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I found my dream apartment—and then adopted a difficult dog

What I learned from having a dog with a bad reputation

Max rocketed into our lives just two weeks after moving into our dream apartment, a spacious one-bedroom with a doorman across from Prospect Park, all for a decent price. My wife Emily and I had been married six months, and after the bathroom ceiling collapsed in our cramped, dark West Village shoebox with a doorway that was a magnet for drunk guys to puke on, this new Brooklyn apartment symbolized a fresh, sophisticated new beginning.

In the time before Max, I engaged with my new neighbors in the lobby and elevators, and thought about getting involved with our active tenants association. I was going to be the perfect neighbor.

Then, one sunny Sunday afternoon in August, we got drunk at brunch, haggled over a new midcentury modern bedroom set, then walked home feeling like champs. At some point on our walk, we stepped into a pet store to pick up some food for our cats. Parked outside was a shelter truck filled with barking pits and lab-mixes. I make a habit of not patronizing adoption events, because I want to adopt them all. I would be running around with a double stroller full of senior pugs if I were allowed. I’ve been around dogs my entire life; I tend to like them more than most humans.

But Emily locked eyes with Max, and that was it. He was a trembling, scruffy little guy with black fur, a white bib, sad eyes, and one delicate white paw. Stuck in the middle of all the dogs that had 50 or more pounds on him, he looked tiny and frightened. What cemented it for me, though, was a shelter employee telling us, “he wasn’t treated right.”

We signed the paperwork, had two friends vouch for us over the phone, paid a small adoption fee, and walked him home. Everything was great for that first night, save for a hacking case of kennel cough.

The next morning, however, Max made his first enemy: an older, cranky terrier owned by one of the building’s longtime residents. The dog’s owner and I had met a few days earlier, exchanging smiles and a “hello” and “hi” in the elevator. Besides that, the only thing I knew about the person was an ongoing feud with another tenant who ran the building’s Facebook group for something that apparently went back decades.

Max is only 15 pounds, but he has a tremendous and ferocious-sounding bark. He let a series of snarls and grunts loose at the terrier waiting for the elevator. “You should really learn to control your dog,” the neighbor told us, snidely. “Yes. Thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth, and kept walking. Two days later, she offered the same advice after seeing Max pulling his leash. Only this time, it was before I’d had my morning coffee. I snapped at her: We had it under control, and didn’t need her advice.

This started a war of stony silence that lasted for years. More than a few times, we spitefully refused to hold the elevator for each other. Not long after, a neighborhood resident who walks dogs for a living, and who I nicknamed “Old Beavis” (because he looks like a 60-something version of the notorious MTV character from the 1990s), told one dog owner—while I was within earshot!—“Be careful of that dog. He’s crazy.” I looked at Old Beavis and told him to fuck off. How dare he say that about my dog, my family. If Max was crazy, so was I.

The thing is, my dog is kind of an asshole. I love him with all my heart, but he’s mean. You wouldn’t realize that looking at him; he’s a handful of nervous energy who hates most men (fair) and flirts with pretty much any woman he meets. He whines like somebody is sticking him with pins when he wants a treat. He thinks the entire front of our building, from the elevator to sidewalk outside the entrance, is his domain, and will start acting like the Incredible Hulk if he sees another dog anywhere in the vicinity.

Other dogs—bigger dogs—seem awed, possibly frightened by him. They get down in the submissive position when he walks by. (One time, he peed on another dog’s face while it was marking a log at the dog park. It was savage.)

Max had a hard life before we adopted him as an adult. It was clear from his constant fear and anxiety that a previous owner had neglected and abused him. At three, he had no commands or socialization. It took months for us to get him to learn “sit,” even with training classes. If I had to guess, he was rarely, if ever, walked with a leash.

And he has no idea how to interact. He cries, whimpers, and sometimes growls, making other dog owners think maybe letting my dog meet theirs isn’t the hottest idea. From Max’s perspective, he must meet every other dog. Every butt not smelled is a missed opportunity. And when I stop to talk with somebody? Max gives me maybe 30 seconds, and then unleashes a series of barks that are the loudest I’ve heard from a smaller dog that isn’t a beagle.

My dog can be terrible, but when you take a dog that somebody else didn’t want into your home, you’re offering your open heart to the baggage that comes with them. And I guess, in a lot of ways, he’s just like me. His enemies are mine. And unfortunately, we’d made more than our fair share in our neighborhood.

Things did slowly settle into a less exciting rhythm after his first year with us, especially after I figured out the best low-traffic times to go for walks. But Max got riled up after a new neighbor, who was talking on the phone, let their dog approach him in the lobby as I was getting a package, even after I asked them not to. Max growled and then snapped at their little mutt, thankfully a near miss. I tried to tell them I’d said not to let the dog come over, but they couldn’t hear me because they were on the phone. They flipped out, yelled to whomever they were talking to that some crazy dog had attacked their dog, and then ran off before I could even try to explain or apologize.

Two days later, our management company called. The person had filed a complaint, saying that our dog was off his leash in the hallway, and went after their dog. Not only had the person ignored all common sense dog-owner etiquette, but then they lied about what had happened! Our list of enemies in the building grew with Max’s bad reputation. I became even more protective.

At first, I was fine with being indignant. I went from being a smiling, helpful neighbor, to wanting to go down to Canal Street and buying one of those, “Fuck you, you fucking fuck” t-shirts, and a matching one for my dog. Then, we realized, that wasn’t fair to us, it wasn’t fair to our neighbors, and it wasn’t fair to Max.

So we continued to work. We took him to doggy school at the local pet store, and the trainer looked befuddled, like she had no clue what to do with our dog. Then we paid a guy who advertises his training with the Dog Whisperer $400 to basically tell us, “It’s you, not the dog.” We did everything he told us. We asserted ourselves. We did weird military-like circles on the sidewalk to get Max to allow us to lead. We approached new dogs on the street. We replaced his harness with a martingale collar that tightens when he pulls, but nothing helped. Max would pull to the point of choking himself when a Chihuahua or Dachshund walked by. He’d flip out if another dog got in the elevator. We were exhausted, Max was exhausted, and it looked like dangling him out the window to do his business would become the only option.

Then, distance happened. Emily and Max moved three hours away to another state for school. I stayed in Brooklyn, and would see them on weekends. The two of them lived in Connecticut during the week with her parents, and my mother-in-law could take care of Max while my wife was on campus. Max didn’t exactly mellow out, but growing into dog middle-age in the woods of New England, where everything was his to pee on without the fear of a hundred other dogs marking his territory, did seem to settle his restless soul.

It wasn’t bad for me, either. It gave me an opportunity to try and mend some fences I’d broken in the building. I watched another tenant get a puppy that grew into a truly humongous dog, and the struggles they had that were just like ours, but worse because of their dog’s size: scuffles in the lobby, barking in the street, problems with the elevator. Instead of casting a rude glance when their dog would lunge on the sidewalk, my heart wrenched in sympathy. I admit that I was often the bad dog parent, and now I needed to go out of my way to lend a hand, especially to those we’d long listed as enemy-neighbors.

This new growth was inward, too. I needed to work harder with Max to improve his on-leash time, which meant working on myself. He feeds off my anxiety, and I am a veritable buffet of it. Now I take him on longer walks, and to a fenced dog run where he can go without a leash stressing him out. It’s a little awkward at first. What if he does something weird? What if I seem like a jerk? But he tries, and I try, and he seems to have fun, and that means I have fun, too.

The terrier, Max’s first enemy? She’s so old she can barely walk the block now. Max gives her a wide berth, I’m sure sensing her ill health, but perhaps also in recognition of their shared address. I figure this is something like respect. I go out of my way to make conversation with the owner and find them to be pleasant to talk with. That’s all that we can hope for at home—which in Brooklyn means it’s 2.6 million other people’s home, too.

I also know that Max is weird, and that I’m weird. We’re not for everybody, but we’re good for each other. He might mellow out as he gets older, he might not. For the time being, all I want to do is keep making sure he has a good life. We’ve earned a reputation in our neighborhood, and that’s fine. There are worse things to earn a reputation for. All we can do now is get better, and let the other dogs do their businesses in peace.

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