What to know before bringing a dog home to an apartment

A dog can be perfectly happy in a small space as long as you’re prepared. Here’s advice from veterinarians, trainers and other doggy experts.

Umi, a 13-month-old rescue, relaxes in her crate at home in a Brooklyn apartment. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)
Umi, a 13-month-old rescue, relaxes in her crate at home in a Brooklyn apartment. (Calla Kessler for The Washington Post)

There are plenty of reasons not to become a dog owner — for instance, if you’re not prepared to budget for vet bills, or if skipping happy hour to take your best friend for a walk sounds like a sacrifice. But living in an apartment is not among them. (Trust me, I’m writing this from my own 300-square-foot Brooklyn apartment, with an 85-pound Catahoula Leopard Dog laying on my left foot.)

Still, there are certain considerations that we apartment-dwellers should make before welcoming a furry family member into our modestly sized abodes. The lack of a yard, the abundance of very close neighbors and the inconvenience of elevators all tend to complicate things. Here’s what veterinarians, trainers and other doggy experts recommend.

Choosing a dog for apartment life

When deciding what type of dog to get, the experts agree: Size and breed are not determining factors. This is why Amanda Gagnon, an anthrozoologist and dog behavior consultant in New York City, recommends mixed breeds. With a shelter dog, she explains, you won’t assume you’re getting the goofy disposition of a Golden Retriever or the aloofness of a Husky. Instead, you’ll have to pay attention to the unique personality and needs of the individual animal. “We should look at a new dog as a blank slate, the same way we would look at a new human friend as a blank slate,” she says.

Walking your dog

Before becoming a dog owner in an apartment building, remember that every walk will require leashing your pup, then probably schlepping down several flights, rain or shine.

Walks help you bond with your pup and keep her healthy. “Regular exercise along with a balanced diet can prevent obesity, which can predispose pets to many of the same diseases we are susceptible to,” says Gabrielle Fadl, director of primary care at Bond Veterinary (in Boston, New York, and D.C.). Among them: diabetes, osteoarthritis and high cholesterol.

Like many humans, dogs benefit from a schedule. Gagnon recommends a walk routine that provides structure but isn’t so rigid that it causes your pet anxiety if it’s broken. A typical schedule might consist of a walk before work, during lunch, later in the afternoon, and in the evening. If you know you’ll have to regularly leave your dog for hours at a time, be sure to line up a reliable walker as soon as possible — even better if you can hire one before your dog’s homecoming.

Potty training – with an elevator

You know what else requires a routine? Potty training. If you’re contemplating getting a puppy, think seriously about what it’ll be like to handle a 2 a.m. pee-pee break when you’re on the 28th floor with a slow elevator.

Gagnon suggests feeding your puppy and taking her out at the same intervals each day: “Input is related to output, so if our food and water routine is all over the place, our peeing and pooping timing will be all over the place.”

Indoor pee pads can be a useful tool in some cases, she says, but they’ll complicate the training process. “We will need to untrain them from going on [pee pads] and retrain them to go on grass or concrete. It’s much more effective and efficient to take the puppy directly [outside] and reward them for going there from the start.”

Two tips every apartment-dweller should heed: Bring paper towels in the elevator just in case, and stay positive. “Punishing a dog that’s just had an accident … is a surefire way to create fear in your relationship,” says Jerri Scherff, dog trainer and owner of Tulsa Pack Athletics.

Creating a calm space for your dog

Even in a cramped apartment, your dog will need a spot where she can spend time on her own and learn to “self-soothe.” To understand why, says Scherff, “Imagine never being able to go into your bedroom and close the door.”

She suggests creating a “Zen zone” with a crate that’s large enough for your dog to comfortably stand, turn around, and lay down in. To help your dog associate it with safety and comfort, leave the door open for the first several days, put her favorite treats inside, and heap on lots of praise while she explores.

If you don’t have space for a kennel — or if you can’t bear the thought of confining your pup, no matter what the experts say — a cozy dog bed can work fine. Scherff suggests putting it in an open closet to create a makeshift den.

Navigating neighbor dogs

Sharing communal spaces with other dogs can be another challenge of apartment life. If you find that running into the dachshund from 12B tends to escalate into World War III, remember that you are first and foremost responsible for your dog’s well-being.

Scherff and Gagnon recommend talking to the other dog’s owner. Be understanding and empathetic, but ask if you can work out a schedule or system that will allow the dogs to avoid one another. If your neighbor is open to it, you might consider finding time to speak to a qualified trainer together, suggests Scherff.

Dealing with separation anxiety

Common symptoms of separation anxiety — constant barking, destructive acts like chewing, or accidents when your dog is potty trained — can be especially excruciating in an apartment. Your neighbor on a work Zoom probably won’t have much patience for your howling dog; that gnawed-on door frame could cost you a security deposit.

The best way to battle separation anxiety is to prevent it from ever developing. If you’re getting a puppy, let her practice being by herself for a few minutes each day. “Start with a quick trip to the store and gradually build to longer periods of time,” says Fadl. Tire her out with a walk before you go and leave her with a Kong full of peanut butter to keep her occupied.

If you adopt a dog that already suffers from separation anxiety, all hope is not lost. “Separation anxiety cases have a very high rate of resolution,” says Gagnon, but you’ll probably need to enlist the help of a trainer or behaviorist as soon as possible.

Dealing with barking

Barking is natural, and some dogs just do it more than others. But if your new pup sounds the alarm every time she hears someone in the hallway, try redirecting her attention by asking her to sit for a treat, or give her something fun to work on, such as a puzzle feeder.

Another strategy: mask outside noises by turning the TV on at low volume or playing white noise. And don’t skip those walks. Says Fadl: “Dogs who are bored or full of pent-up energy are more likely to bark.”

Navigating the dog park

When you don’t have a yard, the dog park can be a great alternative — with some caveats. First, make sure your dog is up-to-date on vaccinations and parasite prevention before you go. This is especially important for puppies, whose immune systems are still developing. And, says Gagnon, “work with your dog routinely on recall cues before heading into any off-leash situation, even if it is fully enclosed.”

The dog park is also not the place to catch up on email. For your dog’s safety, it’s crucial that you pay attention to how she’s interacting with the other animals. It’s time to leave, says Gagnon, if the park is overly crowded or chaotic, if another dog is harassing yours, or if your dog appears scared (like if she’s shaking or hiding). “Listen to what your dog is trying to tell you,” she says. “Trust them, and they’ll learn to trust you in return.”

Hannah Holland is a news producer and freelance writer based in Brooklyn.

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