Carly Jane Casper, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Decoding Your City Dog’s Behavior

Chicago is well-suited for dog lovers, with dog-friendly beaches, plenty of walkable green space and strong anti-cruelty organizations. But apartment and condo living can make for tight quarters for our pooches.

We spoke to the experts at PAWS Chicago—the Midwest’s largest no kill humane organization—to sort out the best approaches to understanding and preventing any problems that may crop up.


Hairy situation: Lunging, barking or pulling on their leash when they see another dog approaching.

Decoding your dog: PAWS Chicago Dog Trainer Joan Harris says most dogs lunge and bark at other dogs for one of two reasons: “Sometimes they are frustrated at being restrained from meeting other dogs, and the leash makes the problem worse. It becomes a conditioned response at the sight of any dog. Socialization (good experiences) and training proper leash etiquette can help.”

The other reason dogs lunge while on a leash is in an attempt to create distance between themselves and another dog, Harris says. “These dogs are reacting out of fear and have also been under-socialized or had a bad experience with an encounter in the past,” she explains. “If this big display worked for them in the past, it becomes their ‘go to’ behavior when they see another dog and want to create this distance.”

Finally, Harris says in some rare cases, dogs lunge, bark or pull on the leash to protect their owner. “Sometimes they could be territorial (don’t enter my space),” she says.

Expert advice: “This problem is more difficult to fix,” Harris says. She recommends private sessions with a qualified trainer to counter-condition lunging and pulling on the leash.


Hairy situation: A chase at a dog park.

Decoding your dog: “You don’t know the other dogs in the park, and sometimes … the bigger dogs may see smaller ones and react as if your dog was a rabbit or a squirrel,” says Paula Fasseas, Founder of PAWS Chicago.

Expert advice: “Dog parks can be a great experience for both human and dog,” Fasseas says, but owners should “pay attention to your dog at all times and be aware of the behavior of the surrounding dogs.”

People with small dogs need to be particularly vigilant. “Small dogs need special considerations when it comes to dog parks, especially if they are around bigger dogs … Small dogs should be more supervised or not brought to the dog park when there are larger dogs present.”

Certain dog parks have designated areas for smaller dogs, such as Pooch Park in Skokie and Portage Dog Park (4100 N. Long Avenue) in Chicago.


Hairy situation: Lunging at runners, cars and skateboarders.

Decoding your dog: In most cases, this behavior happens “when a dog sees movement and is triggered to chase,” Harris says.  “In others, it’s a fear reaction. Some dogs may lunge at runners, cars and skateboarders because they haven’t been socialized to city traffic. These are training problems that can be solved by conditioning their responses.”

Expert advice: “As a trainer, I start by teaching proper leash skills and then introducing the triggers from a distance first,” Harris says.  “If the owner is willing, we continue to train until we get reliable responses.  In the meantime, equipment (head collar or no-pull style harnesses) can be helpful to manage the dog.”


Hairy situation: Barking in the house and annoying neighbors.

Decoding your dog: “Dogs bark because they are bored,” Fasseas says. “And if you have a dog that is bored, or a barker, with access to a window they will additionally bark at anything and everything that walks by.”

Expert advice: Give your dog an activity; provide them with a toy that they can interact with. “Kong toys are treat-dispensing dog toys with a hollow center that allows you to stuff the Kong toy with food (peanut butter is great!) and treats, which provides mental stimulation while you’re away,” Fasseas says. “You can also enroll your dog into a play group/doggie daycare two to three times a week to keep him/her stimulated and happy. Dogs are social beings that enjoy interaction and this is a great way to combat boredom. Another solution is to get another dog. They will play together, alleviating that boredom that triggers barking.”


Hairy situation: A city dog that is packing on pounds.

Decoding your dog: “I think obesity is an issue for any dog, whether they live in the city, suburbs or a rural environment,” says Dr. Sara Bennett, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist at VCA Berwyn Animal Hospital, a PAWS Chicago consultant. “Exercise and portion control are key.”

Expert advice: “I recommend getting them on a high-quality, grain-free diet recommended by your veterinarian,” Bennett says. Additionally, consistent exercise provides physical and mental stimulation. “The average dog should go for a 20-minute walk twice a day,” she says. “You can increase or decrease that amount depending on the athletic ability of the dog and their needs.”


Hairy situation: Dogs overreacting when you leave or come home.

Decoding your dog: A common behavior issue with city dogs is separation anxiety, so it’s important to downplay departures and arrivals, Dr. Bennett says. “If the dog’s family makes a big deal out of coming and going, it motivates the dog to interact, and then the dog is let down.”

Expert advice: Bennett recommends ignoring your dog for 20-30 minutes before leaving the house. She also says not to make a big deal out of your departure.  “Give him/her a toy or treat to play with,” Dr. Bennett says.  “When you come home, walk in and ignore the dog until the dog is calm so it’s not like a big reunion.  Get your dog accustomed to a consistent routine.”


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