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Of Dogs and Diplomacy

Upper East Side

Hilary Zwicky

As odd jobs go, it is among the oddest. Hilary Zwicky talks to dogs. Zwicky is the sole member of the Canine Committee at her 70-unit co-op on the Upper East Side. Not that she’s complaining, mind you. She loves dogs and she loves her job.
“I seem to be the only one who’s on the committee, and that’s okay because it seems to work,” says Zwicky, who has lived with her husband and daughter in the 1920s-era building since 1992. “I have two little dogs – Shih Tzus named Poppy and Lucy – and I’ve always had dogs. More and more people in the building are adopting dogs. The way it works is, if a new person comes into the building, now we interview them–and their dogs.”
Zwicky assumed the dog’s best friend role when a new president, Dr. Bjorn Hanson, was elected to the seven-person board a few years ago. Apparently a man with a deep faith in committees, he set up eight of them soon after his election: finance, entertainment, welcoming, bike care, fitness, long-range planning, gardening, and, of course, dogs.
As for the canine committee, Zwicky says, “I make my own rules, and I’m really kind of a liberal, live-and-let-live kind of person, to be honest with you. I always ask them if [the dogs] have had their proper shots. I have to meet them and their owners, and to me that [meeting] says it all. I engage them in a conversation and get to know the people, because if you know the people, you know the kind of personality the dog’s going to have, I think. You get the measure. You see if the dog is a right fit for the building, and most of them are.” She pauses and then adds: “I wouldn’t recommend a Great Dane or a pit bull, but that’s never occurred.”
How do you interview a dog?
“That’s a good question,” she admits. “I just go and play with them and I sometimes bring my dogs to see if they get along, which really isn’t too fair. Essentially, I just meet the dog.”
After the new shareholder moves in, what if a new and approved dog barks? “That’s a sensitive issue,” says Zwicky. “We’ve had some issues with dog barking and I say, ‘How can you really know [beforehand]?’ You try to develop some strategy. It’s tricky. People take their dogs very seriously, like their children. We have someone who owns three or four dogs. They often have a dog service come in [to walk them]. They send them away to camps for a month to get trained. It’s like sending a child to boarding school.”
The most ticklish issue doesn’t concern new residents but actually involves teaching old owners new tricks – telling long-time residents who decide to get a dog that their dogs need to be vetted. “Sometimes they think it’s no business of mine or the co-op’s whether they get a dog or not and whether it should be interviewed,” notes Zwicky. Before getting the lawyer or the managing agent on the case, Zwicky hunts them down.
“I will e-mail them,” she explains. “I’ll say, ‘This is just a formality but I really have to meet the dog.’ Now, if I see them out on the street, I’ll just talk to them, and it’s very casual. And then, other times, you get to know the dogs by running into them in the elevator. So far, it’s always worked out,” she adds, saying she rarely puts anyone in the metaphorical doghouse. “People are very sensitive about their dogs. I know I am.”
That is where her second role as “shareholder liaison” plays a part. Devised some years ago as the “go-to” person for any complaints that shareholders needed resolved (usually before management or the attorney get involved), the board-sanctioned role of the liaison allows Zwicky to utilize a special skill: diplomacy. Born in England, she came to America when she was still in high school and went on to graduate from Georgetown University, where she studied to be a diplomat. Instead, she spent a number of years as a flight attendant on Pan Am, the now-defunct airline. (She actually met her future husband on one trip, and gave birth to her daughter soon after she left the job.)
“I was a purser and I’ve flown around the world, a lot of places, which were wonderful,” she recalls. “I’d go to Tehran a lot and to many places where you can’t go now. On those flights, you [would] deal with all sorts of people.” That experience was helpful because her co-op houses what she calls “a kind of mini-global village,” a cross-section of different types of residents that she deals with as liaison. “I think that’s how the diplomacy I learned at Georgetown and Pan Am has really helped me.”
Zwicky believes she’s an effective liaison because she knows the people. She’s also unflappable, as she demonstrated in the adventure of the doctor and the dog. “We’re near a hospital, so we have some doctors in the building,” she says. “There’s one lady who’s an obstetrician, and sometimes she’s on night duty, so she sleeps during the day. There’s a man in a unit near her with a dog – the barking could be incessant. She called me, I went down, and I naturally listened. I could hear it, and I subsequently sent him a letter, which he ignored. I would often see the fellow with his dog in the elevator, so one day, I just approached him. He said, ‘It’s not my problem.’”
Undaunted, Zwicky would talk to him whenever they ran into each other. Eventually, she wore him down, and he said to her: ‘I’m really sorry. I’m going to do something about it.’ I haven’t heard any complaints since.”
The moral of the story? “If you listen to both parties, things can get worked out. You just have to provide the people with a platform,” she says, adding a word about why dogs and diplomacy thrive at her co-op: “It’s a lovely building. We keep our doors open. I know it sounds like I’m a poster girl, but it really is a nice place to live.”

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