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Sharing a Small Apartment With a Big Dog? Good Luck.


When Diana Rhoten walks her dog, DZA, in Manhattan, she knows to expect people to comment.

“Oh, you’ve got a horse,” they tell her. “Can I put a saddle on that thing?”

DZA, which is pronounced DIZZ-uh and stands for Doggo Zig-Zag-Zig Allah, is a 156-pound Great Dane named for the rapper RZA, of the group Wu-Tang Clan. Like an exceptionally tall person fielding inquiries about the weather “up there,” he is a frequent target of snarky remarks.

But DZA, Ms. Rhoten said, is a good-natured beast who doesn’t yap, chew shoes or run in circles like many of the small dogs living in New York City apartments. He really wants nothing more than to sit in her lap.

The managing director of Purpose Venture Group, a strategic advisory firm focused on climate and social impact, Ms. Rhoten, 56, has learned the hard way that the perception of big dogs, accurate or not, influences the reality of urban real estate. Five years ago, when she and her husband, the journalist John Heilemann, were apartment hunting with their two Great Danes (the elder, Phife Dog, has since died), they were rejected by 27 landlords. Eventually, they gave up and bought a unit in the TriBeCa building where they were living and where the dogs were known quantities.

Now the couple are thinking about going back on the housing market with DZA. Will the prospective buildings impose a weight limit, as they often do? Will Great Danes be on a list of forbidden breeds, as they frequently are? Will the management charge a monthly pet rent that can be as high as $100? Will it insist on meeting DZA, and if so, will there be chemistry?

“It becomes all about the dog,” Ms. Rhoten said. “And you have to be prepared to pull out all the stops to show that your dog is as well-behaved as you are.”

Canine owners and experts agree that it is not the size of the dog that matters in city apartments, but the animal’s disposition and needs. Painting large breeds with broad strokes reinforces erroneous beliefs, such as that greyhounds need constant exercise, when, in fact, many are couch potatoes, or that pit bulls are natural born killers.

“It’s almost like you’re an outcast if you have a large dog,” said Ina Obernesser, a veterinarian in Nyack, N.Y., referring to weight limits as meager as 20 pounds. Although she finds such regulations “ludicrous” because weight has nothing to do with a dog’s temperament, she sees the point: “If your dog bites someone in the elevator, the Chihuahua nibbles on an ankle; the pit bull sends them to the hospital.”

Natalya Haddix, 24, a marketing consultant, is one of many pet owners who have skirted housing restrictions by declaring their dog an emotional support animal. This has allowed her to share her 688-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Miami with a Great Dane puppy named Cairo. At 7 months, Cairo weighs 120 pounds, and he is expected to top out at 150 pounds. He eats 20 pounds of kibble a week.

“He pretty much runs the house,” Ms. Haddix said. “The couch is his.”

She tracks Cairo’s growth by seeing how easily he can steal food from the top of the stove. It is long past the point where anything is safe.

And dating can be tricky, she said, when your dog insists on inserting his giant body between you and any visitor.

“People ask me all the time, ‘How do you live with that dog?’” Ms. Haddix said. She has the advantage of residing in SoLé Mia, a complex in North Miami with a spacious dog park. Cairo “does start a lot of conversations,” she added.

Simon Kornberg, a veterinary neurologist in Davie, Fla., who once lived with two 70-plus-pound dogs (and a cat and a wife, Samantha Franco) in a New York City apartment of less than 700 square feet, noted that people formed deep attachments to their pets when they shared a small space, largely because of a joint need to escape it.

On frequent perambulations around the city, “our dogs naturally came with us,” Dr. Kornberg, 37, said. These outings not only created a more intense bond between humans and pets than what would have formed if the dogs were confined to a backyard but also led to more mental stimulation for the animals.

Except when the streets were crowded. After the dogs — a rough collie called Freddie and a shepherd mix called Monterrey — were hit repeatedly in the face by the shopping bags of inattentive passers-by (the height of their heads made them inadvertent targets), the couple moved from the commerce-heavy Flatiron district to an 800-square-foot apartment in a less dense part of Chelsea. There, they discovered the advantage of a railroad layout. When the dogs got the “zoomies,” they could race up and down the hallway.

Probably the most fraught setting for big dogs in city apartments is the elevator.

Tom Mitchell, a dog behaviorist in southwestern England, calls the elevator a “pinch point,” where a lot of action is concentrated, potentially overwhelming pets. (Doorways leading outside are another example.) If the animal is small, it can be scooped up and reassuringly carried. Large dogs must face down their anxieties, although these can be reduced with training, he said.

For Kathleen Klech, who lives on the Upper West Side, teaching her 120-pound cane corso, Buttercup, to sit immediately upon entering the elevator was essential for preventing unneighborly conduct.

Otherwise, “she’ll put her nose in your grocery bag and eat your steak,” Ms. Klech, 65, said. “But I’ve had dachshunds who did that, too.”

A real estate agent with Compass, Ms. Klech advises prospective tenants to be wary of the pet policies provided by listings websites like StreetEasy, which are easily misrepresented and slow to update. If you sign a contract and find you can’t have a dog, she said, “what are you going to do, rehouse your pet?”

Ren and Zach Glass sidestepped disaster when they won a housing lottery in 2016 for a small two-bedroom apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, only to discover that the building did not accept dogs. They registered their shepherd-collie-pit bull mix, Trolley, as an emotional support animal, and soon many of their neighbors owned dogs as well. After Trolley died, a little more than a year ago, they adopted Cosmo, a 50-pound pit bull mix.

Ms. Glass, 45, who is a tattoo artist, said she had happy memories of growing up with big dogs and felt more secure when walking with one at night. She added that her husband, who owns the Brooklyn bar Our Wicked Lady, “loves a dog that he can kind of wrestle with, and the bigger dogs are really great snugglers.”

The couple were also thinking of the benefits for their 8-year-old child, Ellis. “A big dog is wonderful for a little kid in terms of confidence and learning how to interact with animals,” Ms. Glass said. “There’s a level of seriousness. You have to respect that the dog is not a toy.”

Rachel Lane, a dog trainer in Brooklyn who works with Cosmo to ensure the family’s peaceful coexistence, said a big dog in a city apartment “can be like a bull in a china shop, but you can use the space efficiently to get your dog a lot of great indoor exercise.” She recommended chew toys and puzzle toys that stimulate the mind and senses. There are also yoga-like stretching exercises for dogs.

Ms. Lane recalled clients who were seriously considering moving out of New York City because their large golden retriever was unmanageably boisterous. She diagnosed “a little bit of generalized anxiety” and taught the dog how to walk nicely on a leash and settle down at home.

“Now, when I come into the apartment, he just lies on his bed,” she said.


Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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