Reactive Dogs in Multi-Unit Buildings

If you have a reactive dog in an apartment building or condo, you are probably anxious every time you take your dog out.  You never know what will be around the corner or down the hall, and there’s usually no means of escape. This handout will provide some tips for living in such close quarters with other dogs.  Consistent practice will help make these strategies habits, instead of hassles.  A few safety measures will also help you feel more confident and less stressed when you are with your dog in public areas of dog-friendly buildings.

Picture how your dog looks when he is relaxed on a walk. This image is a baseline visual of your dog in his comfort zone.  Your dog is out of his comfort zone whenever he loses control, barks, or lunges. Your objective will be to keep your dog in his comfort zone at all times.

Here are suggestions that may help your reactive dog:

  • Pay attention to your neighbors’ dog walking routines. Most people have a regular schedule. Try to time your walks to avoid other dogs. Even missing another dog by a minute or two may be sufficient to keep your dog comfortable, so drastic changes to your schedule may not be needed.
  • Avoid areas in or outside the building that have a lot of canine traffic at certain times of the day and/or week.  For example, if you know that people are just getting home from work and that a parade of dogs will be going out the front building entrance between 5:00pm and 6:30pm, use the back door and go in a different direction at that time on weekdays.
  • Talk to your neighbors with dogs, but pick a time when you both have an opportunity to stop and chat.  If you see a dog parent in the laundry room—or anytime without her dog–let that person know why you are standoffish when your dog is with you. If the neighbor is right next door or one that you encounter no matter how hard you try not to, maybe you can come to some agreement about when you will walk your dogs to avoid run-ins.
  • Using that baseline visual of your dog in her comfort zone, learn to identify any changes in your dog’s body that indicate barking and lunging are only seconds away. You may not smell, hear or see the other dog as soon as your dog does, but you can stay alert to your dog’s signals.  As soon as you notice any of the tell-tale signs, immediately take steps to help your dog stay in control.  For example, turn and move quickly in another direction to put distance between your dog and whatever sight, sound or smell is stimulating the reaction.  To learn more about your dog’s signals and to build a solid toolbox of techniques, consider taking our Reactive Dog or Helping Your Distracted Dog class.
  • If practical, have some kind of in-door potty area to reduce the number of dog walks you need to take. A variety of products are on the market.  You can use wee-wee pads or go more high tech.  For example, the Rascal “Big Squirt” (dogs 9 to 35 pounds) and “Little Squirt” Dog Litter Boxes have sides and pre-scented “canine grass” to facilitate training. Another popular product, the Porch Potty, actually has an optional self-cleaning sprinkler system and can be used with training sod or artificial grass.  Do-it-yourselfers might want to make their own indoor potty.  See on You Tube.  Once a potty system is working well for your dog, you may want to limit walks through public areas of your building to training-only sessions for a while.
  • Using “behind me” and “wait” cues can be very useful for safely navigating inside a building. You should ask your dog to wait behind you several times—at the elevator, in the stairwells, going through any door— and every time you and your dog leave and return to your unit.


You and your dog may feel particularly anxious in elevators.  You’re trapped and can’t get away. Here are some ideas to help your dog, even if another dog ends up in the elevator with you.

  • When you are waiting for an elevator, make sure you stand at least 3 feet back from the doors, and ask your dog to wait behind you. If you remember to stand back, you and your dog will not find yourselves within inches of another dog charging out when the elevator door opens.  As soon as the elevator empties, give your dog permission to enter with you.
  • When you and your dog are in the elevator, stand back from the doors as much as possible and ask your dog to wait behind you.  If the elevator door opens and a dog is right there trying to get in, you will already be blocking your dog.  It’s okay to ask the other owner if she could also stand between her dog and you.
  • When you’re ready to get off the elevator, ask the other owner to please move back about 3 to 4 feet so that you can exit.  Make sure you request a specific distance or the person may assume that 6 inches to the side is sufficient for you to exit with your dog.  Put your dog on whichever side is farthest from the other dog and owner. If it’s okay with your fellow rider, toss a treat for the other dog away from the elevator door while you and your dog exit.
  • Use treats also to help your dog learn to like riding in elevators. Feed her a constant stream of treats during the ride.  Or put treats on the floor in the rear of the elevator.  Finding and eating a big crunchy treat or two will help keep your dog distracted and relaxed.  And if your dog is still busy with the treats during an elevator “close call,” you might have an extra few seconds to manage the situation.  Make sure that these treats are between you and the back wall, though. You don’t want to start a fight between two dogs in an elevator.
  • If your dog is small enough, pick him up while waiting and hold him, facing the wall, in the elevator.  Be sure to pick your dog up for no reason at other times and other locations. Otherwise, picking him up could be a signal to him that “danger” is near, and it could inadvertently trigger anxious behavior.
  • A calming cap may be another good option when riding in the elevator. Calming caps are made from sheer fabric that filters vision and creates a low-light condition, but still allows the dog to see.  Most dogs accept it readily, and, for some, a calming cap can take the edge off when other dogs are nearby.
  • If you are concerned that another dog will join you at every floor, taking the stairs may be a better option, at least during the busy before- and after-work hours.

Doorways and Stairwells

Try your best not to expose your dog to another canine in the close confines of a stairwell.  Here are some tips:

  • With your dog waiting behind you, open the door and check to see if another dog and owner are on the other side. If any part of a door or stairwell has a window, use it to check on anyone standing in your way.
  • If the coast is clear, cross the threshold and give your dog permission to do the same.  If the coast is not clear, just close the door and try again in a minute or two.
  • In stairwells with blind turns— If your dog has a solid wait cue and you are 99.9% sure no one else is in the stairwell or about to enter, ask your dog to wait behind while you go ahead just a few steps to check for other people with dogs.  If the stairwell is clear, call your dog to join you and proceed. Repeat as necessary.
  • Anytime you become aware that a dog or another person is moving toward you or behind you, take evasive action.  Speed up to the closest door and duck out of the stairwell until the other person and dog are on their way.


Don’t linger with your dog in the hallways or any public areas where dog traffic might occur.

  • In hallways, pass quickly by every door just in case another person and dog may be about to step out of a unit, stairwell, or elevator. Remember to check on what is happening behind you as well, so you aren’t surprised by a dog from a door you already passed.
  • Try to be quiet, so your dog doesn’t trigger barking from dogs inside units. For example, avoid jingling tags on your dog by wrapping the tags together with a rubber band or using tag silencers (plastic rims that keep the tags from hitting each other).
  • If you need to suddenly create space between your dog and another one in the hall, say your dog’s name or make a sudden noise, so that he turns toward you, and move your feet back quickly, while facing your dog. Once there’s distance between you and the other dog, distract your dog with a game or treats until the hallway is clear. Do this at random times as well, so that it doesn’t signal that another dog is nearby.
  • Teach your dog to walk close to you on both your right and left side.  If your dog will “heel” on either side, you can make sure you are always between him and, for example, a door that might open unexpectedly. Adaptable heeling will give you more control as you walk through the common areas of a building, especially in locations where your visibility is limited and unfortunate surprises are all too possible.

Key Points to Remember

  • In places like apartment buildings, where dogs are crowded together, it’s important for you to keep your dog in his comfort zone. Exposing your dog to others in order to “socialize” him will only exacerbate the problem.
  • Be aware of your neighbors’ dog walking routines, so you know when to avoid taking your own dog out.
  • “Behind Me” and “Wait” are useful cues to teach your dog.
  • Be alert! Watch out for dogs entering or exiting elevators, stairwells, and doors.
  • Think ahead. In elevators, block your dog in a corner, in case a dog comes in. In stairwells, look to see if a dog is coming your way. If so, duck into a hallway.
  • It’s okay to tell neighbors with dogs what you need them to do – for example, moving four feet outside the elevator door while you bring your dog out.
  • If you need to create space in a hallway, lobby, or outside, don’t yank back on your dog.  Instead, say your dog’s name or make a sudden noise and move backwards quickly.  Turn it into a game.
  • Avoid areas where your neighbors’ dogs tend to congregate.
  • Teach your dog to “heel” on both sides, so you can get out of tight situations.

*We have advice on working with your reactive dog under Behavior Issues.