Raising a dog in a city takes more support and help from the outside world than we care to admit. Busy schedules mean we can’t be there 24 hours a day, so we need the support of walkers, groomers and boarders who help fill in for us. We need a friend or a neighbor on call to dog sit for us once a while. Or sometimes we need to call in an expert if it’s our first time training or if we’re running into new behavioral issues. Cities throw a whole slew of challenges on a daily basis. We want to alleviate them one by one.
We’ve been reaching out to known experts, specialists and just general dog people around New York to hear their stories, to learn what we can from people who do this every day and to know that we’re not alone. People, support, a community - all of these things make it easier to help us and our city dogs thrive.
This week, I chatted with Lauren Novack of Behavior Vets of NYC. We covered everything from why raising a dog in New York is so f’ing challenging to the root cause of common behavioral problems to how she applies personal lessons to her practice. Let’s do this.
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I am so, so excited to get the chance to chat with you. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what originally gave you the idea or the push to start Lauren’s Leash full time?
Well, it’s a funny story actually. I was originally a professional dancer and had decided that it wasn’t the best career choice for my mental health, so I wanted to make a switch. I thought about going back to school to become a doctor or a lawyer and get a real job. And at the time, my husband and I were still dating and he was like, look, you’re clearly obsessed with dogs. You can’t pass a dog on the street without stopping … maybe you should do something with animals.
I was like, NO - Absolutely not, I’m getting a real job. So then he tried to convince me to just start walking dogs while I figured it out, which I thought was a preposterous idea. 6 months later I woke up and started a dog walking company. That company was Lauren’s Leash.
What did that professional evolution look like for you? How’d you go from walking dogs to training and behavior?
Well when I started dog walking it was 2010, and we were actually the first company to have GPS tracking on our walks. It was really important to me that we were tech-enabled and I believed that if the tech existed to provide assurance to our clients, it should be integrated.
The reality was that running a dog walking company was challenging. There was high turnover and I didn’t want to be managing people - it wasn’t the best use of my time or talents. So I started using the money from the company to then fund further education, course after course, and once I had enough experience, I switched from the walking side of things to training and behavior in 2015.
And then last January, Lauren’s Leash was acquired by Behavior Vets NYC. I’m now a Training Director and Behavior Consultant there, working with the only vets in the city who specialize in behavior. We see everything from puppies to animals with aggressive and compulsive behaviors. I see some of the hardest behavior cases in the city, which I really enjoy.
What makes a place like New York uniquely challenging for raising a dog?
New York can be stressful, even for humans. There’s so much going on all the time, so there’s that element. There’s constant noise and activity. It’s a naturally stressful environment for most living things.
There’s also the fact that some dogs just weren’t made for city life and were brought into an environment that fundamentally isn’t a fit for them. I see dogs who grew up in shelters and who’ve come here from the south or from abroad. None of these dogs had a good start in life. You end up with dogs who have poor stress tolerance, aren’t getting their needs met, and have had traumatic experiences. And then they’re expected to deal with New York.
You make a great point - this a tough environment and dogs unlike humans, don’t get to choose where they live. We choose where they live for them.
Exactly, our dogs don’t have agency. They don’t get to decide where they live or if a rescue moves them around. That’s really challenging for them.
So with that in mind, what are some common issues you encounter in a city like New York?
Here in the city, we’re so much more aware of behavioral problems because we live in small apartments, constantly surrounded by neighbors and people on the street. There are just more opportunities for issues to pop up, and for those issues to be pointed out to us.
The most common issues I see are on-leash reactivity issues like barking or lunging at skateboarders, trucks, anything big, scary or foreign. Some dogs actually have global fear of the outside. And then a lot of dogs have separation anxiety. They’re a social species bred to work and exist with humans, not to stay alone for 10 hours a day. If your dog is barking incessantly you’re going to hear about it from your neighbors.
So you’ve been in the training and behavior world for a few years now. Have you noticed any broad changes in how people are approaching training their dogs?
The biggest change I’ve seen is that there’s a lot less pushback about the use of positive reinforcement. When I was starting out, Cesar Milan was everywhere and a lot of people had it in their mind that dogs only respond to punishment and dominance. But I think people now understand that positive reinforcement works so much better than punitive measures. You’ve seen that switch even in parenting styles - what used to be common, things like corporal punishment of kids, is pretty much unacceptable now. Something similar happened with dog training.
What are the root causes of a lot of common issues you see when it comes to behavior issues and training?
It’s a really simple yet complicated question because it comes down to nature, nurture, and lifestyle match. Genetics and learning history are important in equal measure.
It’s necessary to take your pet’s species, breed, and individual behavioral needs into account. There’s often a mismatch between the owner and dog. If you want a lapdog, don’t get a herding dog. If you’re the type of person who’s up first thing and wants to hike Central Park every morning before work, sure, consider it. But there are a lot of dogs in the city who are, for lack of a better word, neglected. They’re not left tied to a tree outside, and they have the best food and the cutest jackets, but how much time do they spend with their owners? When are they allowed to do what they are meant to do?
If you get a pup from a shelter, you won’t know your dog’s breed, learning history, or genetic predisposition. You can’t use looks to guess what you’re getting in terms of temperament. It’s difficult to predict a dog’s behavior outside of the shelter environment based on their behavior inside the shelter, especially if the dog is going to be rehomed to an environment as unique as NYC. If you want a better sense of a dog’s personality and needs then you’re better off going with an adult dog (2 years old+) who’s been fostered as you can see what they’re like settled into a home environment. Or if you want a puppy, select a breeder that follows the puppy culture method and who will match you with a pup based on temperament. No matter where you get your dog, selecting a dog with a calm temperament and high stress tolerance will help them succeed here.
Can you tell us a bit about your approach to training?
Trainers can be specialized in all sorts of things; I’m specialized in behavior. There’s always more to learn, which is why I love this field. I started at Karen Pryor Academy, followed with many courses and conferences, earned my Dog Behavior Consultant Certification, and am now pursuing two Masters degrees: one in Animal Behavior and the other in Applied Behavior Analysis. In my work, I incorporate information from many different disciplines - welfare, cognition, applied behavior analysis, and psychology to name a few. It’s my job to take information from those disciplines and apply it to help my client’s dogs become emotionally healthy. My approach comes down to helping the dog feel safe and then teaching them the skills they need to navigate their world.
Did you grow up around dogs? Is that where your interest started?
I did! We had Irish Setters growing up. They’re not dumb dogs at all thought that’s a common misconception about them. I just think people don’t know how to hone their personalities. They’re super fun, sweet and love to run. Plus, they’re absolutely gorgeous dogs.
You have a dog yourself - Grayson. Can you tell us a bit about him? How long have you known him? How would you describe his personality?
Yeah, so Grayson was born in a shelter in Tennessee and was neutered at 4 weeks old. I know his siblings, actually, and they live in Massachusetts and Connecticut. When I got him, the rescue agency said that he was the timid and shy one and I was like, yes, that’s our dog - the timid, shy, gentle one.
But when he hit social maturity, he became leash reactive and started having issues with separation anxiety. It was actually one stressful event that triggered him. My husband and I left for our two week honeymoon. Grayson stayed in our apartment with someone he knew really, really well, but when we came back he was just a different dog. That one event was so stressful for him that it triggered behavior issues. I see that happen a lot with client dogs.
The first questions I ask when a behavior change happens out of nowhere are: 1) Medically when was your last workup? and 2) Was there a stressful event or change? What’s changed in the environment? Did you move? Did someone have a breakup? Even though I know this can happen, it’s something else when you have to deal with it first hand with your own dog.
That totally makes sense. Big stressful life changes have an impact on us - our dogs are going to feel them too. You guys worked through it though, which is awesome. So now that he’s closer to himself, what are some of your favorite things to do with Grayson on the weekends or when you have a little more time on your hands?
We relish off-leash time in Central Park, which is before 9 am and after 9 pm. We’ll do a 2 hour hike around the park on weekend mornings. In the summer when it’s warm, he wears his fun LED light harness and we’ll go to a nice restaurant close to the park and sit outside and then after dinner, we’ll let him run free at night. He’s a dark grey, so we follow the light-up harness when running in the distance. It’s very cute.
We also have close friends across the street who have a dog and we use have playdates, especially when the weather is less than ideal.
Is there any last parting advice you have for people training their dogs, going through behavioral issues or just thinking about how to make even more incremental progress?
Definitely. People sometimes overestimate how much physical stimulation will tire out a dog and underestimate how much mental stimulation will tire them out. Think about how tired you are after studying. Mental exhaustion wears on you. We need both mental and physical stimulation to be happy and healthy human beings. Dogs are no different.
Not all dogs need really rigorous training, but some definitely do. Working dogs will lose their minds without a job. In general, learning is always fun, even for lap dogs. Doing new things is stimulating. Walk in new locations, teach new tricks. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Give your dog time to sniff - they’re checking their pee-mail and relaxing.
And at the end of the day, the more manners and skills you teach your dog, the more fun you can have with them. That’s boring advice, but it’s so true. Putting in the effort upfront on skills let’s you have so much fun and enjoy more freedom later.
If you live in the city and have a walker, groomer, boarder, behavioral specialist (or anyone else who makes your life with your city dog easier) who you love and want to rave about, let us know. Text ‘expert’ to 29071.