Is Your Dog a Good Neighbor?
New York Times
By Kathleen Beckett
07 July 2017
Melissa McNeal enrolled Hudson, a mastiff-Akita, in a training program
and had him DNA-tested to help get him approved for their apartment on
the Upper West Side. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times
New Yorkers will tell you that passing a co-op board interview can be
as tough as getting into Harvard. But it may be rougher still for Rover.
In addition to answering endless questions about your finances, what
you do and who you may or may not know, many co-op boards now require
dog interviews in hopes of avoiding distressing problems down the line.
Those problems might include dogs that bark all day, frighten neighbors
and other pets with aggressive behavior, or even bite.
How should you prepare your dog for a co-op board interview? Some
owners rely on simple approaches like making sure their pets are well
fed or tired from a long walk beforehand. The process has led some to
take more drastic measures, though, including DNA testing to prove a
dog’s pedigree, Xanax or therapy to keep a dog calm, photo shoots to
show its best side, letters of recommendation and, increasingly,
certificates of good behavior. The pet industry, naturally, has
responded to the need with special boot camps and programs that will
declare your dog a model citizen.
The American Kennel Club offers one such certificate for graduates of
their Canine Good Citizen program. About 1,300 dogs across the country
graduated from the program in 1989, when the kennel club began offering
it, according to Dr. Mary Burch, the program director. Last year there
were 65,000 graduates.
Avenue has a dedicated dog interviewer, Hilary Adams Zwicky. Her Shih
Tzus are Poppy and Lucy. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times
Certifying your dog’s good behavior isn’t just a New York experience,
Dr. Burch said; “the legislatures of 42 states have passed resolutions
endorsing the program.” More co-ops, condos and rentals across the
country, she added, “like a vacation rental agency in North Carolina
and a condo in Oregon, ask for this more frequently.
New York City has 75 approved American Kennel Club instructors and
evaluators who conduct approximately 2,500 tests a year, Dr. Burch
said. Instinct Dog Behavior & Training, in East Harlem, is one,
founded in 2009 by Brian Burton and his wife, Sarah Fraser, both
certified dog behavior consultants and professional dog trainers. They
work regularly with dogs whose owners are seeking certificates to help
pass apartment interviews.
The couple have also been asked to write letters of recommendations for
dogs they have trained. When Instinct opened, Mr. Burton said, he would
see “a handful a year” of people getting their dogs ready for
interviews. Those clients have since tripled.
It’s not just New York, or eventhe United States, that is scrutinizing
dogs as a part of resident evaluation. Melissa Ayre and her husband,
Eric Welles, encountered screening for their dachshund-hound mix, Mr.
Milo, when they moved to Sydney, Australia, late last year.
1150 Fifth Avenue, a Manhattan co-op, and their dogs. Credit Fred R.
Conrad for The New York Times
First there was a quarantine to deal with, then approval from “the
strata,” the board of the rental building’s management company. “We
worked with a relocation specialist who warned us that strata are
notoriously unforgiving when it comes to renting with animals in an
apartment,” Ms. Ayre said. “The strata doesn’t meet with the animal
personally; they look over the dog’s résumé and letter of
recommendation and approve or deny from there.”
Before moving, the couple enrolled Mr. Milo in classes at Instinct.
“Sarah wrote a glowing letter of recommendation and luckily, Mr. Milo
was approved almost immediately,” Ms. Ayre said. He now spends his days
happily bounding along Bondi Beach.
The Canine Good Citizen program teaches a dog how to master 10 skills,
from sitting when asked to playing well with others. “The dogs pass in
usually three or four sessions,” Mr. Burton said. One-hour private
lessons cost $175, but Instinct also offers group “training camps.”
Some pet owners take the quick and easy route to get their dogs
interview-ready. “They sedate them,” said Darryl Vernon of Vernon &
Ginsberg, a lawyer in Manhattan who has represented several owners and
tenants in pet issue cases.
Others resort to exhaustion. Patricia Vance, a broker of high-end
rentals and sales with Douglas Elliman, had a client who had to go
before a co-op board that had a weight restriction on animals. The
client was concerned that her dog might be too heavy and too energetic
to pass. “She was nervous so we strategized,” Ms. Vance said. “She
ended up taking the dog for a two-hour run right before the interview.”
It worked: “The dog fell asleep and it lost a few ounces.” Pass!
Some New York buildings are strictly pet-free, while others impose
weight restrictions or prohibit certain breeds: Dogs, of course, are
not a protected class. “A board can reject a dog because they don’t
like it,” Mr. Vernon said, “or the building has too many dogs already
or you’re moving into an apartment next to someone who doesn’t like
Rentals, too, have the right to know what dog they are allowing in,
said Stanley Leibowitz, 89, who has worked in various management
positions in New York City apartment buildings. “When a building rents
it does not only a credit check but a criminal-background check, to
know that people coming into the building aren’t convicted felons,” he
said. “You’re bringing someone into the building who will not cause a
problem.” Same with their dog.
Breeds that are often banned from buildings include chow chows,
Doberman pinschers, pit bulls and Rottweilers, Dr. Burch said. These
are the same breeds that can be difficult to insure, and are often
reported by insurance companies, she added, “as ones that when there
has been an incident such as a bite, someone was hurt and the claims
Schlossel with her dog, Hunter. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York
But Dr. Burch offered a solution: “Some of the country’s biggest
insurance companies, such as Allstate, Liberty Mutual and the Hartford,
will insure breeds of dogs they wouldn’t otherwise if the dog has
Canine Good Citizen training.”
Breed might have been a problem for Hudson, the dog that Sean McNeal
and his wife, Melissa, adopted from a city shelter. “He was on the list
to be euthanized,” Mr. McNeal said. The couple was hoping to rent an
apartment on the Upper West Side that limited dogs to 60 pounds, which
happened to be Hudson’s weight, and that also assessed pet behavior.
The McNeals enrolled Hudson in Instinct to teach him some manners. And
they went the extra yard. The shelter had told them that Hudson was a
German shepherd and pit bull mix, which the McNeals were afraid would
quash their chances. “I knew we had to do something,” Mr. McNeal said.
On the hunch that the shelter had gotten Hudson’s breed wrong, he had
the dog DNA-tested. The result: “Hudson is a mastiff-Akita,” Mr. McNeal
When the McNeals had the testing done four years ago, their
veterinarian sent a blood sample to a genetic testing lab, which
charged the McNeals $150. Online businesses like Wisdom Panel sell
kits, starting at less than $100, that involve swabbing a dog’s cheeks
for cells and mailing the sample in for testing.
“Co-op boards can deny a pet for any reason, but not the wrong reason,”
said Steve D. Sladkus, a founding partner of the law firm Schwartz
Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas who specializes in real estate issues.
“One of the wrong reasons is disability discrimination. If I need a pet
because of a physical or emotional disability, like depression, and I’m
rejected, the board could be faced with a discrimination suit.”
But the disability ruling can be abused. “Some people try to skirt the
issue by citing disability depression,” Mr. Sladkus said. “People are
increasingly making requests, some bona fide, some not.” Those citing
disability need to provide a letter from their doctor, stating that an
emotional support pet has been prescribed.
One co-op building, 1150 Fifth Avenue, has a dedicated dog interviewer,
Hilary Adams Zwicky, who is affectionately known in the building as
“the dog whisperer.” “I was asked to do it because I was the only one
on the board who had dogs,” she said. “And I love dogs, all dogs,”
including the two Shih Tzus, Poppy and Lucy, she shares with her
Ms. Zwicky’s interview process is friendly. “I’ll have them over for
cocktails,” she said, referring to the owners. The dog is invited, too.
“Sometimes I introduce the dog to the girls, my little helpers, to see
how they get along.” If the dogs sniff one another, things are going
well. “I’ll touch the dog, to see how it reacts to a stranger. I’ll ask
if it’s had its proper shots, if it’s been spayed.”
So far, in the five or so years she has been screening pets, she has
interviewed about 10 dogs and not rejected one, although she has
recommended that some “attend boot camp to calm down energetic
behavior. But I’ve never had a problem; they’re all nice dogs.”
“Hilary believes that nice families have nice dogs,” said Lisa Macris,
a resident of the building. She and her husband were living in
Connecticut when they applied to buy an apartment at 1150 Fifth Avenue,
and Keeler, their papillon, stayed home during the board interview.
But Ms. Zwicky grilled Ms. Macris about Keeler. “Hilary talked with me
about our dog, a lot,” she recalled. “We talked more about our dog than
about our kids.” All went well. “I showed her pictures,” Ms. Macris
added. “And I might have mentioned that Keeler came from the same
breeder whose papillon had won Best in Show at Westminster.”
A little name-dropping never hurts. Keeler lived with his family at
1150 Fifth Ave from 2009 until his death this spring.