Dogs in High-Rises: A Modest Proposal

Practicing preventively with puppy Siena in the elevator

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 long, narrow hallways, busy elevators, and tight foyers, especially when they’re populated by other dogs and dog lovers. And 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 freaking out as soon as he sees them.” 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 simply pack 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 develop new phobias and related behaviors after a single traumatic experience—especially one where escape was made impossible.

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. Stand back from the door while waiting. If there's already a dog inside, wait for the next car. Additionally, instead of designating only one elevator that must be used by all dogs, as some buildings do, let them spread out, or maybe designate some elevators as dog-free or others for use by space-sensitive dogs.

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 many don’t enforce it well. I’d add: on fixed leashes of a reasonable length, no retractables.

These rules alone wouldn’t prevent every incident, but they would likely reduce how often 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 the building 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. You can use the same technique for when you approach 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:

  • 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: Whether you're inside or outside the car, when you hear the ding that says the door will open, or the 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 or off the elevator. The instant the doors close, stop the treats. Over time, your dog will begin to look to you when the doors open, which you can mark and reinforce (this is what you see in the video at the top of this page), at first with a treat, then with a release to go through the door. If your dog is looking toward you, he’s not running into or out of the car or focusing on what might be coming through the other direction.

  • PUT THE ENTRY/EXIT ON CUE: Teach a cue that means going through the elevator doorway will earn a treat—again, both in and out. Reinforcing the release behavior 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.

Teaching your dog where to hang out in the elevator is a good idea too—ideally somewhere that's not right up against the elevator doors. Routinely walk him to that spot and reinforce a stationary behavior, like standing or sitting with eye contact and you should start to see a habit develop.

CONSIDER CARRYING YOUR TINY DOG. Preemptively, I mean, from the door of your apartment to the exit—not just after he barks at someone or someone lunges for him and freaks him out. Some 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, you might consider using a carrier of some sort to get in and out of the building, at least temporarily. (That is, if your dog is comfortable in a carrier. If not, here's how to start training comfort with confinement.)

TAKE THE STAIRS. If you live on a lower floor, just 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, congested lobby and hitting the steps.

ASK FOR SPACE SO YOUR DOG DOESN’T HAVE TO. Your body language—curving out and around instead of walking straight toward another dog or a person, putting your body between a handsy stranger and your dog, avoiding eye contact, etc.—often works as well or better than verbal communication to prevent unwanted approaches. But don’t be afraid to speak up, too, and politely ask if a person with another dog can wait to get on the next car, or if they can give you a little space to get off before they jump into this one.

DON'T FORGET THE DOG WALKER. Dog-care pros sometimes walk our pets more often than we do, so it's important that the dog's experience with them is the same as it is with you. Teach partners, family members, dog walkers, and pet sitters to take the same measures you do when they take the dog out. (Or as my friend and fellow trainer Laura Monaco Torelli puts it, more catchily, "communicate for consistency."

TEACH YOUR DOG TO WEAR A BASKET MUZZLE. You might fret that it makes your dog look "mean," but if your dog has a bite history, or you think a bite is likely, it’s the responsible thing to do in close quarters. 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 Illinois veterinary behaviorist 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, or even one who just seems to be actively working with her dog to reinforce good behavior around the building, give her space, avoid staring at or moving toward her dog—and flash her the biggest, most approving smile you can muster.

This post was originally written for One Tail at a Time. It has since been revised and updated.