Can I Have A Dog in a Small Flat? Let These Tiny-Living Pet Parents Weigh In · The Wildest

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How To Be a Great Dog Parent In a Tiny Living Space (From People Who Know)

Whether you live in a small flat, a van or a boat, these pooch and human partnerships prove you can thrive in a small space with your dog

by Alice Snape
3 April 2024
a boy cuddles a small dog while standing next to a narrowboat
Hannah Bodsworth Photography

Simply existing in this country costs more than ever, and people are starting to let go of the stereotypical route to adulthood we were sold when we were younger – get job, meet partner, marry, buy big house with garden for a dog... The reality is that people are living in smaller homes, often with no outside space – and they don’t want that to stop them from adopting a pet. Just because you live in a small space, however, that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be the greatest dog parent ever. We spoke to a whole bunch of humans and their dogs who are thriving in tiny living situations – from boats to vans – to find out how to make it work.

Dolly and Dallas lived in a fifth-floor, one-bed flat

a woman with tattoos sits next to a black whippet in a tattoo studio

When Brighton-based tattoo artist Dolly (@dollytattoos) first brought home her Whippet puppy Dallas, she lived in a tiny one-bedroom flat on the fifth floor. “The day I brought him home the lift had broken so I was scaling five flights of stairs in a bid to toilet train him in the car park,” laughs Dolly. 

Although she definitely wasn’t laughing at the time. “It was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “Toilet training a puppy from the fifth floor was wild. I religiously took him outside every 20 minutes and waited for him to do his thing.” Then Dolly built up the time in increments: every 30 minutes, then 40, and so on, until Dallas realised he needed to ask to go out. Dolly also decided that in a small, open-plan space that crate-training him from the beginning was important, “So he always had a safe space to tuck himself away,” she explains. 

Since then, Dolly has met a new partner, and they’ve moved into a flat together – “Still no garden,” she says. Now, all in one space are two humans, two dogs – Dallas and her partner’s Lab x Collie Cross Skully – plus two cats, Klaüs and Dumpling. “Dallas is partial to a zoomie and it’s pretty much a case of ‘get out the way and let it run its course,’” says Dolly. “Honestly, if you love a dog enough, the space is irrelevant,” she says. “Dallas fits into my life perfectly – he is a shop dog at work, and he also hangs out at the pub or in coffee shops.” 

Her top advice? Know that sometimes it will feel like a nightmare not to be able to just let them into the garden: “Especially the last wee of the night, where I have to use a torch down the creepy alley,” says Dolly. “But we live on the seafront so I can chuck on their leads so they can run on the beach. We try to take them to different places, too, so they can sniff new smells and it’s always exciting.” And when it comes to inevitable accidents? “Rug Doctor pet range has saved me from many catastrophes,” she says. “They have a pet urine eliminator spray – I swear, it’s amazing.”

Jade and Ted live on a boat

a woman with a bobble hat on a boat with her small dog

Trainee plumber Jade rescued her dog Ted three years ago. They live together on a boat, which moves to a new location every two weeks – they’re currently in Hackney in London. “As long as he’s with humans he loves, he’s happy,” says Jade. 

Jade’s main concern was that Ted would fall in the water – “I got him a life jacket for when we’re cruising,” she says. Jade decides where to moor based on Ted. “Somewhere quiet, as he hates too much noise,” she explains. “Although he’s fine on his own when I go out, I wouldn’t leave him for hours somewhere busy as he’d get stressed when people walk by.”

“Dogs are so clever,” enthuses Jade. “I taught him how to walk up and down the gangplanks, and he knows not to walk on the gunnels at the side of the boat otherwise he’ll fall in.” People know him as Towpath Ted. “He likes to sit in the middle of the path and make people walk around him,” laughs Jade.

“Embrace tiny living,” is Jade’s philosophy – just enjoy it. “Put your trust in your animal,” advises Jade. “They’re so adaptable. Even if you live in a large house, animals gravitate towards the same spots.” And if any issues arise along the way, Jade says she’d work on them with Ted. “If there was nowhere for him to go for a wee, for example, I’d put something on the roof like a patch of grass, then train him to wee on it. Everything is changeable.” 

Steffi and Copper live in a one-bed flat with two cats

a blonde woman gets a kiss from a sheepdog while a cat looks on

Student paramedic Steffi lives in a one-bedroom flat in Hampshire with her three-year-old Border Collie, Copper; and two cats, Luna and Peaches. “It was never my intention to have a dog here,” she says. Steffi was going to finish her degree and buy a house before she got a dog, but the cost of living crisis has ruined that trajectory. “House prices are rocketing,” she sighs.

But she doesn’t regret a thing. “We’re two anxious weirdos in a pod; we have the same energy.” Steffi has ADHD and “breed experts describe Border Collies as autistic. I can’t say I disagree as someone who’s on the spectrum,” she says. So how does she cope living with a famously energetic Border Collie in a flat? “He looks at me and groans when he wants to go outside for a poo,” she says. Consistency in training when he was a puppy was the key to that. “I’d take him outside every time he ate or drank or woke up from a nap,” she explains. 

Steffi says that Copper can easily become neurotic without keeping his brain stimulated, so she enriches his life as much as she can. “We have lots of holidays planned for summer.” When he’s inside, Steffi uses enrichment toys such as snuffle mats, puzzle toys and Kongs, which she puts treats inside for him to sniff out. Mostly Steffi loves living in a small space with her best pal. “It means he’s never far away from me,” she says. “He’s a very good bath supervisor, along with my cats.”

On Steffi’s days off, they usually hang out together outside anyway. “He goes everywhere with me,” she says. “He’s obsessed with ambulances because of my work. Sometimes we go see my friends at the hospital or have an off-lead walk in the park. The world is his back garden.” 

Virginia, Jacob, Ugo and Lyra live in a van

a couple and their two large dogs stand in front of a campervan

Artist Virginia (@plartcebo) lives in a van with her husband Jacob, who’s an online therapist, and their two dogs: Husky x Labrador Ugo and Belgian Malinois x Husky x Alaskan Malamute Lyra. After living in London, the foursome have been on the road for over three years and are currently in Normandy in France. Contrary to what you might think, Virginia believes it’s best to live in small spaces with large dogs. “Especially if you’re big people like us,” she says. “We’d probably accidentally squash a small dog.”

Lyra in particular loves van life. “She’s clever,” Virginia explains. “You’ll often find her under the table as she knows that sometimes things move around and if she’s under there, they won’t fall on her.” She can curl up anywhere and sleep. Although Virginia admits that van life comes with its challenges. “We have to stock up on their food, as they have sensitive stomachs,” she explains. “We have a dedicated cupboard just for that.” She also says that she keeps both dogs on leads at all times wherever they go out. “Rules and reactions to dogs change in different countries,” she says, so this keeps them safe. They also have long lines so when parked up somewhere, the dogs can have freedom to play together. 

Mostly Virginia recommends getting a vacuum cleaner. “They’re always shedding,” she says. “And a portable dog shower for when they get dirty.” But Virginia adores tiny living: “It makes us feel like the dogs are more connected to us,” she explains. Virginia and Jacob don’t have conventional 9-to-5 jobs and are able to work from the van, meaning they’re constantly together. “They’re integrated into the family,” she says. “I love that they’re always in my vicinity.” 

Hannah, George and Frida live on a narrowboat

a woman, a boy and a their small dog cuddle on a narrowboat
Hannah Bodsworth Photography

Photographer Hannah Bodsworth lives on a narrowboat in London with her 11-year-old son George and three-year-old Chihuahua, Frida – she documents their life together @narrowboatmama. “We adopted Frida in November 2020, when she was seven months old – she was incredible at adjusting to the boat,” says Hannah. “Within a few days, she let us know she needed to go to the toilet by sitting on the top step by the boat deck.”

To match their living situation, Frida is also very small: “Around 3kg,” says Hannah. “She has a tiny cat tent bed if she wants some alone time.” Hannah says that the bed in the main cabin is the centre of family life. “It doubles up as a lounge area,” she explains. “Frida loves it when guests come and we’re all sat in a circle on the bed. She lies in the middle lapping up the fuss.”

When it comes to her character, Frida is a typical Chihuahua, says Hannah – “Intensely loving but can flip into ferocious mode quickly.” Hannah even considered getting ‘sorry about the dog’ painted on the boat. “I was constantly saying it to passers-by through the window.” Frida has particular issues with cyclists and joggers: “She’s been known to leap out of the side hatch and chase someone 100 yards until she feels they’re thoroughly off her turf.”

Two years ago, Frida met a Chihuahua x Dachshund named Hamish – “They got jiggy with it,” says Hannah. “Frida gave birth in the boat with the help of boat neighbour, Mike, an oracle of dogs. Sadly two pups didn’t make it, but one beautiful black and tan bitch did.” She was named Leto and went to live with Hannah’s parents in their caravan on the coast. “Frida gets to hang out with her daughter around once a month.” Although she isn’t sure about the sea. “I guess Frida is just more of a river dog at heart.”

By day, you’ll likely find Frida curled up on Hannah’s lap as she edits photos, or by the bow window on Hannah’s bed, which acts as her watch tower. “At night, she burrows under mine or George’s duvet and spoons all night,” says Hannah. “She loves a good sniff, then seeking out the sunniest spot on the boat to bathe in”.

Alice Snape

Alice Snape is a freelance writer and editor whose work has featured in Cosmopolitan, Metro, Red, Vice, amongst other publications. Her rescue dog Lucy is the love of her life – probably because she’s an anxious weirdo like her. You’ll likely find them both curled up in bed – Alice’s favourite place to write from – or out having an adventure together in the park… 

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