Life with a dog who barks, jumps, lunges or bites can be difficult in any environment, but navigating a dense urban space with a sensitive dog often feels like an impossible task. Many urban dog owners feel overwhelmed, trapped or defeated by even simple tasks, such as using the elevator or crossing busy intersections. As an urban dog trainer, my job goes beyond coaching my clients through the process of behaviour modification training – we must also cover practical tactics for navigating urban settings, so that these training plans can stand a chance of working. Over the last six years I have lived and worked downtown in Canada’s most densely populated cities, Toronto and Vancouver. Succeeding in the city is possible; but it requires some strategic thinking. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what it takes to find success with tricky dogs in busy places.
Olive, Vancouver. Photo Provided by Sophia Ma, Client (@caperswitholive, Instagram)
The Most Important Factor: Environment
Behaviour Modification is the field of dog training which focuses on changing a dog’s behavioural response, typically from an unwanted, aggressive, or fearful behaviour to a more human-society-approved behaviour. It may seem surprising, but the most critical factor for any behavioural modification program is the environment. Well before we start working with our animal, we must determine where to train in order to give our dog the best possible chance of success with the program.
The correct environment must have both sufficient space and adequate exposure to the types of stimuli, known as triggers, that prompt the problematic behavioural response.
City dogs may develop inappropriate behavioural responses to all sorts of triggers; I’ve worked with dogs who react aggressively or fearfully when confronted with construction sounds, joggers, dogs, skateboards, bicycles, cars, children, umbrellas, wheeled luggage, cats, air brakes on busses, mounted police, and postal workers to name just a few of the more common ones. City life is vibrant, crowded, loud, smelly and fast moving. It can be exciting for many of us, but for our dogs it can be overwhelming. Whatever your dog’s triggers are, you will need to have some access to them in order to work on changing your dog’s behavioural response.
Physical space is the key to setting up our dog to perceive the trigger without immediately provoking the unwanted behavioural response. This allows us to implement our training plan, which happens once the dog perceives the trigger. Enough physical space should be used such that the trigger appears at an optimal distance from the dog: close enough for the dog to see the trigger, but far enough away that the typical stress response is significantly diminished or mitigated entirely. Adjusting distance is one part of a process known as desensitisation. Without this set-up in place, most behaviour modification plans will quickly fall apart as dogs become reactive, unresponsive or panicked around their triggers. When you live in a bustling urban environment with lots of limitations on physical space, finding the right place to train can take some creativity.
You Get What you Repeatedly Practice
The Big Problem here is immediately obvious to those who have dog-reactive and people-reactive dogs: the moment we leave our homes, we are surrounded by many triggers without sufficient physical distance to ameliorate our dogs’ reactions. Whereas a skateboard may appear unexpectedly and provoke a reaction once in a while, more common city triggers such as people and dogs provoke reactions near constantly. Our poor dog becomes stressed and frantic before we’re even three steps down the street and, by the time we reach a suitable training space, our dog is simply too stressed to be successful. Repeated, uncontrolled trigger exposures, and their associated behavioural outbursts, will exhaust our dog ahead of our training session. Furthermore, repeated incidents will increase their baseline stress levels, erode resiliency and serve to further cement the reactive behaviour as the behavioural default through repetitive rehearsal.
For behaviour modification training to work, we have to clock up more successful encounters with triggers than unsuccessful ones, and in quite a large ratio. Simply put; you get what you repeatedly practise. If your dog reacts multiple times per walk, every single day, the training program is unlikely to work regardless of how well we may have constructed it.
Dogs may develop chronic stress when exposed to their triggers often and over a long period of time. For city dogs, chronic stress may manifest itself as a state of constant fear or hyper-vigilance when out for a walk near the home (or otherwise where the triggers typically appear). These dogs are tense even in the absence of the trigger and will display behaviours such as rushing, planting or pulling on leash, hiding, bolting, staring, difficulty engaging with the handler, and frequently startling at innocuous movement and sounds. Dogs in this state are primed and ready to react as soon as a trigger does appear, making what should be a leisurely stroll feel fraught with potential danger. Chronic stress can also be the result of a medical issue, so checking in with your veterinarian is always the recommended first step for any dog experiencing these symptoms.
Venn, Toronto. Photo Provided by Claire Kilburn (@alliance.service.dogs, Instagram)
To Leave your Comfort Zone, You Must Be in It
Behaviour Modification training, at its core, is bringing your dog slightly outside of their comfort zone and equipping them with the tools to cope, and even thrive, in the presence of their triggers. Over time and practice, the dog feels comfortable in the new context and can be challenged again in a stepwise fashion. In order to leave your comfort zone, you must first be within it – but one of the big mistakes us city dog owners make is that we often fail to understand exactly how uncomfortable our dogs might be, well before the trigger even appears. For the purposes of this article, let’s define a dog in their comfort zone as having a low baseline level of stress, observable in their body language and behaviour, and having all their basic needs met on a routine basis (sleep, food, shelter, safety, social connection, mental enrichment and physical exercise).
Many of us humans start out with a limited view of what canine enrichment looks like, and assume that neighbourhood walks are the only or best way to meet our dogs daily needs. While true for many dogs, as explained above, sensitive city dogs may be suffering more harm than good on daily neighbourhood walks. Taking local leash walks off the table can provide a sense of relief, but also dread: how can we ensure our dogs are well cared for and happy, in the absence of regular walking? Each dog’s needs are different, so the frequency and type of enrichment you offer may vary between individuals. Since meeting your dog’s needs must come first, even ahead of training, let’s explore some options for fearful, aggressive, or otherwise sensitive city dogs.
The most accessible space for meeting your dog’s daily enrichment needs is inside the home, but trips to appropriate spaces can also be organised. As a general rule, I like to include at-home enrichment on a daily basis, while out-of-home enrichment activities may be scheduled less frequently (e.g. 1-3 times per week). Consider implementing the following at-home practices to supplement your dog’s normal routine:
- Tricks Training such as Do More With Your Dog!
- Fitness and Conditioning Training such as Canine Conditioning Coach
- Scent Detection Training
- Playdates with known friendly dogs, where appropriate
- Food Puzzles
- Play / Games with known humans, where appropriate
For out-of-the-home spaces consider:
- Renting a backyard or similar space through an app such as Sniffspot or through a neighbourhood Facebook group
- Renting a doggy daycare or trainer’s space after hours
- Renting a dog-friendly swimming pool through a canine hydrotherapy center
- Renting a dog-friendly event space by the hour
- Transport outside of the city for high-quality enrichment walks
- Transport to a quieter neighbourhood within the city
- Leashed walks at a local cemetery
- Leashed neighbourhood walks at off-peak times (early AM or late PM)
Venture, Toronto. Photo Provided by Vivian Sue, Client (@venturewithvelo, Instagram)
Where to Train Your Dog
Having met your dog’s basic needs, the second step is to discover and utilise city spaces which enable deliberate behaviour modification training around specific triggers. As noted earlier, these spaces must allow sufficient physical space to mitigate stress reactions, while still allowing for controlled exposure towards the triggers that prompt unwanted behaviours in your dog.
Many trainers use set-up style training at a dedicated facility to achieve results quickly. Set-up style training can be done in two main ways:
- A helper is brought along to act as a trigger for the working dog. This helper is usually a person, a person with a specific trigger, or a person with a calm dog. The helper can be brought into or out of range of the working dog, allowing for precise desensitisation and counter conditioning protocols to be practised.
- For dog-reactive dogs, a group class of several dog-reactive dogs may be conducted, allowing for each dog to act as both working dog and helper dog as part of the class. When run well, these classes can be extremely effective, but are more difficult to manage.
While set-up style training with a helper can be extremely effective to establish skills in both the dog and handler, it does have major drawbacks. The carefully constructed set-up environment cannot fully encapsulate the real-life pace of city spaces. For very sensitive dogs or inexperienced handlers, a course of weekly set-up sessions can be conducted at the beginning of the training plan to rapidly build key training skills needed for real-world city life. For many dogs this step may be skipped entirely, and for all city dogs it is necessary at some point to conduct training around the dog’s home in order to achieve success in these spaces.
In the case of reactive dog group classes, these set-up style classes work best for more advanced dogs with some foundational training already in place. The reactive dog group class environment allows working dogs to get closer to others than they typically would when walking outside. I especially like reactive dog group classes for handler/dog teams who wish to take normal group classes, participate in dog sports or move towards passing dogs in closer proximity when outside. For more mild dogs, reactive dog group classes can be a good place to start. For more sensitive dogs, however, private training around the home is a necessary first step prior to attending group classes for reactivity. Reactivity is very difficult to categorise from “mild” to “severe”, especially as it relates to prognosis in training, but in general reactive dog group classes are best suited for dogs with a low baseline level of stress, rapid recovery time post-reaction and less dangerous expressions of reactive behaviour.
In lieu of, or in addition to standard set-up training, it is efficient and effective to train in the city itself. Finding the right space (and arriving there safely) can take some time, but there are many benefits to training in this way:
- Spaces local to the handler are more convenient and accessible, allowing for training to fit into a daily routine more easily.
- Handlers can more easily practise in between coaching sessions, which dramatically lowers the cost-per-session of the training compared with set-up training only. More training is done, yielding faster results.
- Training sessions can be conducted in short blocks (10-15 minutes), frequently (4-10 times per week) rather than weekly sessions of 45-60 minutes. Short, frequent sessions allow the dog plenty of time to rest and reset in between, which has a positive effect on resiliency.
- As our dog improves, training routines can be gradually morphed into more casual walking routines. Gradual routine changes over time are generally more favourable for preventing regression and establishing long term behavioural habits.
The types of space I regularly use for training in the city fall into three main categories:
- Limited Vision Areas
- Large Open Areas
- Protected High Ground
Limited Vision Areas are enclosed spaces like alleyways, parking garages, underpasses, or similar. Ideally, no triggers are present in the enclosed space itself and the space has at least two safe entry/exit points, to allow avoidance of any triggers that do come in, so that the dog is never trapped. The space should open up onto a busier area in at least one place to allow for viewing triggers at a set distance. Alleyways are ideal for this, as they naturally have two exits and visually block most of the environment. Choosing an alleyway that opens onto a busy street on one side with quiet areas to escape to will allow the handler/dog team to view triggers from relative safety. In downtown Toronto in particular, the large network of laneways running parallel to busy streets allows for efficient training, and most of the advantages of in-facility set-up sessions can be mimicked.
Large Open Areas are harder to find in the city, but can offer significant advantages in terms of space and trigger exposure. Large sports fields, schoolyards and on-leash parks can give excellent visibility to triggers at a distance, without compromising the ability for the handler/dog team to move around the space. Large Open Areas pose more risk than other training areas in the city, especially for dog-reactive dogs as many people in the city shirk leash laws and allow off-leash dogs to approach reactive dogs at will. When using an open space for training, it is wise to carefully scope out the space ahead of time without your dog present to rehearse exit-strategies if an off leash dog (or other trigger) were to approach. In addition, I encourage muzzle training for working in these environments. Even if the working dog does not pose a bite risk, the muzzle is a potent visual signal to ward away unwanted attention.
Protected High Ground spaces are raised areas which allows for extremely good visual range into the environment, while preventing any triggers from easily approaching. Condo balconies, bridges, look-outs and other protected raised areas can be extremely useful for city training. The same rules apply here as to limited vision areas – make sure there are at least two ways to leave to ensure you are not trapped in a tight space with an oncoming trigger.
Eleanor & Percy, Vancouver. Photo provided by Sarah Shapiro-Ward (@prancingpoodles, instagram)
How to Get There: Navigating Urban Hot Spots
In the city, incidents of reactive behaviour typically occur in clusters at specific locations which I call “Hot Spots.” These locations are usually physical bottlenecks close to home, with frequent triggers: condo hallways, elevators, lobbies, intersections, narrow sidewalks and blind corners. Identifying where not to train is just as important as identifying suitable spaces, and Hot Spots are best avoided entirely where possible. The characteristics of a Hot Spot are the opposite characteristics of suitable training spaces: Hot Spots lead to incidents because there is insufficient visual range to spot oncoming triggers with plenty of time to leave, or there are not sufficient exit routes, so our dog ends up becoming trapped in the space with the oncoming trigger. Sadly, teleportation is not an option and many of us will have to traverse a few Hot Spots to make it to our chosen training area.
When traversing a Hot Spot, don’t linger. Move with purpose and take the fastest and safest path through. Make traversing the Hot Spot as predictable and routine as possible for your dog by implementing the same strategies each time, whether or not you think it will be busy.
Strongly consider muzzle training your dog, if only just for Hot Spot areas. A dog wearing a muzzle loudly proclaims “I need space!” in a way that a leash sleeve reading the same thing does not. If there is any risk of your dog biting a person or a dog, a muzzle is a must for public safety. Even if you think you probably won’t need it, muzzle training your dog as a precaution is a good idea.
With these two considerations in place – speed and safety – let’s explore some other options for traversing Hot Spots more easily.
Luring: Luring is the process of placing delicious food by your dog’s nose and guiding them through space by moving the food around. Luring with solid treats works just fine, but the best option for building some duration are treats that your dog can continuously lick as they move around. Squeezable cat treats might seem an odd choice, but these highly palatable wet foods can be delivered gradually and are compatible with muzzles. Wet dog foods delivered through a squeeze tube or piping bag can work just as well. In a pinch, grab a handful of solid treats in your fist and allow your dog to “win” one at a time at a consistent pace as you move.
Bumper: For some dogs, especially excitable youngsters, carrying a bumper (a toy used in dog sports to train a retrieve) or tug toy can have a soothing effect and can mitigate barking by, well, keeping your dog’s mouth busy. If your dog likes to carry items, sometimes having them carry toys through Hot Spot areas can reduce unwanted behaviour.
Blocking Perception: This works by using a tool to physically block our working dog’s visual perception of the environment. You can’t bark at what you don’t see… in theory. This method can be extremely effective for some cases, but can backfire in others, so use with caution. This method works best when there is a very low likelihood of the dog encountering a trigger at close range, for example in the car while driving, covering the crate your dog rides in or using a Calming Cap can drastically reduce barking at dogs through the window. This can also work for small dogs who fit into carry cases for elevator rides. Another way to use blocking perception is to cycle your dog through busy areas in a bicycle trailer, with your dog wearing a calming cap inside. This method can backfire if a trigger is able to get close enough that your dog does perceive it (extremely scary, like a jumpscare) or if your dog is perceiving triggers via smell or sound.
Additional Leverage: In the training space, using a longer leash (Up to 15 ft, or as long as allowed by leash by-laws) and a back clip harness is ideal in most cases. However, long leashes and harnesses can spell trouble in enclosed spaces where our dogs might lunge. A shorter leash (4 – 6 ft) is more appropriate, and you may wish to clip this leash to a front harness attachment, collar or head halter as required. Head halters can be aversive to your dog, unless properly conditioned, but they do offer more control for those at risk of being pulled to the ground or otherwise injured by their dog lunging at a trigger. Therefore, the choice of which tools to use must balance safety with your dog’s comfort. If using an additional leverage tool like a head halter for Hot Spot areas, switch back to the lower leverage option as soon as it is safe to do so.
By-Pass: Where possible, avoid Hot Spots entirely. Where this isn’t possible, try to alter the route to find the path of least resistance. One example of this is taking the elevator to the 2nd floor of your building, then taking the last flight of stairs to the lobby. By doing this, you can by-pass the elevator opening up into the lobby, which is the busiest place for the elevator to be. Taking the stairs, exiting through underground parking lots or through the back alley where the garbage bins are kept are also great ways to reduce the intensity of the Hot Spot space. When out and about, by-pass triggers by crossing the street or back-tracking entirely. Choosing quieter intersections to cross, or picking walking routes with fewer difficult areas is also generally wise.
Island-Hopping: Island-Hopping is a little nickname I’ve given to the process of resting between Hot Spots. In a typical neighbourhood walk, there may be several difficult Hot Spot spaces to traverse before you reach your destination. Mapping these out can give you an idea of where to find “islands” of safety to rest at after finishing one Hot Spot and before tackling the next. Usually, these islands are grassy street corners or set-backs, but I’ve found some nice cool-down areas in the centre of roundabouts, behind bins, in car parks and even around large pieces of public art. It’s much easier to tackle Hot Spots one at a time, than running them as a gauntlet, so take the time to rest between each one.
Scouting: If there are two humans, assign one human the job of “scout.” Scouts can look around tight corners or open doors to check for triggers first before signalling to the handler/dog team that it is safe to move. There’s not much scouting you can do if you’re working alone, although installing circular mirrors in condo stairwells can help tremendously (with permission from the condo management, of course). Another advantage of having multiple humans is the “safety-in-numbers” effect, whereby the working dog feels safer in a larger group.
Driving: Driving seems like an obvious solution for avoiding Hot Spot areas, but in practice, many urbanites do not have regular access to vehicles. Where cars are available, we can make good use of them. Cars can help in many ways, from bringing the dog out of the city entirely for enrichment purposes, to providing an “island” of safety wherever you go. You can train from inside of the car, giving a view of triggers from a protected space, or you can drive to the best training spot in the city, rather than settling for the spot that is merely “decent” around the corner. For some clients without cars, it may be possible to carpool or use a carsharing app. Where driving isn’t possible, bicycling with a dog-trailer may be. However, for many, these options are simply not practical.
Nebula, Vancouver. Photo Provided by Dimitria Elefthérios, Client (@into.thecardi.verse, Instagram)
When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Gets Going
Incidents of reactive or aggressive behaviour (barking, lunging, snapping or biting) are always detrimental to the overall training plan and may represent a safety risk, so should be avoided at all costs. However, in the city environment, sometimes reactions are unavoidable. Knowing what to do when your dog reacts is essential, and this is a moment to appreciate that behaviour modification training works on humans as well. Our default behavioural response to our misbehaving dogs tends to be grabbing the leash tight, yelling, and generally struggling in an unproductive way. For our dogs’ sake (and our own), we need to change our default response to something more productive.
I try to remember: Breathe. Leash. Exit. Decompress. Or BLED for short. An appropriate acronym for a painful situation.
Breathe: If you’ve equipped your leash and muzzle and have some small distance from the trigger, you have time to take a deep breath and focus. Nothing awful will happen in the next moment. If you have a tendency to panic, do not skip this step. Panic reactions from the human (such as yelling, grabbing or jerking on the leash) have a tendency to worsen the dog’s reaction overall. By breathing deeply and taking some time to consider, we can act with a calm purpose which can help de-escalate the situation much more quickly.
Leash: Reactivity episodes must be de-escalated as quickly as possible for the benefit and safety of all involved. Getting away from the trigger is the utmost priority once a reaction has started and your dog can no longer respond to known cues or follow a food lure to move away. Learning to use your leash compassionately will serve you well if a reaction like this does happen. Gather your leash by running your hand down the line towards the dog and taking a secure grip. Lower the leash so that your hand is at the same level as your dog’s head and guide your dog gently but firmly around in a half-circle. Move deliberately, use steady pressure, and use only enough to be effective. Once your dog is moving with you in the opposite direction, you can release some tension on the leash and use your voice and food to encourage your dog to move the rest of the way to safety. Leash handling is crucial – be very intentional with how you use the leash, and practise by running away from pretend triggers. Jerks or strong leash pressure can actively harm our dogs, and poor leash handling skills on our part can result in hand injuries, falls, increased reactivity, handler-directed aggression and loose dogs running at large.
Exit: You must gain distance away from the trigger that caused the reaction, without running into another trigger or jumping into traffic. Scan your area and choose the most efficient exit route you can, which may be back-tracking the way you came from. Move at least 30 ft away from where the trigger was, and for many dogs walking even further away is better. This allows the dog to feel like they have escaped the danger, and prevents the trigger from catching up with you. At this point, while rapidly moving away, a good Canadian will yell “Sorry!” at the trigger if it is a person (but this is strictly optional).
Decompress: Now you’ve successfully gained distance from the trigger, take a look at your dog. Are they stressed? Before you move on, it’s best to help your dog relax and recover as much as possible. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a little time in the absence of triggers. For dogs who have a harder time, practise scatter feeding (dropping a handful of kibble or treats into the nearest patch of grass, leaves or snow) to help facilitate the process. Don’t forget to check in with yourself as part of this step, too. Are you feeling stressed or frustrated? Could you do something differently next time? If either you or your dog have a hard time recovering from the reaction, or you’ve had multiple reactions in short succession, it may be worth aborting the rest of your walk and going home. But, if you’re able to recover, you can head back out. Occasional reactions are inevitable in the city, and it is important to give both yourself and your dog some grace when faced with these moments.
Now What? Ready-to-Work Checklist
When working with horses, we have a “ready-to-work checklist” before mounting up. The last thing you want to do is sit on a very large animal who isn’t ready to be sat on: it’s one of those lessons that, once learned, is never forgotten. Horses and dogs aren’t so different, and the ready-to-work checklist can be incredibly useful here as well, even if the risk of serious bodily harm is much less.
When you’ve reached your suitable training space, check for four main signifiers that your dog is ready to learn:
Body Language: Dog body language is nuanced and complex, and there are many key signals to watch out for which may indicate stress, but each dog may have a specific “tell” for their anxiety. Learning your dog’s baseline body language is crucial here. Compare your dog’s body language in the training space with how they usually look and behave when training in your living room. Note down any key differences and keep track of any stress signals over time. Learning to read your dog well will greatly strengthen your bond with them over time.
Appetite: Appetite is typically reduced in dogs who are not ready to work due to stress or over-stimulation. Some dogs may even refuse their favourite treats altogether. You can test appetite by tossing a treat for your dog to chase, or simply offering your dog a treat from your hand. For some dogs who are stressed, they may take treats frantically, eat faster or even nip your fingers. You’re looking for a normal appetite for your individual dog, whatever that looks like for them.
It’s also worth considering, does your dog find your food reinforcing? For many dogs, what’s interesting in the living room is boring in the outside world. Be sure to bring good treats.
Voluntary Attention: Without calling to your dog or asking for their attention, wait to see if they try to engage with you. This might be through eye contact, trying to initiate play or by offering a behaviour they enjoy. Voluntary attention gives your dog a way to “opt in” to a training session, so the absence of attention might be a sign that your dog isn’t ready to work right now. This is a skill like any other, and can be practised and improved.
Known Cues: Before working on behaviour modification training, warm up a few old favourite skills to make sure your dog is in the zone. Responses to known cues should be enthusiastic and without hesitation. I like to work on recall, hand targeting and a few fun tricks like spin before starting any serious work. This gives my dog some easy wins right out of the gate and is the last step on the checklist to make sure your dog is ready.
If your dog isn’t ready to work, they may simply need more time in the space, more distance from the triggers or they may need a different set-up entirely (different space, different equipment, different treats or toys). If your dog is ready to work, you are ready to implement your behaviour modification training plan!
Argo, Vancouver. Photo Provided by Amy Stapleton, Client (@amystaples, Instagram)
Training a dog in the city is not always an easy task, and many training plans for behaviour modification won’t warn you about the additional difficulties of city life. My hope is that by articulating these issues, guardians of sensitive city dogs will feel less alone in their training journey.
Of course, behaviour modification training plans do not come in one-size-fits-all. While I hope the article is helpful and validates the very real struggle that city dog owners go through, owners of sensitive dogs should reach out for professional help. Progress is always faster with tailored training plans, and a professional will be able to observe, evaluate and give feedback on critical components of the process, such as your dog’s body language signals, handler timing and handler leash skills.
Dr. Sarah Shapiro-Ward CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP has lived and worked as a professional dog trainer in two of Canada’s most densely populated downtown communities: Toronto and Vancouver. Sarah is best known for her viral trick training videos with her Cockapoo Percy, including tricks such as playing Jenga, Connect Four and Painting on Canvas. She also has a standard poodle, Eleanor, and a part-time horse, Echo.
Before becoming a dog trainer, Sarah completed her Ph.D. in Biochemistry in 2015. Though she has long since left the laboratory behind, she still enjoys keeping up with the literature and applying her skills of critical analysis to dog training scenarios.
Sarah is a frequent guest on the live call-in radio show CBC BC Today, answering Vancouver’s dog behaviour questions. She has also been featured on Jimmy Fallon, The Daily Mail UK, NHK Japan, Good Morning America, The New York Post & others.
Besides training tricks, Sarah teaches group classes and private lessons for city dog owners across Vancouver through When Hounds Fly. She can be found on Instagram and TikTok @prancingpoodles.