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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
A New York tale

Globe and Mail Update
Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2003

New York — "C'mon, you can do it, c'mon."

The familiar entreaty of my upstairs neighbour, Pat, to Blackie, his aging black Lab, invades the apartment with a more plaintive than usual tone on a recent Saturday afternoon.

The cajoling of the aging dog to mount the four storeys to his home is one of the sounds we've grown accustomed to since moving into our Brooklyn walk-up last fall, like the baby downstairs crying or the four-year-old next store throwing a tantrum.

But on this day, Blackie is having a particularly tough time.

He has decided to camp outside our door on the third-floor landing and all of Pat's audible coaxing doesn't persuade him to continue up the steps. The drama deepens when my two daughters join the fruitless effort to budge Blackie - he refuses even to follow the lure of peanut butter, which used to prove so successful with our now-deceased Golden Retriever, Riley, when he was being particularly stubborn.

After a brief flurry, my orders come: "Dad, you have to help carry him up."

Out I go and, as Pat explains that Blackie has just had his toenails clipped and his paws are obviously tender, the two of us hoist the 80-pound Lab and carry him up the remaining flight.

I feel sorry for Blackie.

He is a gentle dog with a sweet disposition - we never hear him bark. He must have tremendous bladder control to survive to long stretches between visits to the outside world from his fourth-floor dwelling.

And, like his aging and over-weight owners, he is clearly having increasing difficulty managing the climb back up. At times, I can hear Pat taking a break on our landing, wheezing heavily, and I'm not sure whether it's he or Blackie who needs the rest.

As they all get older, I wonder, how in the world will Pat and his wife Judy manage to get the dog up those four flights of stairs?

The New York Times recently ran a compelling piece about people who are trapped in their walk-up apartments, either old age or disability making them prisoners a few storeys above the street. Often, they don't leave their flats for days or even weeks on end, relying on delivery people for their basic needs.

But a dog has to get out to meet nature's call. (Our landlord padlocked the access to the roof to stop a former tenant from using it as a doggie toilet.)

No one can estimate how many dog owners face the dilemma that my neighbors now do.

New York is a city of walk-ups. There are some 600,000 apartments in buildings that have three or more storeys and no elevator - that's about 20 per cent of the multi-family housing stock, according to the city's Department of Housing, Preservation and


The walk-ups are often rent-controlled and favoured by older or lower-income tenants. Our own three-bedroom "floor-through" went to market rent after being renovated a few years back; Pat and Judy are the second generation in her family to have the fourth-floor flat under rent control and pay a fraction of the market value.

The apartments are or have been family homes and many of those families keep pets, including dogs that age with the tenants.

New York is also a city of dogs. It's striking that, in such a densely populated, urban area with little green space for them to run in, there are so many canines, and so many large ones.

Sandra DeFeo, co-executive director with the Humane Society of New York, says her group regularly gets distress calls from people who have large dogs that can no longer negotiate the numerous flights of stairs to their apartments.

The walk-ups can also pose problems for animals that have had surgery - on their hips, for example, or have been spayed.

"For certain surgeries, even after a dog is spayed, you can manage it but you have to go very slow and you have to add alot more time to your day for going up and down," Ms. DeFeo said.

She said some pet owners use nylon slings to assist their dogs up and down the stairs, but that doesn't work for older people with large dogs. Pet owners can also work with their vets to reduce pain.

But sometimes, the answers run out.

"At a certain point if they can't get around, what is your alternative? That's where you live and that's where your dog lives and it's not easy,'' she said.

Then what? Euthenize? She doesn't want to say it but reluctantly agrees: ``Yeah, if your dog is uncomfortable and you can't get it out regularly . . . ''

The best advice she can offer is that people should simply avoid getting large-breed dogs if they live more than one or two storeys about ground level. In fact, the Humane Society will not give up large dogs to adoption to people who live in the top floors of walk-ups.

"We refuse people if it's not the right situation for a dog. If they live on the top floor of a walk-up and they're adopting a small dog they can pick up, that's fine.''

She would never consider giving up Nigel to someone who had to climb stairs. Nigel is an eight-year-old mastiff, a Japanese tosa, that can barely manage a few steps. A walk-up would surely kill it.

But this is New York - where some nut was recently found to be keeping a 400-pound Bengal tiger in his Harlem apartment. You can count on people to defy common sense - and the pets suffer.

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