Originally published April 17, 2013
Recently I have been talking to people about breed choice and where they live. Everyone I talk to who doesn’t own a dog has strong opinions about having dogs in apartment buildings and an awful lot of shelters and rescues won’t adopt out unless you have a fenced yard. The problem is that many dogs actually suffer if they have a fenced yard and do well in apartments. How can this be?
It is simple really. If you live in an apartment, you MUST get outside to toilet your dog, to exercise him and to socialize him. You must keep him occupied and quiet in an apartment. You must not allow him to disturb your neighbours. On top of this, dogs in apartments meet many more people than dogs who live in a home with a back yard.
When a family gets a puppy and lives in a home, then when the puppy needs to toilet, they open the door and allow him into the back yard. All too often, people don’t heed the advice we give our puppy class students and supervise their puppy going to the toilet; it isn’t much fun for the humans after all. The first thing that happens when the puppy is let out to pee unattended is that he may not go right away. If he doesn’t go and then is let in, he will have more accidents than a puppy who is taken out by an apartment dweller. When you live in an apartment if you made the effort to put on a coat and boots and walk down three flights of stairs, or even take the elevator down 8 stories, you stay out there until the puppy performs. Right off the bat, this means that you will have a better chance of toilet training your puppy when he should be toilet trained; in the first several weeks.
Families with back yards often feel that they can get away without exercising their dogs; after all he has a nice big backyard to play within! Exercising a dog in a backyard is like training for a marathon in your bathroom. Sure, you can run in place for the equivalent of four hours, but who would? Dogs in apartments have the benefit of you having made the effort to get outside, so you may as well stay out there and exercise them.
Most apartments are smaller than family homes, so when you do have your puppy loose, it is much harder to lose track of him. In a family home, your puppy can easily get away from you and get into mischief when you are not looking. One of my clients actually lost her puppy in their two story home when the kids took the puppy down the basement with them to watch TV and then left him down there when they went outside to play. Mom didn’t know that the kids had taken the puppy out of his crate and by the time they noticed he was missing, he had been unsupervised for several hours. They searched high and low and about three hours later they heard him in the furnace room where he had closed himself in. Predicatably he had urinated on the floor. It is much harder to actually lose a puppy in an apartment.
Ideally we would like every puppy to meet between 100 and 200 dogs and between 200 and 400 people before he is 20 weeks of age. That is fairly easy to do if you live in a high rise, and not that difficult to do if you live in a walk up near a park. That is very difficult to do if you live in a single family dwelling on a large lot. Even if you are driving to the dog park, you likely aren’t seeing as many people as you would in an apartment building.
This past weekend I met a man who protested that he wouldn’t keep his son in a four foot box, so why would he keep a dog in an apartment? I think sometimes people have the wrong idea about what life is like for a dog in an apartment. I wondered what he thought a dog should do in a house that he could not do in an apartment. My dogs are not permitted to run around inside. They are not allowed to bark incessantly. They aren’t allowed to bolt out of the doorways, and they must walk sensibly on leash. My dogs in short are expected to behave in a way that allows them to pass from one venue to another fairly seamlessly, and when they visit people in apartments, my expectation is that they will mind their manners and behave as I expect them to behave at home.
In my experience as a behaviour consultant, the dogs who have behaviour problems don’t generally come from apartment buildings. They live in homes, with backyards. They often learn bad habits in their back yards, such as fence running, and barking at people. They learn that when they want things, they can be noisy and pushy because there is no real consequence for their family if they do that. Their leash manners are not equivalent to the leash manners of those who live in apartment buildings.
I have friends who live in the heart of New York City. In New York City there is no such thing as a back yard. Almost everyone lives in an apartment. Almost everyone works hard with their dogs to make sure that their dogs are well behaved and mind their manners. People with dogs in New York City are as common as their famous yellow cabs, and you will see every breed imaginable. For the most part in my experience, the dogs in New York City live highly enriched lives, in part because if they don’t, they get into trouble and there is nothing quite like losing your home to prompt you to keep on top of toilet training, nuisance barking, leash pulling, jumping up and all of the other behaviours that get many dogs into trouble on a day to day basis.
Sometimes I wonder if we would be better off if we required people to live in an apartment for at least a year with their dogs. People who live in apartments don’t stay there permanently and neither do their pets. An apartment is a place to store your stuff, to eat and to sleep. It is a place to entertain, and a place to relax, but it is not a closed box that you never leave. In fact, the very structure of the space may well make it a great place to raise a family dog, who does stuff, with family members. And if everyone lived with their dogs as though they lived in an apartment, it might make for better behaved dogs in general!