Wearing an imaginary cone of shame, I whispered feeble apologies and pulled my pooch past a sea of forced smiles during our daily walks. A stray cat could turn leisurely strolls into tug-of-war as Lulu pulled and screamed like a caged monkey. Yes, I was that dog owner. I know how it feels to have parents clutch their kids’ hands and point to my problem pooch.
After years of pulling the leash and barking at neighborhood dogs like they had stolen her favorite squeaky toy, my Lulu has come a long way. I credit my own willfulness, kind friends who joined us on those walks, and a small army of dog trainers. Now Lulu can tolerate other dogs that dare to tread on “her” sidewalk, and I can actually enjoy a daily dose of Mother Nature.
Of course, it helps that our subdivision offers plenty of alternative routes so that we can avoid potential run-ins, if necessary. Apartment and high-rise dwellers don’t have that luxury, making encounters more problematic for some reactive dogs. A sluggish housing market also has forced more pet owners to trade wide-open spaces for apartments and high-rise buildings. Many dogs handle the adjustment to high-rise living without incident. For others, it can be a challenge.
“The smaller the space, the higher the stakes,” says author and dog trainer Sarah Wilson, who created an online forum called MySmartPuppy.com to help pet owners. “Dogs without training revert to their genetic mandate. Without input from their human, a lot of Rotties become protective. That doesn’t have to be their destiny.”
When New Yorkers need help transforming a pet’s destiny, they frequently call on certified dog trainer Renee Payne. She evaluates a dog's ability to handle high-rise living and offers training tools to overcome issues such as separation anxiety. Payne also created a “Co-Op Questionnaire for New Dog Residents” that New Yorkers use to weed out problem pups. The questionnaire includes basic questions about a dog’s age and breed as well as temperament tests that evaluate its ability to handle construction noise, elevators and strangers passing in close quarters. Once a resident is accepted, improving bad behavior can be challenging.
“Owners of the dogs who are the problem dogs are unfortunately not very receptive to input,” she said. “They have to decide on their own, unfortunately. It just sucks for everyone else in the building.”
Whether it’s a neighbor’s dog or your own precious pooch, Payne and Wilson offer advice to help pets peacefully coexist in apartments or high-rise buildings.
Enroll in a group obedience class
“Humans have to create new behaviors for the dog,” Wilson says. “There’s an assumption that the dog knows what he is doing is wrong and knows to stop. The dog often has no idea of what to do.”
A professional trainer can provide positive strategies that help people and pets handle potentially stressful situations such as riding the elevator or walking down narrow hallways, Wilson says. Group classes also help dogs see that good things can happen in the presence of other dogs. Once your dog masters group obedience classes, Payne recommends interacting with neighboring dogs on neutral territory such as a public park. (Not a dog park, which can be filled with distracting scents.)
“They don’t have to be friends,” she says. “We just don’t want them to see each other as the enemy anymore.”
Try positive reinforcement
Use the power of treats to your advantage. My Lulu transforms in the presence of low-fat string cheese. Loaded down with chicken, turkey or other drool-worthy favorites, Payne frequently takes dogs outside and begins training sessions at a nearby park.
“If you are having trouble with dogs in the building, you are probably also having problems with dogs on the street,” she says.
Payne uses the open bar approach to redirect attention away from passing dogs on the street. Anytime another dog comes into view, she feeds problem pups a steady stream of chicken. Eventually, the dog stops reacting and starts looking for yummy treats and Payne moves sessions closer to home. She stresses that this process can take time — and lots of treats — so don’t expect to move from a park bench to the elevator. That won’t work, she says. Once training moves inside, dogs may revert to old habits, so keep reinforcing different behavior.
“If the dog starts to bark and ignore the chicken, turn and walk away,” she says. “He doesn’t get to make the other dog leave. His barking means he has to leave.”
Wilson and Payne recommend halter-style collars, such as the Gentle Leader, that fit around the dog’s snout and limit movement. When dogs pull, these collars close around their mouths, giving owners — and neighbors — more confidence in tight spaces.
“It doesn’t have to be a lifelong thing,” says Payne, “but it is a good tool.”
Monitor your own body language: An owner’s body language can cause dogs to become protective, especially if they anticipate negative interactions with other people or pets. Trainer Mike Upshur notes that dogs take cues from their humans during leash walks. Any tension on the leash speaks volumes.
“We set the tone,” Wilson says, adding that training classes reinforce positive interactions. “Sometimes classes are as good for the human as they are for the dog. You are confident and know what to do and you become confident that you can get past another dog safely."
Watch for signs of separation anxiety — and take action
Owners may not realize that their dogs have separation anxiety, but neighbors know all too well. According to Dr. Janet Tobiassen, a veterinarian and advice columnist for About.com, the most common signs include destructive behavior such as clawing at doors or windows, barking and elimination in the home.
“It is important to note that dogs do not do this out of ‘spite.’ It is a true panic, a phobia of being left alone,” Tobiassen says. “Most of these behaviors occur within 30 minutes of departure.”
To test for signs of separation anxiety, Payne typically watches the dog interact with other people, then asks the owner to leave the room. If dogs show signs of distress, she introduces positive distraction tools with the goal of keeping dogs busy and happy during the first 10 to 15 minutes. Interactive or stuffed toys, even a glob of peanut butter smeared on the dog bowl, can do the trick. In a previous column tacking weight-loss strategies for overweight dogs, I offered a few fun toys that keep them busy. Cool treats such as carrots or frozen cubes of chicken broth also get the job done.
“Leave these things by the door because that’s probably where they will be when you leave,” Payne says. “They won’t eat the peanut butter and say, ‘crap they are gone.’”
All the best.
— Morieka Johnson, @soulpup
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Inset photo: Holt Training Head Collar, Petsmart