Walking Your Dog in an Urban Environment

A smiling Melinda Benbow holding her white, black, and brown dog near her face
Melinda Benbow
A tri-colored dog behind a metal fence wearing a green harness and leash

Living in an urban environment means navigating busy city sidewalks. It’s important for urban-dwelling dogs to get out and stretch their legs, but there are many different things you may encounter while living in the city. This article will cover how to maneuver your dog through the city, create good urban socialization, and keep you and your dog safe while on city strolls.

A person walking their dog on a sidewalk next to a blue fire hydrant

Walking Devices

Loose leash walking on a flat collar is a trained behavior and takes time to achieve. While it's a wonderful goal to work toward, you often have to manage situations with other walking devices depending on your dog’s size, strength, and comfort.


Front-clipping harnesses, in which the leash attaches at the dog’s chest, are great for dogs of any size. Head halters, which attach under the chin, work great for stronger dogs. These devices provide extra control by creating pivot points that redirect the dog from the attractive thing they’re pulling toward. Keep your dog close to you when moving through crowds and other dense public places. 


Create a positive association and introduction to the device you choose by letting the dog wear the device inside for short periods and providing food rewards when the dog is calmly wearing it.

A woman wearing a long-sleeved camo shirt holding a dog treat in the palm of her hand

Bring Rewards

When you’re out with your dog, you are competing with many high-value distractions—squirrels, birds, people, other dogs, and anything your dog considers new and exciting—which make for good training opportunities. Here are some tips for training in these situations:


  • Be prepared for training moments with food rewards that your dog likes and enjoys. This food reward could be your everyday training treat, but the more exciting the distraction, the higher the value of the compensation should be. Deli turkey or cheese make delicious, high-value rewards, but try to limit these types of treats to just your walks, so they don’t lose their effectiveness to motivate. 
  • Have your rewards ready to be able to make positive associations with new things your dog encounters. Dogs may respond fearfully to things that they have never seen before, including garbage trucks, strollers, bicyclists, and more. Rewarding your dog in these situations helps create a positive association.
  • Reward your dog for any behaviors that you like and ignore undesirable behaviors. Reward your dog for walking by your side, politely sitting while waiting to cross the street, or not reacting to another dog.
A tri-colored dog laying on cement by a metal gate wearing a green collar and leash

Meeting New Dogs and People

City sidewalks can often be very congested with people walking their dogs, and other people may want to introduce their dogs to yours. While it's important to properly socialize your dog, here are a couple of reasons why a leashed walk is not the time or place.


  • When our dog meets nose-to-nose with another dog on leash, we react with unconscious behaviors that we are often unaware of, including tensing our faces, adding pressure to the leash, and widening our eyes. Our dogs notice these behaviors and may feel like there is an issue.
  • When dogs meet nose-to-nose on leash, their body language is inhibited by the leash. Because they cannot effectively gauge each other's body language before getting close to each other, there could be miscommunication that leads to a fight.


Avoiding these potentially problematic situations also means not creating a negative experience around unfamiliar dogs.

A small black-and-white setter walking on a leash

“May I Pet Your Dog?”

People are going to want to pet your dog, and there are two main reasons why it's important that they ask before doing so.


  • They do not know if your dog is aggressive, reactive, fearful, or anything else. Touching a dog in a fearful state of mind can lead to fear-based aggression.
  • Your dog may be trained, in which case there may be a process that has to be performed prior to your dog being pet. Advocate for your dog! Say “no” if you do not want a stranger touching your dog.
A black and white dog sitting on a porch looking at its owner

Defensive Handling Maneuvers

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will be forced to face triggers that excite your dog, which may spark lunging, barking, or growling. If you find your dog in one of these predicaments, be mindful of what you are seeing so you can schedule time with a certified dog trainer to find a long-term solution. Until you can get professional advice, here are three defensive handling maneuvers that will give you control immediately, reduce these behaviors, and create as little stress for you and your dog as possible. 

 

  • The U-Turn: This is the easiest for most dogs and humans and can be used when you see a situation that will negatively affect your dog. Adjust your dog’s leash to your side and shorten the lead to make a 180-degree turn. This U-turn will allow you to avoid the situation altogether. Once you and your dog have completed the turn, praise, and reward them to keep them moving. 

 

  • The Arc-By: This helps you move your dog past a trigger in close proximity. Adjust your dog to your side, keeping its nose behind your toes, act as a buffer by placing yourself between the dog and the object of interest, and when you come to the object, arc around it while giving your dog the verbal cue, “Let’s go.” This helps give your dog the distance it needs to get by its trigger. Once you are past the object, praise and reward while continuing your walk. 

 

  • The Call-to-Front: This maneuver is to avoid triggers that are too close and helps keep your dog stationary at a difficult moment. The call-to-front can come in handy indoors, such as at the vet or in situations where there are many triggers. To do this, back up in an “L” shape, so your dog follows. Try to back up far enough to create as much distance between your dog and the trigger as possible. Keep your dog’s leash short to hold their attention. If your dog is calm at this moment, praise and reward. Once the trigger passes, say, “Let’s go” and continue your walk and reward your dog. 
A black dog looking up at its owner holding waste bags in their hand

Be Prepared

  • Waste bags: Besides your high-value rewards, you should have pet waste bags handy during your walk. You should always pick up your dog’s waste, not only because it is polite but to avoid the transmission of harmful organisms to other animals and humans.  

 

  • Protection: Carry citronella spray to protect you and your dog from stray animals. Citronella comes in an aerosol can and is highly effective at scaring off unwanted animals without causing them harm. Other commercial products can also be purchased to protect you from animals and humans while walking your dog in the city.  

 

  • Hot Weather: Be mindful of the weather and bring the appropriate supplies. If you’re going to be walking in hot weather, bring plenty of water for you and your dog. If the temperature is above 90 degrees, you should not walk your dog far or at all, depending on the breed. It is more challenging for dogs to regulate their temperature, so it’s easy for them to overheat. Place your hand or bare foot on the pavement for five seconds. If it’s too hot or uncomfortable for your skin, then it’s too hot for your dog’s feet. 

 

  • Cold Weather: Protect paws from salt, toxic chemicals, and other irritants by using boots made for dogs. If your dog isn’t willing to wear boots, coat their paws with a protective wax-based cream. When the temperature starts to fall below 45°F, some cold-averse breeds will get uncomfortable and will need protection. For owners of small breeds, puppies, senior dogs, or thin-haired breeds, any time the temperature outside feels at or below 32°F, pull out the sweaters or coats. 

Urban life can be a busy and overwhelming environment, but we still have to make time to get out and create good experiences for our dogs.