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City Dogs: Living the Dream or Trapped in a Nightmare?

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

Huge numbers of dogs live in cities around the UK, and while many have no issues with living in a city environment, there are many who find it a daily struggle. There’s no question that the lifestyle of these dogs does differ from those who live in quieter towns, suburban or rural areas, and while every environment can come with challenges, city life throws more than most at the dogs who live there.

It can be easy to look around at the dogs on London streets or in city parks and think how happy they all look.

You can imagine owning a dog and doing all those things everyone else does … take them to cafes and pubs, into the busy parks, onto public transport, have a casual stroll down the street.

But often this dreamy life isn’t as good as it seems.

Many dogs DO cope just fine with city life, we’re not talking about all those dogs, we’re thinking more about those who find it challenging and, if you’re thinking of bringing a dog into a city life, how do you prepare for it.

At Adolescent Dogs, there’s no doubt we see the negative side of city life more than the positive side, we regularly help clients whose dogs face struggles caused by their city environment, and in some cases the best solution is to remove the dog from that environment.

Sometimes there are challenges which could have been avoided with more careful socialisation or more effective training, but perhaps more commonly, many of these dogs are just not able to cope with the intensity of the environment, and this comes down to their breeding or genetics, where no amount of training or socialisation could have fully prepared them.

Common Challenges

City life can be intense for dogs, it can be hard to escape from noise, busy situations and constant trigger stacking. Parks are often busy, there’s a limited choice of where you can exercise your dog so everyone ends up in the same places, making it busier and hard to avoid. Streets are busy with people and dogs, plus traffic and noise. Typically, life is just busy in a city, people are busy and they need their dogs to fit into their routines and cope with a fast pace.

A huge challenge for many dogs comes down to trigger stacking. Each time your dog experiences stress, whether that’s caused by excitement, fear or frustration, it will begin to build up, so with each event or stimuli, their stress levels increase. This can occur over several hours or days and without proper time to de-stress, it will just keep building! For dogs in cities, there is a higher chance of trigger stacking occurring because the environment is so intense and there’s less escape from constant triggers around them. On an average walk, your dog might be seeing countless people and dogs, and whether they find dogs and people exciting or scary, it will add to their stress levels.

Many dogs in cities also don’t have the luxury of a garden, which means even going out to the toilet can be a stressful experience. Rest days are so beneficial for dogs, but without having a garden or quiet walking locations, it can be impossible to give your dog a proper rest and a break from the stresses of city life.

Ultimately, there’s no escape from triggers and we expect a lot from our dogs in a city environment. It might seem really normal to expect to take your dog into a café or onto public transport, when for dogs outside the city, this is unlikely to be something we tend to expect our dogs to do on a daily basis, likewise we might only expect our dogs to meet a couple of dogs on their walk, not 10 or 20 every time they leave the house!

What Can We Do?

Appreciating how stressful it can be for a dog living in a city is the first step to understanding how to help your dog, but it’s also the first step when choosing the right dog for your life.

There are no guarantees when it comes to choosing a puppy, you could do everything right and still have a dog who struggles to adapt in a city, but being as careful as possible will go a long way to finding the best dog.

  • Discuss your environment with breeders, be honest about your lifestyle and your expectations from your dog. Listen to them if they say a puppy won’t fit in. Some breeders will be breeding lines of puppies who will naturally cope better with an intense environment. Some will be breeding more sensitive lines, so do your research

  • If breeders are reluctant to offer a puppy, take note and rethink whether your life is right for a dog

  • Don’t choose a breeder just because they’re willing to sell you a puppy without a care for your lifestyle and needs, they probably aren’t breeding great dogs and it will be a struggle later on when your dog can’t cope in your environment

Breed Matters

There is huge variation within breeds of dog and getting to know breeders and their individual dogs will give you the best idea of how a puppy may turn out, but also considering your breed choice can be important. Some breeds of dog are naturally more nervous or sensitive, make sure you take time to find out about different breeds and work out if they can truly fit into your life and environment. Equally, some breeds of dog will be naturally more sociable which can be great in a busy place but also make things more challenging at times.

Looking on a broad level, breeds bred for herding or guarding (think German Shepherds, Malinois, Collies, Dobermans), are historically bred to be sensitive to subtle changes, they are more likely to notice small things, and can be more protective or have tendencies to chase moving things.

These instincts can prove tricky in city environments where they may be more sensitive to noises or struggle with constantly unpredictable environments. That doesn’t mean some aren’t perfectly suited to city life, but you do need to research thoroughly to make sure the breeding line is suitable, and prioritise good socialisation and training from an early age!

If a breed description suggests the breed should be ‘aloof with strangers’, that may not be ideal for a city.

It doesn’t take much for a sensitive dog to start anticipating when people might come into their space or unexpectedly touch them, and this can quickly escalate to barking or lunging towards people, which in a busy environment is hard to manage.

In an ideal world, people would be more respectful of dogs’ space, but in reality this isn’t the case and our dogs are likely to be in situations where people touch them without asking or come into their space unexpectedly.

If your dog is bred from lines who are more wary of strangers or less sociable, this can quickly create problems. This isn’t exclusive to the guarding or herding breeds, many smaller dogs also struggle with this, and breeds like Dachshunds or Chihuahuas have become a popular city dog choice, yet they often find the social side very challenging.

On the other hand, some breeds are bred for their sociability, which can be perfect in a busy environment but creates problems of its own. Typically, the poodle crosses and retriever breeds are very social-focused dogs (though there are many exceptions so it’s not a guarantee!), but with these dogs, you will need to be extra prepared to put impulse control and good manners in place, otherwise you have a tricky time of trying to stop your dog wanting to say hello to everyone and everything!

A Rescue Choice?

Adopting a rescue dog can be a good alternative, and choosing a slightly more mature dog can give you an insight into their temperament and personality. However, remember you are potentially bringing a mature dog into a hugely different environment and not every dog will be capable of adapting to this. Ideally, look for a dog who has been living in a city environment, and coping with it, rather than a dog who has spent their life out in the country, rarely seeing traffic or other dogs!

UK rescues are typically quite strict and thorough (for good reason) about where they place their dogs, but this can lead to people looking abroad and finding rescues who are more relaxed about where they place their dogs.

There is sometimes a mentality that because it’s a puppy, it will learn to live in the environment it’s placed in. Or for adult dogs, going to live in a flat in London is surely better than the miserable life they’re living on the streets in Romania.

That is a questionable idea though. No doubt life as a street dog is far from pleasant, but taking a dog who has lived like this for years, or who’s ancestors have lived like this, and placing them into a home in London, is an unbelievably big change for them.

Some do adjust with no problem, some couldn’t be happier, but for others it becomes a living nightmare. Street dogs typically come from survival-based lifestyles, and even if you pick one up as a puppy, many of those survival traits will be genetically influenced.

These individuals may be more prone to guarding or scavenging behaviours since this would have been key to survival.

They may also be prone to fear-based tendencies, because their ancestors will have survived better if they kept a healthy level of fear and avoided potentially dangerous situations. For a street dog, these traits keep them alive, but it doesn’t always fit so well when you try to transfer these traits into a busy city.

Think about whether it’s really fair to put a dog into such a drastically different situation. It might save them from a life on the street, but is it really worth it if they live in constant stress?

Life Skills for the City Dog

Basic skills can go a long way in helping ensure you and your dog can enjoy city life together.

Start to apply some basic control as soon as you have your puppy, but if you already have a puppy or adult dog, you can still apply these concepts, it will just take a little more work and some serious consistency!

  • 1-in-3 rule – this is so essential for a city dog where they’re seeing countless dogs and people every day. Aim for your dog to only greet roughly one in every three dogs you meet, allow some brief sniff greetings, some controlled play, and ask your dog to ignore some other dogs too

  • Teach good social manners. Your dog will need to learn how to tolerate out of control dogs, as well as to not be that out-of-control dog! Use a longline, work on focus skills, aim for brief greetings rather than lots of exciting play

  • Beware of daycare – so many city dogs attend daycare or go to dog walkers, it’s sort of part of the city package for most people. It also leads to lots of dogs who lack social skills and assume every dog is there to play. If you use a daycare or dog walker, make sure they’re promoting good habits and good social skills

  • Socialisation is for life – just because your puppy isn’t 3 months old anymore, doesn’t mean you stop socialisation or confidence building. City dogs are more prone to confidence knocks as they experience so much all the time, keeping an eye out for any signs of fear or nervousness and then working through it is really important

  • Sound desensitisation – whether you have a puppy or adult, working through sounds regularly will help them for life. Fireworks is a key one, but also other common noises like building work, traffic, dogs barking, and people talking will all be really beneficial

Don’t wait for problems to become PROBLEMS, some things can be easy to miss or to ignore, until suddenly it explodes into a bigger issue.

If you see even a hint of behaviour change, perhaps your dog shying away from a person, barking at a dog or flinching at a sudden noise, then take note and make a plan to work through it.

Behaviours can escalate rapidly in a city environment simply because the dog is exposed to the trigger on such a frequent basis. A dog out in quiet countryside might only meet one dog every few days, so any issues towards other dogs might appear to take longer to develop, whereas in the city, a dog meeting 25 dogs every day, can appear to have a sudden and dramatic behaviour change within the space of a few days.

As with everything in cities, things move fast, so you need to be even more aware of your dog’s behaviour, any changes in his behaviour or any incidents which could lead to changes. Ignoring things or waiting to see if they resolve themselves is very rarely the best approach, most likely it will rapidly get worse, not better.

Compromise Compromise Compromise

Compromise is essential when you live with a dog in the city, especially if your dog is impacted by the environment…

  • Drive out of the city to find a quiet walk a few days a week

  • Adapt your schedule to take your dog for a walk at quieter times of day

  • Accept your dog can’t be part of everything you do … maybe cafes, pubs or public transport aren’t for him

  • Be more creative with what you do with your dog. Replace some stressful walks with at home enrichment and activities. Join a fun class with your dog or find other ways to give him exercise away from the stress of city parks

  • Move out of the city!! For some dogs and their owners, it solves everything …

You may need to adjust your daily routine and accept your dog isn’t suited to the dream picture you had in mind, but you can also help your dog to enjoy city life more easily.

Appreciating how stressful the city environment can be for your dog will go a long way towards helping you understand their behaviour and how to support them.

At Adolescent Dogs, we routinely work with city-based dogs and we’ve helped to build unique training plans for their owners to help overcome daily struggles.

There are several ways we can help support your training journey

Residential Training: through intensive training, we can overcome training struggles in as little as 4 weeks, and then pass the training over to you at an easy to manage level, so that you can maintain the training yourself

One to one: come work with us privately to work through specific struggles

Online Academy: train your dog with us from your home by accessing over 350 video tutorials, webinars, Live training demos, Live Q&A and our personal support and coaching

Written by Naomi White

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