It’s a common school of thought that when a city dweller wants to get a dog, it’s simply not practical to choose a large canine as their new best friend. But the reality is far different. People who prefer bigger breeds (or want to rescue a pet and happen to end up with a larger dog) can absolutely give their furry friends a happy, healthy life in an urban environment.

Of course, it’s true that pet owners in cities encounter obstacles that folks with large yards and cars don’t. The good news is, there are ways to help a big dog adapt to the trickier aspects of urban life. Using these expert tips and tricks will set both a big dog and its owner up for success.

How to manage public spaces like lobbies and elevators

Christi Waters, a canine behavioral specialist at Emerald City Pet Rescue, says public spaces can be very difficult for large dogs in particular. “Dogs negotiate in terms of space,” she explains, “so that’s when you’ll see them playing and when dogs move toward another and the other will move away, tight spaces make it harder for them to do that.”

Waters says teaching dogs calm behavior is extremely beneficial for when they’re in small spaces. If a dog and its owner are in a lobby for an extended period of time, she recommends putting the dog in a “down” and tossing treats every few seconds to reinforce the behavior. “If they get up, put them back into the ‘down’ and keep working on that,” she advises.

To establish a foundation for this calm behavior, Waters recommends starting at home where it’s easier to focus. “Dogs learn better when there aren’t as many distractions,” she says. “Once they have the foundation, it’ll go better in public spaces.”

Elevators are especially tight spaces, so Waters suggests not entering an elevator with other dogs because it could cause stress — and avoiding elevators entirely if possible. She recommends taking the stairs as it’s great exercise for both the dog and its owner. However, if it’s necessary to take the elevator, Waters says “teaching the position ‘middle’ can be very helpful. In this position the dog sits in between your legs and stays.”

Ultimately, each dog will have its own challenges based on breed, personality, and background. Madisyn Stoces, a veterinary assistant at Emerald City Pet Rescue who rescued her 65-pound husky-malamute mix, Bucky, a year ago, explains that Bucky was injured in a car accident before she got him. The accident caused a permanent injury to one of Bucky’s back legs, leaving it weaker than the others. As a result, lobbies can be a challenge because slippery floors make him nervous.

“He’ll put on the brakes because he knows that he doesn’t have the best traction there,” says Stoces. “We’re working on it. Usually I just pick him up and carry him a little ways into the store. It might not be the first option a lot of people would go for, but it works for us. He trusts once I carry him across the floor a little bit, ‘OK, Mom didn’t fall, so I’m not going to fall,’ ” and then he’s able to walk on his own. 

Navigating public transit

Waters says bus rides are one of the trickiest areas to navigate with a large dog due to the extremely limited space. “Again, teaching that calm behavior and reinforcing it is crucial,” she says. “Knowing your dog’s personality is going to be really important and key as to whether they can handle that or not.”

Before an owner boards a bus with a dog, it’s important to research the city’s rules for buses and non-service animals — but that doesn’t mean it’ll always go smoothly. For example, if there’s already a dog on the bus, the driver may refuse to let another dog board. And, of course, if a dog creates a disturbance or presents a hazard, the driver will likely demand an exit. In that situation, Waters recommends leaving the bus and waiting for another that has fewer passengers.

Although owners should be willing to advocate for their dogs, it’s important to be aware of how their own emotions may impact the dog. “You wouldn’t want them to have a negative experience that may become a permanent association with riding a bus,” Waters says. “If your dog has an extremely negative experience on a bus, it could make future riding more difficult or even impossible.”

This is another situation where it’s best for the owner to start small and work their way up. For example, if a person will frequently need to ride the bus with their dog, start with short trips so the dog gets accustomed to riding the bus before a longer ride is necessary. Waters also suggests avoiding bus rides during rush hour as another way to set the dog up for success.


Safely navigating sidewalks

The first step to navigating sidewalks safely is to ensure a dog is properly leash trained. Waters recommends starting by using a longer leash and practicing in a public park where there’s more space and fewer distractions. “Rehearse them there and then take them into the city,” she advises.

Sidewalks are another area where it’s best to choose a time of day that’s not busy, such as early in the morning or in the evening. Some dogs have issues passing another dog, so Waters recommends crossing the street if possible to avoid a negative encounter.

Ultimately, sidewalk behavior and safety come down to great leash training. “It’s difficult because dogs aren’t naturally inclined to be on leash, so that’s one of the toughest behaviors to try to teach them,” says Waters. “But the more you work on it, it’ll really help.” Rewarding a dog with treats for walking very close to its owner on a crowded sidewalk will also be extremely helpful, especially if it’s necessary to navigate the sidewalk during a busy time of day.

Managing contact with other dogs

Ensuring safe contact with other dogs is also crucial. This is another area where Waters recommends starting out in a smaller, quieter environment — ideally with the dog of a friend, for example. She notes that most trainers advise staying away from dog parks because it’s impossible to know not only the behavioral mindsets of the other dogs, but basic health issues such as vaccination status. “Finding the right dog for your dog to have a great play session” is the best option, Waters advises.

Once a dog is prepared to encounter other dogs, it’s important to be aware of the problems leashes can cause. “Leashes restrict [the dog’s] natural ability to run away if they want to, so they’re left with a fight or freeze response, and lots of times dogs will pick that fight response,” Waters explains. It’s also risky to let dogs sniff each other out while on leashes because they typically want to get in each other’s faces, which can escalate and cause the leashes to become tangled. She recommends allowing the dogs to sniff for a few seconds, then either calling the dog back or cuing them to continue walking.

How to keep dogs physically and mentally engaged

It’s important to keep any dog both physically and mentally engaged, and this can be a little more difficult in a city setting. Fortunately, there are plenty of toys and games that do the trick. Waters recommends chew items, treat-dispensing balls, regular Kongs, and “Dog TV” — YouTube is full of videos designed to entertain dogs. Spotify also has a free playlist titled “Through a Dog’s Ear” that’s full of music scientifically proven to be calming for dogs.

Stoces lives in a one-bedroom apartment with Bucky, so she’s come up with ways to keep him active and engaged — especially when it’s raining and they can’t go on the long walks he enjoys. For Bucky, lick mats and snuffle mats have worked extremely well. “I have a bag of freeze-dried chicken and I’ll just crumble it up in the snuffle mat and that keeps him busy for 15 to 20 minutes,” she says.

A game called “Pick It” is one of their favorites. Stoces crumbles a treat, puts it in one hand, then offers her hands so Bucky has to do “paw” for whichever hand he thinks the treat is in. “We’ll do that for the whole pile of treats and that actually tires him out pretty well,” she says.

Emerald City Pet Rescue has been established since 2013. We provide the best support and medical care to rehabilitate our rescue pets until we place them into their forever homes. Visit for more information on how to get involved.