Civility on the way out? Add spoiled dogs to that list
High-end hounds and pampered pooches seem to be acting out everywhere these days, in doorman buildings, the gated homes of Los Angeles or on manicured Hamptons lawns. Are some dogs getting an unleashed sense of entitlement from their owners? Share your thoughts.
The New York Times
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Ever since her bulldog bit a fox terrier in the elevator last spring, Liz Weston has been forced by her co-op board to use the freight elevator at her Manhattan apartment building. She doesn't think that it's fair. After she apologized and paid the $600 veterinary bill, she sent a note asking how the terrier's little tail was healing. She got back a letter from the co-op board's lawyer demanding she move out.
"We're all living in the same building in close quarters," said Weston, whose dog, Theo, happens to be certified to visit hospitals as a therapy pet. She sued her co-op board in February. "Dogs are dogs," she added.
That may be, but that doesn't mean they're allowed to show it, especially not in the oh-so-carefully controlled and scrutinized upper echelons of society.
The dog fight is not an isolated incident. High-end hounds and pampered canines seem to be acting out everywhere these days, in doorman buildings, the gated homes of Los Angeles or on manicured Hamptons lawns. And like their tightly wound owners, they can be lightning rods for lawsuits and bad publicity.
Samantha Ronson, the celebrity DJ and former girlfriend of Lindsay Lohan, was mortified last year when the news media learned her bulldog, Cadillac, had attacked and killed a tiny Maltese at her West Hollywood apartment building.
During New York Fashion Week in February, Thakoon Panichgul had to go on Twitter to deny that his tiny Yorkie, named Stevie Nicks, snapped at interns.
And when Elizabeth Taylor died last month, obituaries made gleeful mention of her canine cohort, in particular one that treated the floors of friends as fire hydrants.
Bad dogs can bring bad publicity, as Carl Paladino learned when his pit bull attacked another dog on the campaign trail for governor in New York last year.
They can be real estate deal-breakers, too, barking and growling at potential buyers.
"If you're not a dog lover, it can be very off-putting," said Robert Browne, a senior vice president at Corcoran, who recently showed a $3 million home in Greenwich Village with a nasty Rottweiler running loose.
You can find dogs in banks. Dogs in yoga classes. Dogs in wedding parties. They have even invaded luxury boutiques. At the Manhattan offices of Marchesa, the delicate gown line by Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, office dogs are known to get into savage fights.
"Sometimes it's funny, but other times it can get pretty violent," said Edward Chapman, the company's president, whose Yorkshire terrier, Lottie, is often the instigator.
Are these dogs getting an unleashed sense of entitlement from their owners? Yes, said David Reinecker, a Beverly Hills dog trainer whose clients include Maria Shriver, Kirk Douglas and Teri Garr.
"The elite are extreme personalities," he said. "Some come home from a day at the office of controlling armies of frightened people and then let their dogs rule their lives. On top of that, the mega-rich and powerful can be very insecure."
That might have explained Trouble, the Maltese that belonged to Leona Helmsley. It was known to attack the harried staff.
"Leona wanted everybody to love her, but she knew nobody loved her," a housekeeper of Helmsley was quoted as saying in The Daily News in 2007, when it was learned that the dog was to inherit $12 million. "This dog replaced that love."
That may explain why both seemed so neurotic.
But then, the life of cosseted canines can be harder than it appears. Snooty co-ops have etiquette rules about barking and dog-on-dog interactions in lobbies and elevators. Some buildings even require that dogs be carried on elevators and in lobbies. (Carrying dogs, according to experts, makes them more neurotic because they are happier on their feet, just as any person other than Liz Taylor in "Cleopatra" might be.)
In addition, second and third homes in the Hamptons or Sun Valley, Idaho, can be disorienting for older dogs that don't like learning new tricks, like finding the urine pad in a new mansion or not attacking the strangers who trim the privet.
A big domestic staff can make obedience confusing, too. At cocktail parties, canapes are a temptation, as are mink coats draped on couches and expensive shoes that look like toys.
Then there are the women who use dogs as security blankets and take them to red carpet events like arm candy. Paris Hilton's Tinkerbell was known to snap and bite.
"Little dogs sense their owners' fear of strangers and paparazzi, so they growl and snap at them," said Reinecker, who as a trainer has found that there's a bull market in bad dogs right now.
Making matters worse, he said, is the fact that owners don't discipline the dogs themselves. Instead, they throw money at them, expecting a specialist to fix the problem.
"The rich are less hands-on," said Pat McGregor, the founder of Vancouver Dog Training in New York, who said she has worked with the difficult dogs of Bette Midler, Robert De Niro and Blaine Trump. "You can't blame an animal for not behaving like a person. But just like us, every dog has its own issues because there are no perfect dogs."
And there are no perfect owners, even when they are as gracious and unassuming as Ellen Crown, a youthful New York mother of three children and three dogs. Her problem pooch was Kiwi, a terror of a Yorkshire terrier.
"Kiwi bit people on the street all the time, and I'd be mortified," Crown said. "My mother-in-law got bit once."
Kiwi also ruined expensive rugs on a regular basis.
"My poor stepfather is the owner of ABC Carpet," said Crown, who is married to Daniel Crown, a lawyer whose family also runs the Little Nell hotel in Aspen and helped found the Aspen Institute. "He told me that I'm the most expensive stepdaughter he could possibly imagine."
In addition, having a biting dog around with her youngest and his little friends (and potentially litigious parents) was a minefield. So after several failed attempts with trainers, Kiwi was given away. But not long after, Crown got another miniature poodle that was almost as bad.
No home, however stately, is immune. That includes the White House. The pit bull of Theodore Roosevelt was known for ripping the pants off a French ambassador. And although Bo, the Obamas' Portuguese water dog, is incident free for now, recent presidential dogs in the dog house included Buddy, the Clintons' cat-attacking Labrador retriever, and Barney, the Scottish terrier of George and Laura Bush, who bit a journalist.
Size is also irrelevant. Small dogs, so often owned by the wealthy, do seem to cause big problems. A 2010 New York City Health Department survey shows there were 3,609 reported dog-bite incidents, and just as many involved Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas and miniature poodles as pit bulls and Rotweillers.
Breeding, especially the intense behavior of some purebreds, seems to make a difference, too, as the writer Martin Kihn learned the hard way. He adopted a giant Bernese mountain dog, a breed sometimes called "the Little Bear of Switzerland." The dog "was a status symbol and harder to get from a breeder than getting into Yale," Kihn said. But the dog, whose name was Hola, seemed hellbent on wreaking havoc.
While walking past Lincoln Center, Hola accosted a perfectly coiffed doyenne and left two big paw prints on a beautiful white dress.
"That was the last time I took her to the opera," said Kihn, whose new memoir, "Bad Dog: A Love Story," offers a wry tale of canine rehabilitation. "I really got her because I wanted to be seen with her, that's all."
It's a good thing Kihn wasn't asked to bring Hola to his Manhattan co-op board before moving in. "We just lied and told them she was medium-size and mellow," he said.
Others should have it so easy. To get past highly selective co-op boards, the desperate turn to Elena Gretch, founder of It's a Dog's Life, an upmarket training service. She usually requires six sessions (at about $175 a session) to prep dogs for interviews.
While some slip dogs Valium, she keeps dogs sober, training them not to bark during the dreaded doorbell test and helping them understand that elevators and lobbies are not powder rooms. And, of course, an elaborate bath before the interview is de rigueur.
"Co-op boards are about controlling their environments, and they expect dogs to behave like well-trained little people," said Gretch, who faces all kinds of challenges daily. Recent clients included a dermatologist who wants to train his feisty pug puppy to be calm in his office, a type-A lawyer turned fitness entrepreneur whose basset hound had to be prepared for a Hush Puppies shoot, and a financier who wanted his Chesapeake Bay retriever yacht-broken for a cruise to St. Bart's.
But all of it that, she added, is nothing compared with the scrutiny of a high-strung co-op board. "When you have to charm so many people, it's really intimidating," she said.
It's a good thing dogs don't have to apply to private schools.