I recently had a conversation with a colleague of mine regarding the differences in lifestyles of urban dogs and rural dogs. Many rural dogs spend their time off leash and don’t have to deal with narrow sidewalks, busy streets and parks teeming with unfamiliar dogs. City dogs on the other hand have to learn to navigate their environment while connected to their owner on a leash.
Often when I go to pet stores, I see people so distracted by shopping and talking to other people that they do not pay attention to what their dog is doing. Take for example, the family that lets their two year old hold the flexi leash in the pet store while their dog takes full advantage of the 20 foot radius of freedom the child just gave him or the woman with the reactive terrier who obliviously stands in the middle of the aisle talking to a friend while her dog threatens every dog that tries to walk by. A dog on a leash should be viewed as an extension of yourself. For safety reasons, you should be aware of what your dog is doing at all times. Even if your dog is not normally reactive, your dog may encounter a reactive dog or your dog may become insecure and reactive in tight quarters.
An urban Akita surveys
the City of Santa Monica
Here are a couple of tips to safely navigate your dog in an urban environment:
Stay Away From Retractable Leashes (AKA Flexi Leash) – This is my least favorite piece of equipment. Retractable leashes are better used for field work and they are often misused in an urban setting. They are not designed to work well in tight quarters or narrow urban sidewalks, let alone trying to teach your dog to walk by your side with a slack or loose lead. It is too easy for the cartridge to slip from your hands or for your thumb to let go of the lever. Then, your dog has 20 feet of instant freedom. I have seen too many owners lose control of these devices only to have their dog get into an altercation with another dog. Another problem with this contraption is when an owner accidentally lets go of the cartridge, the leash begins to retract and their little Pomeranian is suddenly being “chased” by a brightly colored plastic object; a very scary experience for a small dog. You are better off with a 6 foot leather or nylon leash.
Be aware of what your dog is doing at all times - If you are getting into a conversation with someone, train your dog to sit calmly by your side. If your dog does not know how to do this or gets too distracted, consider enrolling your dog in an obedience class that teaches polite greetings and focus exercises. You do not want your dog to get into other peoples’ or dogs’ space.
Stand away from the middle of an aisle or sidewalk - Most dog altercations happen when dogs are forced to meet each other in narrow aisles or have to walk past each other in a constricted or confined area. So if you are speaking to someone, try to avoid standing in the middle of an aisle or sidewalk. Instead, try stand to the side of an aisle to allow other people and their dogs to walk by and minimize confrontation.
Coming and going from elevators and or exits - Elevators are scary contraptions for some dogs. They are a confined space that moves, which can elevate the stress level for dogs. I know of several vet offices that are on a second floor and the elevator is one of the ways to get to the main floor. If you are waiting for an elevator, stand a few feet away with your dog sitting at your side. Wait for the door to open and allow the occupants to exit the elevator first. When exiting the elevator, check the surroundings first before exiting. If you have a reactive dog, wait for the next ride if you have to share the car with another dog. Teach your dog to “wait” so they do not dart out of the elevator before you do. The same rules apply to doorways and exits.
Polite Greetings – when encountering other people walking their dogs, try not to let your dog run ahead of you and “rush” at the other dog. Teach your dog to “sit” or “heel” and “wait” at a safe distance (greater than 6 feet) until you can say hello to the other person and ask them if their dog is friendly. Even if your dog is friendly, other people’s dogs may not do well with a strange dog rushing head on at them and they can become defensive and/or aggressive.
Reactive dogs – if you have a reactive dog, you will need to be more aware of your dog’s behavior and the triggers that make them react. If your dog cannot walk calmly in tight quarters with other dogs the pet store may not be the best place to take your dog. Toy dogs can be reactive too. Size is not an excuse to allow your dog to bark and lunge at another dog. The danger of having a small reactive dog is that a larger dog may not be tolerant of such behavior. Small dogs that are reactive need training just as much as a large breed. From the other dog’s perspective, the behavior can still be viewed as a threat even if it is coming from a smaller package. Reactive dogs need to learn to make positive associations with the sight of strange dogs and learn alternative behaviors to lunging and barking. Jerking the dog's collar and yelling at them will not make them feel better about the strange dog that is invading their space.
If you view your dog as an extension of yourself, it will help you navigate your dog in our often congested urban jungle.