A recent article in the Chicago Tribune discussed a new trend for high-rise apartment and condo buildings: attracting residents through their pets. Urban property managers are adding amenities for dogs, to attract potential buyers to their buildings. These amenities include dog runs, dog spas, dog concierges, and even doggie daycares in buildings.
It sounds amazing—an urban dog owner’s dream! We think of all the great opportunities the building is giving us and our dogs. We are so excited by the possibilities, we might forget to explore the bigger picture: what does it really mean to have a dog in a high-rise?
Most of my clients are urban dog owners living in high-rise apartment or condo buildings. These buildings have 20+ floors and hundreds of units. For a couple of years, I lived in such a building for about half of each week, and let me tell you this: living in a high-rise is tough on a dog. If you are thinking living in a high-rise building with your dog, please consider the following points before committing to your move:
*Is your dog comfortable with strangers and dogs? Is your dog comfortable in tight spaces and crowded situations? Does your dog need space? Can all of these needs be met living in a high-rise?
*How many options do you and your dog have for entering and exiting the building? If your only option is an elevator, how many elevators are designated for dogs? Are all dog owners sharing one dog-friendly elevator? An elevator is a small enclosed space and sharing it with many people requires lots of self-control and confidence. If you have a dog who needs space, consider living on a floor where stairs are an option, or in a building where multiple elevators are available. If you are considering adopting a dog, speak to the adoption counselor about the dog’s behavior towards other dogs and unfamiliar people in close proximity.
*High-rises mean tight spaces for your dogs. While dogs have a great peripheral vision, their near-distance vision is not the greatest; this causes many dogs to spook when something suddenly appears in front of them. In high-rise living, this means your dog might startle many times on every trip into or out of the building—releasing an internal bath of stress hormones with each startling event. Ask whether the building allows dogs to enter and exit through the lobby (preferable), or if all dog owners enter and exit through a shared (and often narrow) hallway. Do doors have a small window so you can see whether someone is approaching on the other side?
*High-rise life means sharing a floor with other dogs. You are not just sharing sidewalk space with dogs outside; you are also sharing interior hallway space with other dogs. This means your dog might need to pass your neighbors’ door as their dogs are barking up a storm because they heard or smelled your dog approaching. While many dogs don’t care about this, others become stressed and react aggressively, or become afraid to leave their home. Can your dog handle this?
*Now consider the other side of the hallway situation we just described. High-rises offer more stimulation and fewer opportunities to “reset.” Your own dog, relaxing at home, can hear and smell everything in the hallway long before you will be aware that anything’s going on out there. Noise-sensitive or excitable dogs can feel the need to be on alert and guard their home by barking at anything that happens in the hallway. While a home is supposed to be a place to reset and find peace, some dogs find themselves constantly “working,” keeping a nose and two ears attuned to the hallway. These dogs never have a chance to reset, eventually become chronically stressed. Is there a place in your condor for your dog to get away from the situation? Can you safely block the dog’s access to the front door?
*Not everyone wants to interact with dogs, no matter how friendly and polite your dog is. These neighbors (and their guests) have every right to expect to come and go unmolested by your dog. What you see as friendly, excited, happy behavior might be construed as threatening, scary, or obnoxious behavior by someone else in a shared space. And consider this: You and your dog might be perfectly well-behaved, law-abiding citizens, but your neighbor constantly lets her dog off-leash—to charge up to your dog in a rude or aggressive manner. Can your dog deal with this for however long it takes to remedy the situation?
*Dogs living in high-rises are constantly being watched by staff, management, other residents, and often security cameras. Rightly or wrongly, dogs in these buildings are often held to a (much) higher standard of behavior than other dogs.
Which brings me to the most important point, and my motivation for writing this post: When you live in a high-rise condo or apartment building, your dog’s future is no longer in your hands alone; when you moved in, you surrendered a large portion of your decision-making power.
How so? Consider the story of my client, Luisa, and her dogs, Rex and Max. (Identifying details have been changed throughout.)
A couple of years ago, I found myself in the middle of a battle between Luisa and her a condo board. The conflict started when Luisa’s neighbor started complaining about Rex and Max barking. Luisa told me this neighbor is not a “dog person” and is very sensitive to barking. Rex and Max were both off-site at daycare most of the day, so Luisa could not understand why a complaint had been filed. She tried to explain to the board that the dogs only barked a couple of times each day, when they were excited to eat or go for a walk. I witnessed the dogs’—and the neighbor’s—behavior myself during an in-home training session. Rex barked twice (a quick “woof! woof!”), which made Luisa nervous. I reassured her it was OK, but I soon learned it was not at all OK. Within minutes, there was a knock at the door; it was a staff member responding to a noise complaint. Two barks! That was all it took for the neighbor to call and complain.
Unfortunately for Luisa, Rex, and Max, things only got worse.
At the time, Max was going through a reactive adolescent phase—this was one of the reasons Luisa contacted me for training help. He was improving steadily, but his behavior in the hallway (while on leash, of course) wasn’t yet good enough for some of the residents. According to Luisa and her daughter, one resident even staged a “shocked” response by waiting under a security camera for Max to head out on his walk, jumping away in (fake) alarm when he approached, then stepping into the camera’s blind spot to flip Luisa off. As a result, Luisa soon received a letter from the board. The letter required the dog to leave the premises within a week if Luisa did not agree to the following terms:
*An electric shock collar?! I was outraged! Luisa’s dogs had never bitten anyone, and their barking at home was no more than two or three barks at a time, two or three times a day. Luckily for her dogs, Luisa was a fighter. She hired a lawyer and fought the board. No way she was going to shock or muzzle Max when neither of her dogs posed any danger whatsoever. During the ensuing legal process and condo board hearing, I learned the following useful bits of information. (Naturally, this is not intended as legal advice, as I am not a lawyer. If you need legal advice, please seek it from a qualified attorney sooner rather than later.)
*Some condominium by-laws are very general, which leaves them open to interpretation. What constitutes a “nuisance,” and who decides? Is it three barks, thirty barks, or three hundred?
*Some by-laws are very clear about what happens when a resident breaks the rules (first a written warning, then a fine, then a larger fine, then a hearing, etc.). Others leave this up to the board, and some board members feel pressured by the complaining party or parties to make the problem go away ASAP by making the dog go away ASAP.
*Luisa’s board was not breaking any laws. It had the power to request that Max be put on a shock collar. It even had control of which “board-approved” dog trainer my client could hire! Since they knew I was against the shock collar, I had to send a resume and biography to convince them to approve me. A couple of my trainer friends wrote respectful, informed letters to the board explaining why punishment and fear-based training is problematic, and the board backed off its shock-collar requirement. I also submitted to the board scientific papers supporting positive training. It was not easy, but the board, Luisa, and I eventually came up with a training plan for Rex and Max.
*When pleading your case to your condo board, a hearing seems fair. However, at another client’s hearing, alcohol was served and the agreements made in the meeting did not match the terms detailed in the letter my client received a few weeks later. Be forewarned! Take your own detailed minutes and send them to the board president within 24 hours of the meeting, so he or she knows you know exactly what was discussed and agreed to!
I understand it is difficult to make everyone reasonably happy with so many people and their dogs living in close proximity to each other. My intention is not to paint too grim a picture of condo board members and management companies, but to bring awareness to what can go wrong when we choose to live in a “pet-friendly” high-rise building. Too many people make these discoveries too late, only to be confronted with an urgent, lose-lose choice: either your dog moves, or you both move.
The good (great!) news is that many of the behaviors dogs need in order to be good high-rise neighbors can be trained, and many of the undesirable behaviors can be prevented. I’ll leave you with a few considerations—and a reminder that many of my colleagues and I are available to help you and your dog live happily ever after… even in a high-rise!
Research dog breeds (before falling in love with a dog), keeping in mind where you live. I have assisted many clients in their search for a dog that suits them. Some breeds need more space than others; some are more sociable, aloof, or “guard-y;” some need more exercise; and so on.
If you are moving with a dog, ask every building you consider about their dog-related by-laws, rules, and regulations. What is their structure? What are the (often escalating) consequences for violating any by-law? Ask to see a copy of these, if you can.
Get involved in your condo board’s elections. What dog education do candidates have, if any? Do they live with dogs? Do they like them? If you find your association’s by-laws are too general, raise your concerns in the next condo board meeting. Which leads me to my next point…
Education! I’ve created a 90-minute, in-person presentation all about living with dogs in pet-friendly high-rises. These presentations are open to all residents and board members of mid- and high-rise buildings. They are educational and help everyone understand dogs a bit better—which tends to make everyone happier about sharing their space with well-behaved dogs.
Train your dog! And (as we joke about voting in Chicago) do it early and often. Do not wait for your neighbor to complain. Behavior modification takes time, and it is easier to avoid a problem than fix one. Be proactive rather than reactive—you don’t want to train your dog in a big hurry with a hostile neighbor waiting to turn you in to the condo board. Act now, so you can find a positive trainer to help you and your dog build strong, polite habits that last a lifetime. Imagine how good it will feel to come and go as you please, your well-behaved pup trotting along at your side, happy and calm for all your neighbors to admire!