This is a question that gets asked all the time by dog owners in NYC. Why? What’s wrong with my dog? Why can’t they just relax? Why are they so stressed out? How do you prevent a stressed NYC dog? We will discuss the reasons why dogs get stressed out in the city, and some options for how to help calm them down.

Display dog stress
“Whale eye”, a wide-eyed look where the whites of the eyes are showing, is a common stress signal in dogs

The Big Question: “Why?”

While there are sometimes more complex reasons such as underlying health issues (always get your dog checked by the vet to rule out health issues), typically the answers to this question are actually relatively straight forward. Regarding NYC (or any city) specifically: the concrete jungle is probably the farthest thing away from a dog’s natural habitat possible. It’s loud, smelly, fast paced, and full of loud, smelly, fast paced humans and other dogs, cars, trucks, planes, helicopters, etc… This is enough to stress most people out let alone an animal that cannot rationalize in the same way that we are capable of doing.

If you’re adopting a dog from a rural or suburban area, it is important to consider that the transition to the city is HARD. Like, really, really hard. Aside from countless loud, scary, smelly, triggers at any given moment, transitioning to the city entirely disrupts the dog’s previous routine and way of life and they are now thrust into a new home, with new people, new demands and expectations, new routine, and new city.

We expect a lot out of our dogs right out the gate. What we don’t consider is that in many cases, we don’t give them enough time to settle in. We don’t give them enough support to understand and overcome their fears of a new life and new situation. This pressure from the human side can add further stress to the dog, making matters worse.

Some dogs have trauma. This might be with other dogs, kids, adults, cars, certain sounds, you name it. This can result in unpredictable, stressful, and sometimes scary behavior. The first instinct is often to punish behavior we don’t want, but adding punishment to trauma can make it worse instead of better. So, how do we help instead?

Meeting A Dog’s Needs

Before we do anything else, we need to talk about meeting a dog’s needs

If you don’t have your morning cup of coffee (or two), are you going to perform your best? If you are never allowed to do the things that make you happy, are you going to be calm and serene, or are you going to be stressed and irritable?

One of the biggest and most common issues for dogs and dog owners in NYC is that dogs do not always get what they need to be happy! Often, this comes in a few forms. Sometimes, dogs don’t get enough play time with other dogs or their own humans. They may not be getting enough sleep in a quiet, calm space, or enough time to calmly sniff at the park. Too much energy and not enough of a fun, productive outlet can create stressed dogs. Especially in a place like NYC, which is already stressful enough. Therefore, it is your duty to make sure your dog is having fun, and furthermore, getting what they need!

A professional trainer can help you figure out what your dog needs and how to give it to them.

Learning How To Relax

In contrast to meeting needs in an active sense with more exercise, play, and busy work, we simultaneously need to talk about learning how to relax.

Humans feel tense and irritable if they don’t get enough sleep or relaxation. Likewise, dogs also feel tense and irritable if they don’t get these things too!

Therefore, we need to ensure a few things. As mentioned in the previous section, making sure your dog has a quiet, calm space to rest during the day is crucial. Rather than letting your dog nap next to you while you’re working or watching TV, set up a quiet space in another room for them. Sleeping with the TV on or people talking is not very relaxing. It’s hard to get quality rest with too much activity happening.

Good, quality rest is crucial for stressed dogs

Building in relaxation

You can actually teach your dog how to relax! Regardless of the common belief that we need to exercise a dog to exhaustion, it’s actually more beneficial to teach dogs how to calm down on their own. Excessive exercise can lead to a feedback loop of overexcitement and never learning how to relax unless they are completely exhausted, so we don’t recommend relying on this method.

So how do you teach a stressed NYC dog to relax? We recommend following Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, a highly regarded method for teaching a dog how to calm down.

Avoiding Stressful Incidents

You’ve seen it a million times. An owner with a dog-aggressive dog stands frozen on the sidewalk as another dog approaches. Their dog goes nuts, barking and screaming at the passing dog. Meanwhile, the owner just stands there or worse yet, yells at the dog to get them to stop.

Maybe this is you. There is really no judgement here, as we understand this is a very stressful and difficult situation, and we’ve all been there at one time or another.

So how can we make it better for our stressed NYC dog?

Create a management plan with a professional trainer in order to avoid as many stressful incidents as possible. This involves things like: learning how to use the environment to hide your dog from things they find stressful, finding alternate exits to a building or park, seeing triggers before they are close and creating distance between your dog and the trigger, etc…For example, if a dog is approaching your dog-aggressive dog, you can turn and run in the opposite direction, duck behind a car and cross the street to avoid the trigger, or carry your dog if that helps them to name a few options.

A professional trainer will also be able to help work with desensitization and counterconditioning triggers in order to reduce fear and reactivity as well.

We also want to be mindful of trigger stacking, which is when triggers build up stress levels in a dog until they can’t take it anymore and they lose control, explode, and/or panic. Every time something stressful happens, it adds to the “stack”. Enough events, and your dog may have a freakout, stop listening, or completely shut down. Avoid trigger stacking as much as possible!

Find Your Place And Relax

This is sometimes the hardest part of it all. Finding a calm, quiet space in the city for you and your stressed NYC dog can seem impossible sometimes.

Bastion of calm for a stressed NYC dog

If you’re lucky enough to live near a park, especially a park like Central Park, you are already at an advantage. However, if you don’t, you may have to get a little more creative. Pocket parks exist in hidden areas all around the city. Sometimes little out-of-the-way green spaces can serve as a bastion of calm. A wide, quiet street can work too in some cases. You may need to consider traveling a bit farther to a quiet area in order to give your dog some breathing room. We have taken small dogs in strollers and run down to Riverside Park in order for them to have a safe place to explore.

Even if you don’t have anything immediately accessible, do your best to take some deep breaths and stay calm, especially in the home. Your home should be a safe, calm spot for your dog, and having relaxed, calm humans around even when things are stressful goes a long way towards helping these situations.

Interested in learning more? Check us out and see how we can help!

2 Responses

  1. A fascinating discussion is worth comment. I do think that you ought to publish more about this issue, it may not be a taboo matter but typically folks dont speak about such topics. To the next! Cheers!!

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