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How I'm Training My Dog in a Big, Crowded City

It takes a little creativity, but it can be done. This is how my Pit Bull and I cope in New York City.

 |  Jul 12th 2013  |   15 Contributions


Cities have different feels to them. In the U.S., many western cities tend to have a fairly open feel with plenty of large areas such as parks or parking lots where you can train your dog, which is especially helpful if you don’t have a backyard.

Eastern cities in the U.S. seem to feel tighter. There isn’t as much public space for you and your dog. If you live in downtown Manhattan in New York City, there’s almost no place to train your dog besides crowded sidewalks and occasionally empty streets. You and dog can go to certain “designated” areas in certain parks between about 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. and midnight, but these are rare. And no one has a backyard.

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When I adopted a two-year-old Pit Bull, who I named Bunch, I knew training her in this crowded city was going to be a challenge, made more so by her youthful and strong exuberance. So, after deflecting many evil stares as Bunch pulled me down the street, lunging at every smell (and, Lord, there are so many smells in New York City), I decided to get down to business with my training in the city.

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The tools you use may vary from this list, depending on the type of training you use, but here's a starting point of things you must have:

1. A stronger leash than you'd think

A very strong leash is uber-important when you’re training in a city. A leash that snaps because your dog just saw a rat dive in front of her means a dog who can then run into traffic or worse. The strongest type of leash I’ve found is made from bungee cords. Never use more than a six-foot lead; a four-foot lead is usually better.

2. A no-slip collar

This will definitely vary according to the type of training but the one common trait is that the collar you use should not be able to slip over your dog’s head. This most likely means a prong collar, chain collar, or a martingale collar that is “no slip,” preferably with a chain. Nylon training collar and head halter type collars are not usually recommended in the city.

3. Water and a collapsible bowl

Always, always bring water and a bowl (collapsible bowls are easier to carry) even if you think can you pop into a store at anytime for it. Often, dogs are not allowed in food stores, even convenience stores.

4. Don't forget the poop bags and treats

Your treats and poopie bags and anything else goes in this, which can be a svelte metrosex purse (very NYC) or a small backpack or fanny pack (surely there’s a better name for that now) if you have an attachment for the water bottle.

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The next step: finding the right time

In many cities, as in New York, you will find that early morning (very early, like 6 a.m.) is the quietest time to train. This is good for the beginning when you’re getting your dog to pay attention to you and learn the commands.

As you progress with the training, go to more and more crowded areas to create distractions for your dog and get your dog used to the flow of people and other dogs.

Finding the right space

Why the dog park doesn’t work: Although most cities now have dog parks, training your dog on-leash while all the other dogs around here are off-leash is asking for trouble. Your dog will feel trapped and at a disadvantage. And other dogs will feel they have an advantage. Bad chemistry. You’ll also constantly be bombarded by the other dogs.

Why designated areas in parks don’t work: Same as the dog park, because other dogs will likely be off-leash.

Spaces that work:

  • Sidewalks: In many of areas in NYC, Manhattan included, there are streets with sidewalks that are wider than others. These are usually in the neighborhoods rather than the business areas. In New York, downtown and uptown have wide sidewalks, but not midtown. Explore your city to find these more spacious training grounds.
  • Parking lots: If you live in, say, Boston, you have a better chance of finding a lot you and your dog can use. You must be able to keep aware of any moving cars, though, while training. Not the safest choice. This is true with empty streets as well.
  • Walking paths: Many cities have walking paths. Near me, there are boulevards created with walking paths and bike paths side by side. These are less crowded and wider but you have to watch out for cyclists, who either get confused or don’t care about which path they’re on.
  • Cordoned off areas: These areas are roped off so that cars can’t come through for events such as festivals and filming of movies and TV shows and neighborhood parties. They may be too crowded but, if you go at the beginning, they can be a great place to train.

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Obstacles (or assets) to training in the city

  • Crowds: While difficult to maneuver at the beginning of training, crowds offer a great opportunity to teach your dog how to stay close to you and avoid others.
  • Other dogs: In a crowded city, there are bound to be other dogs being walked by their owners. Likely too distracting at first, they provide excellent distractions for your dog. You can also teach your dog the correct way to approach another canine if his owner agrees.
  • Smells and snacks: The temptations abound in a city -- cigarette butts, gum, half-eaten food, chicken bones -- the list is eternal. You’ll likely encounter these obstacles from the start so it is very important to work on the command “Leave it!” or its equivalent from the get go.
  • Treacherous things: Glass, ice melters, antifreeze, oil, and industrial cleaners are all examples of these. “Leave it!” helps with this but it’s mostly dependent on you training yourself to see these obstacles ahead of time. And always wash your dog’s feet after a walk.

To live well in a city with a dog you have to be creative. You might come up with creative commands for your dog, such as the “Run Round” command I use with Bunch. When we have a bit of space but she needs to stay on-leash, I’ve trained her to run in a circle, sort of like you see with horses. A little extra exercise and it’s fun.

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You may encounter some people when you’re working with your dog who say it’s cruel to make a dog live in a city. I wonder if they think that applies to “city dogs” like Bunch, who has roamed the streets with at least some enjoyment for two years. My humble opinion is that, as long as a dog is well exercised, apartment life works very well for most breeds or mixes. And, since training a dog in the city is not an impossibility by any means, and since smells are really better there, your city dog can live a full, interesting, safe, and loved life, even in New York City.

Read more on life with dogs in the city:

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