Is Your Dog a Good Neighbor?
New York Times
By Kathleen Beckett
07 July 2017

Sean and 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.

1150 Fifth 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.

Residents of 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 dogs.”

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 were costly.”

Cheryl Schlossel with her dog, Hunter. Credit Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times

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 said.

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 husband, Henry.

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.

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