaning people who don’t change their behavior even after being told a dog is shy or reactive. Here are some simple phrases I have found successful:
- My dog doesn’t like the spotlight; please ignore her as we ride the elevator. Thanks!
- My dog likes people who play hard to get, so please ignore her even if she comes up to you to sniff. Thanks!
- My dog needs space; can you please take just a few steps back so we can pass by? Thanks!
- My dog doesn’t like to be petted; but she’d love to sniff (the back of your hand/your bag/your shoes/etc.), if you’d like to meet her.
My dog does not like dogs approaching her; please keep your dog away. Thanks!
Can we pass by first before you get in the elevator? Thanks!
I encourage clients to practice these, just like lines in a play, so they’re ready when the curtain goes up. And yes, I urge them to end every such conversation with a sincere expression of gratitude! They need all the allies they can get.
If this approach sounds familiar, it should: Just like the dogs we train, humans (our clients and, in turn, their neighbors) realistically need to be told what we want them to do, and then they want some form of recognition or acknowledgment when they do it. Reminding clients that they will sometimes need to suggest human behaviors while also managing their dogs’ behaviors, will make for a clearer and more successful experience for everyone.
Get everyone following the same rules
Of course, clear communication alone does not guarantee success. In some cases, it might be too late to retrain a neighbor or convince a dog to change his opinion of a certain person or situation. As trainers, we know prevention is important in behavior modification, but it’s tough to prevent difficult scenarios when sharing tight spaces (hallways, entryways, stairwells, elevators) with multiple neighbors and their dogs.
I have lived in both a high-rise and a mid-rise with my miniature Aussie, Lilu. Lilu is not fond of unknown people or dogs approaching her, especially when she is on leash. Surprisingly, she felt safer and more comfortable in the high-rise than when we lived in a mid-rise with only five other units in the building. The difference? We never once encountered an off-leash dog in the high-rise, and every person in the elevator was great at either ignoring her or following my directions. In the first weeks in the mid-rise, we were surprised by our neighbors’ dogs racing up the stairs off leash, their owner nowhere in sight.
Sadly, many of my clients have had similar experiences in their buildings. It is absolute frustration to have your hard work regress because of a neighbor’s bad choices. So this year, in collaboration with a local artist, I have designed a collection of fliers illustrating proper building etiquette: good-manners “how tos” for successfully passing dogs in the hallway, riding in elevators, and entering and exiting them. These fliers will soon be distributed to high-rises and mid-rises in hopes they will share them with their residents or post them in the common areas. My hope is that having a visual reference will help residents behave properly, follow the same rules, and ultimately create a safe space for our dogs.
A few of “Arroyo’s Rules for Happy Urban Dogs”:
Additional fliers provide simple, clear guidance on how to approach a shy dog, how to greet an excited dog, how to read very basic canine body language, and more.
In my 15 years as a dog trainer in Chicago, I’ve worked with countless people and dogs in densely populated urban neighborhoods. They live in everything from luxury condos costing well over a million dollars to starter apartments in what real-estate agents optimistically describe as “newly transitional” neighborhoods. I grew up in this city, and I’ve lived with my dogs in these buildings and neighborhoods my entire life. I’ve observed the impact of increased crowding on city dogs (more people, more dogs, more traffic, more noise—more of everything, except space), and struggled to help my own dogs remain healthy and happy despite the busy urban environment that surrounds us.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that we can do better for these dogs—much better. Helping city dogs and their people through targeted training in how to successfully navigate the urban environment has become my professional mission.
This work begins with taking a wide-angle look at the environment and addressing the effects of environmental stressors head on by striving for improved quality and quantity of sleep and increased appropriate types of play. It’s best to start from puppyhood when we can, but if those days are long gone, we start with the dog in front of us, as we do with any training. We build behaviors that help dogs avoid getting stressed in the first place and help them recover their internal balance as quickly and effectively as possible when stress inevitably occurs.
We also look beyond the dog, to any aspects of the external environment we can realistically influence. A central factor in the urban environment is neighbors within multi-unit residential buildings; these co-residents, often virtual strangers to your clients, nevertheless hold very real power over how welcome the dog is in the building. Training our clients in specific techniques for getting the building’s other residents on board can literally make the difference between the dog being a welcome part of the community or being asked to leave.
Training urban dogs and their owners how to be successful urban dogs and dog owners is a fairly new topic for most trainers. I am excited to add my ideas, insights, and professional passion to the conversation, and look forward to seeing our body of knowledge grow richer and more nuanced over time.
Lee, H.S., Shepley, M., and Huang, C-S. (2009). Evaluation of dog parks in Texas and Florida: A study of use patterns, user satisfaction, and perception. Landscape and Urban Planning 92:3-4, pp. 314-324.
Miklósi, A., Horváth, Z., and Antal, D. (2008) Affiliative and disciplinary behavior of human handlers during play with their dog affects cortisol concentrations in opposite directions. Hormones and Behavior 54:1, pp. 107-14
Judit Arroyo, CPDT-KA, has been working with dogs professionally since 2002. After receiving her BA in Sociology with a Psychology minor, Judit continued her dog-training career. In her 15+ years of hands-on experience, Judit has been awarded Top Dog Trainer in Chicago on numerous occasions, led the training program for Animal Career Academy, and served as the dog/handler-team test evaluator for Sit Stay Read for 10 years. She has competed in Rally-O, CPE, and AKC Agility with her miniature American shepherd, Lilu Manai and has started agility training with her recently adopted deaf dog, Saint. She currently owns Canina Dog Training and is teaching classes for Anything is Pawzible in the city of Chicago.