9 Tips for Living with a Big Dog in a Small Space


Living with a big dog often requires a few adjustments.
Photo by By Calicodaisy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Dogs adapt well to unlikely situations—one reason they’ve put up with us for so long.  But all dogs, big and small, can present different challenges at home. Living with a big dog in a small space, while it can be difficult, is not only possible but also potentially rewarding for a dog and his humans. Here are nine tips to make apartment living easier for big dogs.

1. You Must Exercise Your Big Dog

Proper exercise is central to enjoying a happy life with a big dog in a small space, whether you live in a studio apartment or a small house. Simply put, a tired dog is a good dog, and a well adjusted one to boot. Veterinarians agree most large breeds are happy to live in whatever square footage you possess so long as you’re willing to satisfy this one critical need.

How much exercise is enough exercise for your big dog? It really depends on him, and as his keeper and closest companion, you’re in the best position to know. For some, an hour of vigorous, heart-thumping activity every day of the week is essential; others are content with a leisurely trot in the park, happy to return home to the sofa and a good chew toy for the duration. Many large breeds tend to be quiet and inactive during their adult years, and most adult dogs sleep around 12 to 14 hours in every 24.

But taking your dog outside to do his doings is not getting anybody’s heart rate up. True cardiovascular exercise means going for a run, taking a long walk on a trail or city greenway, or engaging in active outdoor play with your dog. If you can’t provide these opportunities for him, hire a dog walking or running service to do it for you, or find a doggy daycare where vigorous exercise or play is scheduled during the day.

Alternately, find a wide, open space for off-leash fun; bring a ball or frisbee if your dog enjoys playing fetch. If he must remain leashed, put him on a 20- or 30-foot lead that at least allows him the freedom to romp more vigorously than he can at the end of a six-foot leash. If you don’t exercise regularly yourself, you may discover your big dog is finally the best reason to start.

2. Keep Your Big Dog Occupied Inside, Too

Exercise isn’t limited to the great outdoors. Find activities to keep your apartment dog busy and active, even on rainy days or when you can’t head out. Encourage your dog to play indoor games like hide-and-seek, or try out his skill at scent and nosework games. If you must leave your dog alone inside your apartment, choose toys that keep him busy for long stretches: rawhide chews, extra-tough rubber toys, noise-making or moving toys, or treat-dispensing or puzzle toys. Avoid dog toys or treats he is likely to rip apart or quickly consume.

3. Make a Dog Routine and Stick to It

Dogs are creatures of habit like us. Set up a schedule that includes time outside, feeding time, exercise, and play time, and keep the same schedule every day. Your dog will soon catch on, and once he understands the routine, chances are excellent he won’t leave messes on the floor. Go home midday to take your dog outside if your work life keeps you away for long stretches, or hire someone to do it for you: Nine or more hours is too long to ask any dog to “hold it.” Or ask your employer if you can bring your dog to work with you.

4. Give Your Big Dog His Own Small Space

His crate may suffice, and throwing a quilt or blanket over it will make it feel more den-like and secure. Even if it’s only a corner where you put his dog bed, he needs a special spot of his own; placing his toy box nearby will underscore it as such. Or if you’re willing, designate a chair or the end of a sofa in your apartment or home as your dog’s space (use a furniture cover or dog blanket to protect it). Allowing him onto the furniture will also help him feel less confined in your small home.

5. Plan Ahead When It Comes to Housebreaking

You’ll need to consider your options if getting from doorstep to outdoors takes time (or down a stairway, which can create additional problems for dogs with a fear of stairs). Housebreaking is a process that depends on consistency and quick action. Think about the housebreaking routine when you bring a dog into your apartment, even if you’re rescuing an adult dog.

How to ‘Potty’ Train a Dog in an Apartment

The tips listed above are easy first steps for housebreaking your puppy or acclimating a new adult dog to apartment life. Confining him to an easy-to-clean space behind a dog gate or keeping him in a crate will help contain accidents for easier cleanup. And setting a schedule helps your dog learn the routine. Consider these additional tips for housebreaking an apartment dog:

  • If getting outside requires an elevator ride or flights of stairs, carry your puppy until he’s learned to ‘hold it’ until you’re outdoors.
  • For high-rise apartments or buildings without easy access to the outdoors, designate a relief area using puppy training pads or artificial turf on a balcony to start, then work toward making it outside after the puppy reliably uses the training area.
  • Watch for signs your puppy needs to relieve himself—sniffing the ground, circling, or squatting are a few—and relocate him to the pee pad or head outdoors right away.
  • Train your dog to communicate his needs by ringing a bell, bringing you a specific toy, or sitting beside the door when he has to relieve himself.
  • Accidents happen: Prepare for messes inside your apartment, and in hallways or stairwells. Carry cleanup wipes or disinfecting spray and rags in addition to your waste pick-up bags to sop up any hallway messes.
  • Offer plenty of praise with every small success.

6. Choose a Big Dog Breed That Adapts Easily to a Small Living Space

Which big dogs will most enjoy your small living space? If you observe the strategies described here, almost any will, but some dogs are more adaptable than others to life in an apartment, tiny house, or home with small square footage. These include dogs in the guarding or sighthound categories, for example the Mastiff and the Greyhound. Developed to work in short bursts, they’re content mainly to relax for the balance of the day. The Greyhound in particular has earned a reputation as a low-energy dog, sometimes called the “40 mph couch potato.” City dwellers occasionally choose a large dog like the Mastiff for his menacing looks (even if he’s a pushover), but also for his proclivity to curl up contentedly at the feet of a beloved human.

7. The Best Guard Dog Breeds for Apartments Are Alert, but Quiet

Loud dogs and apartment life don’t mix, but if you want a dog to alert you to visitors or intruders, consider a dog breed that’s quiet but vigilant. You’ll also want to consider the safety of visitors and neighbors—an alert, social, trainable breed that’s a companion first makes a great watchdog. Find a large dog breed that suits your location and desire for a watchdog. What breeds make good apartment guard dogs? Here are a few options:

  • The Standard Poodle makes a great watchdog: While he can be vocal, he’s easily trained to bark only in response to a trigger, like a person approaching the door.
  • Great Danes are generally quiet, but have a protective instinct and can be good apartment guard dogs.
  • Sociable, friendly Bernese Mountain Dogs are good watchdogs for a different reason: They’ll jump at the chance to let you know someone’s at the door because they want to make friends.
  • Saint Bernards are calm, quiet apartment companions who will likely bark to warn you someone’s at the door—but they’re usually happy to snooze the day away if they get enough exercise.
  • The Keeshond—a breed developed as a river barge watchdog—can be trained to bark only to alert, and the sociable breed is happy to greet guests after he’s done his guard dog duty.

8. Find a Low-Maintenance Dog Breed for Apartment Living

If you’d rather skip regular grooming appointments, or if high-energy or clingy dogs aren’t your style, consider a low-maintenance breed. There are plenty of dogs who prefer lounging to rounds of fetch. Basset Hounds and Bulldogs are laid-back, short-haired dogs who easily adapt to apartment life. If you don’t mind brushing and a bit of drool, Chows are quiet couch potatoes who much prefer hanging out in an air-conditioned apartment to strenuous activity.

9. Be Realistic About Your Big Dog

It’s smart to be prepared for big-dog mishaps. For instance, not all big dogs are good with kids, so you need to think about your family, in addition to your home’s size. When your living space is tiny and cluttered and your dog is enormous, navigational hazards are inevitable—enthusiastic tail wagging does not always mix well with the stemware on your coffee table. Nor does every big dog belong in a small space; some guardian dogs dislike crowded city life, and some breeds simply demand more daily exercise than a busy city slicker is likely to give them (the Giant Schnauzer and the Border Collie are examples). Other concerns for apartment dwellers include vocal dogs and territorial dogs, for whom there is no distinction between the private apartment and the public hallway.

Together with logistics (can you manage a large, incapacitated dog on a flight of stairs in an emergency?) these are all important considerations. But don’t let a big dog stand between you and your small digs—invite him inside and make him feel at home.

3 thoughts on “9 Tips for Living with a Big Dog in a Small Space”

  1. I am getting a Great Pyrenees lab mix, but we live in a medium sized house. Trying really hard to find space. My husband doesn’t know so we are trying to sneak XL crate bed and dog bowls. My daughter is super anxious. We are getting him on Wednesday. We also have another dog ( senior and cranky ) and are worried she will be mad. Me and my daughter are in a sticky situation. Ps. Did I mention that it’s a puppy? Good luck to me.

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