Ask a Trainer

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Ask a Trainer with Kiki Yablon

Each month, training partner Kiki Yablon explores challenges, issues, and questions regarding the process of training your best friend.

Past topics include:
Making environmental cues work for you
Puppy socialization
Addressing unwanted behaviors
Separation anxiety
Integrating a new dog with other pets
“Disobedience”
Pulling towards other dogs
Fearful dogs
Capitalizing on informal behaviors
Training your dog with affection
Multipurpose cues
Creating reliable cues
Importance of fundamentals
When “sit” doesn’t happen
Crate training your dog
How to split a sit
The problem with “ignoring”
Training with the Grain
Positive reinforcement: turning the world into a treat
Learning what predicts what
It depends: Why dog training “tips” often fail
Teach your dog to wait at doors
Teaching When, Where, and Why
Redirect or Preempt?
Dogs in High-Rises

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July Ask a Trainer | Dogs in High-Rises: A Modest Proposal

By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

There’s probably no tougher place to have a dog with fear or aggression issues than a high-rise. Except maybe a “dog-friendly” high-rise.

For dogs, as for all of us, fear is mitigated by distance. Generally, the farther away you are from something scary, the less scary it is. But distance can be hard to come by in hallways, elevators, stairwells, and foyers, especially when they’re populated by other dogs and dog lovers. And if when dogs can’t get distance through avoidance, aggression becomes a more likely option.

Sound programs to reduce fear and aggression usually start with keeping the dog “under threshold,” which roughly translates to “far enough away from his triggers that he’s not already freaking out.” So ideally, dogs who can’t cope in close quarters wouldn’t be brought into high-density living situations in the first place. But owners can’t always predict such issues in a new dog, prevent them from developing, or up and move if they do. Plus, small spaces not only aggravate existing problems—they can create new ones. A dog or puppy who wasn’t previously afraid of people or other dogs may become fearful and defensive after a single traumatic experience from which he can’t escape.

A lot of problems could be prevented in high-rises with some simple rules for dog-owning residents—even those whose dogs are comfortable with other dogs and humans. Here are a few suggestions to start with:

  • One dog per elevator car. Additionally, instead of designating only one elevator for all dogs, as some buildings do, maybe designate one or two elevators as dog-free.
  • Owners must go through doors with or ahead of their dogs, including elevator doors. If someone or something problematic is on the other side, this prevents an immediate conflagration and allows you a chance to turn back or negotiate space before proceeding.
  • Dogs must be leashed in public areas, including hallways. Most buildings probably have this rule, but don’t enforce it well. I’d add: on a six-foot leash or shorter, no retractables.

These rules alone won’t prevent every noisy outburst, but they would likely reduce the number of incidents where a person or dog actually gets injured or traumatized.

Buildings billing themselves as “dog-friendly” might also want to go deeper than private dog runs and free poop bags. In addition to multiple elevators, consider letting dog owners use a variety of exits to manage their space. And if you’re installing an off-leash dog run on the property, definitely don’t require all dogs to exit and enter through it. (This was a real situation in at least one building I’ve worked in.)

Feel free to bring these ideas up at your next condo board or pet committee meeting. But in the meantime, individual owners can make a dent by changing some of their own practices. Most of these suggestions are good etiquette whether or not your own dog is space sensitive, but a few, toward the end, are geared more toward those who need to actively manage space.

Teach wait at doors, including the door to your apartment. I wrote about one way to do this here.  You can use the same technique for blind corners.

Teach wait inside and outside the elevator. This can be accomplished using existing behaviors, like a sit- or down-stay, but here’s my favorite method, learned at the knee of Laura Monaco Torelli.

  • Push the button, then step away: Move back as far as you can while maintaining your sightline to the car’s interior—ten feet is great if you can get it. Shorten your dog’s leash, leaving slack between your hand and the harness or collar. From this position, if something pops out unexpectedly, your dog cannot get to it. The slack is to prevent your dog from instantly feeling trapped if a person or dog does appear.
  • Change what the “ding” predicts: When you hear the ding that says the door will open, or elevator coming to a stop just before the doors open, start feeding your dog little bits of something special, one after the other, or let him lick out of a food tube. Practice this frequently without actually getting on the elevator. The instant the doors close, stop the treats. Over time, your dog will begin to look to you when the doors open—and if he’s doing that, he’s not running into the car or focusing on what might be coming out. Same deal inside the elevator: Position your dog away from the door and your body between the dog and whatever might enter, and feed between the ding and the doors closing/people entering.
  • Put the entry/exit on cue: Teach a cue that means going through the elevator doorway will earn a treat—both in and out. This will help your dog learn to wait till you give the all-clear. Keep the leash short enough that the dog cannot run through if you haven’t given the cue.

Leash your dog in the hallways. Unless you’ve got a prior arrangement with your hallmates, no more running free from the elevator to your door. I know, it sucks, he loves running down that hall, but even if your dog is friendly, your neighbors might be scared of dogs or have dogs who can’t handle being rushed by an off-leash goof.

Consider carrying your tiny dog. Preemptively, from the door of your apartment to the exit—not just after he barks at someone or someone lunges at him. Some small dogs feel safer in your arms, and won’t try to fight or flee from there. However, others may struggle or bite you if they get frightened; in that case, consider using a carrier of some sort to get in and out of the building.

Take the stairs. If you live on a lower floor, consider it part of the exercise program. If you live on a higher floor, consider getting off the elevator a few flights up from the main lobby and hitting the steps.

Ask for space so your dog doesn’t have to. Your body language—stepping between a person and your dog, turning or veering away, avoiding or focusing eye contact, etc.—often works as well or better than verbal communication to prevent unwanted approaches. But don’t be afraid to speak up, e.g., to politely ask if a person with another dog can wait to get on the next elevator, or if they can give you a little space to get off while they take this one.

Communicate for consistency. (Another hat tip to Laura here for this catchy way of putting it.) Teach partners, family members, dog walkers, and pet sitters to do the same things when they take the dog out.

Teach your dog to wear a basket muzzle. If your dog has a bite history, or you think a bite is likely, it’s the responsible thing to do. Basket muzzles, such as the Baskerville Ultra Muzzle, are ideal because they let dogs not only pant normally but also eat through them, so you can train and make positive associations using food. I like these videos from Dr. Colleen Koch, a downstate veterinary behavior resident and trainer, on how to turn the muzzle into a “treat basket”; there are more instructional resources, as well as sound arguments for muzzle training, at the Muzzle Up Project.

And should you see a neighbor with a muzzled dog, give them space, avoid staring at or moving toward them—and flash them the biggest, most approving smile you can muster.