Landlords, Dogs and the Law

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Sometimes, when it comes to pets, landlords can be your worst enemy. They’ll tell you no pets are allowed. Well, maybe a cat. Or they’ll use a pet that they knew about, and approved of in spite of a “no pets” provision in your lease agreement, as an excuse to evict you for some other reason.

Other times, of course, landlords can be total sweethearts. I fondly remember one who, when I moved into a ground floor apartment, greeted me with his Newfoundland dog, his German Shepherd, and another large dog of dubious breeding. “So, how many dogs do you have?” he asked enthusiastically. I felt almost embarrassed telling him that I just had a cat, and didn’t point out that my budget was so tight and my work hours so erratic that I didn’t think it would be right to invite a dog into my life just yet. For more on this, see Dog People and Cat People – They Really Are Different.

You can’t count on landlords like that, though – they’re few and far between. When you’re renting, too, you’re often at the mercy of your landlord’s whims, so if you’re a renter and you have a dog, you need to know your rights.

The Standard Rental Agreement

If you’ve ever tried, as a dog owner, to rent an apartment, condo or house, you know that most standard lease agreements do include “no pets” clauses. This is perfectly legal, and most of the time the courts will side with landlords who want to evict tenants that have broken the terms of the lease by bringing a pet onto the premises.

However, you may have protection under the law if your original lease did not contain a “no pets” clause and the landlord adds one when your lease is up for renewal. You may also be protected if the landlord knew about your pet, but didn’t object for a significant length of time, or if the landlord previously agreed that you could keep a pet regardless of what was stated in your lease agreement.

You may also have legal protection if your dog is not actually a “pet,” but is needed to provide security in a bad neighborhood. And you will almost always find that the law is on your side if your dog is a service animal.

Before You Go to Court

In the sections that follow, we’ll go into more detail about how to handle various scenarios, but first, a word of caution. You don’t want to go to court if you can avoid it. It’s costly, time-consuming, and because it’s a civil matter, not criminal, the “burden of proof” shifts – the landlord doesn’t have to prove that you are not legally entitled to keep your dog. You have to prove that you have the legal right to do so.

Unless your relationship with your landlord has somehow become so poisoned that you can’t even speak to him or her without tempers flaring, your better course of action is to ask for a meeting. Sit down over coffee, and make an attempt to work things out. Even if you end up having to pay a bit more in rent, or cough up a larger damage deposit, it’s almost always going to be considerably less stressful, not to mention cheaper, than hashing things out in court.

The other thing with going to court is that if your relationship with your landlord isn’t already in the toilet, you can bet that it will be once the proceedings are over. So before you and your landlord end up on opposite sides of the courtroom, get in touch with your rent control board, your tenants’ union, the SPCA in your area, or your local bar association to find out if mediation might be an option.

Many jurisdictions have programs that are designed to resolve landlord/tenant issues, and they’re usually free. The mediator can’t impose a binding solution, but can help you work with your landlord to find a way of resolving the issue.

Now, on to the issues.

Your Landlord Has Added a “No Pets” Clause

Landlords are perfectly within their rights to refuse to rent to people who have pets. However, if you’re already a renter, it’s not all that easy to change horses in mid-stream and say, “Well, under your last lease agreement I said you could have a pet, but under this agreement I’ve decided that you can’t.”

Yes, landlords can change the terms of your agreement. If you’re renting month-to-month, he or she can change the terms on 30 days’ notice. Under a lease agreement, which usually operates over a longer period of time, the landlord can only change the terms when the lease is up for renewal. In either situation, though, if the landlord has not objected to your dog for quite some time, he or she may have missed the boat and lost the right to object.

If you find yourself in a situation where a previously compliant landlord is suddenly threatening to evict you because of an added “no pets” clause, check your local ordinances. Some cities, knowing that landlords will often invoke a “no pets” clause as a way of ridding themselves of tenants that they don’t want for reasons that are completely unrelated to the presence of pets, will not permit them to do so.

Your Landlord Knows About Your Dog and Suddenly Decides That You Can’t Keep Him

If your landlord knows that you have a dog, and has known for months, or years, it might not be possible to enforce a “no pets” clause even if you signed off on it in your original lease agreement. Some landlords will try to get around this by including a clause that says that even if he or she does not enforce such a clause when you first violate it, it can still be enforced later on. The courts do not usually look kindly on this way of “playing footsie” with the law.

How long the landlord is able to wait to enforce the “no pets” clause may depend largely on the circumstances, though. Just as an example, if you moved in a week ago and you didn’t tell the landlord that you had a dog, and the landlord tells you, “Either the dog goes or you do,” you probably don’t have a leg to stand on. On the other hand, even if you didn’t tell the landlord about the dog, and he shows up months or years later, the court will probably assume that he or she knew, or should have known, about the dog, and by saying nothing, implied that you could keep the dog no matter what the terms of your lease.

Agreements Outside the Lease

Okay, so you’ve looked over your lease, and it clearly says, “No pets allowed.” But you’ve talked with the landlord, who has said, “This seems like a pretty nice dog, and you seem like you’d be a good tenant, so don’t worry about what’s in the lease. You’re both welcome to move in.”

If a dispute occurs later on, it could end up boiling down to which person the court believes. If you say, “He/she told me I could keep my dog,” and the court believes you, then you’ll most likely get to keep your dog, and your apartment. On the other hand, if the landlord says, “I never said any such thing,” and comes across as more believable, you’re out of luck.

It’s always best to avoid “handshake” agreements when it comes to landlords. It’s easy enough to scribble “dog is okay” on the standard lease agreement and then get your landlord to initial it. If you’re worried about coming across as not trusting your landlord, just try saying something like, “I really appreciate you being flexible about my dog. Can you initial this? And is there anything you’d like to change?” You’re being cooperative and showing that you’re also willing to be flexible. Maybe your landlord has something that’s niggling at him or her, but can’t actually come out and say it – something along the lines of, “I’d rather you park that beat-up, rusty Lada of yours in the back lot instead of in front of the building.” Fine – scribble it in and initial it. Give a little, get a little.

Special Needs Other Than Special Needs

What does this mean? Well, basically it means that if you’re blind, chances are pretty good that you need a service dog, and the law looks after you in that case. You might also need a service dog if you suffer from disabilities that prevent you from performing everyday tasks, or if you have a medical issue like a seizure disorder and need a trained dog to alert you that something is about to happen. On the other hand, if you need a therapy dog for mental illness or emotional distress, the waters get a bit muddied. In some jurisdictions, the law recognizes this type of need. In others, not so much.

To use a couple of examples, in California a court overruled a landlord and decreed that a couple, both of whom suffered from chronic depression, could keep a dog in their condo. In New York, on the other hand, the court ruled that a dog could not be kept in an apartment despite the fact that the presence of the dog had been proven to have a dramatic effect on the emotional well-being of a depressed 9-year-old.

So, What Do Courts Consider?

There are three basic elements that the courts will usually weigh in determining whether your rights outweigh those of your landlord, in the absence of hard evidence to prove that you and your landlord both agreed that you could have a dog.

1. Emotional Attachment

If you do have to go to court and fight to keep your dog, get your experts lined up. The courts are usually very willing to weigh expert testimony about the emotional attachment that you have to your dog, and his importance in your mental health. If the court finds, on the basis of expert testimony, that your emotional well-being would be significantly compromised if you were forced to part with your dog, you will probably be able to keep him.

2. Protection

If you can prove that your dog is essential to your peace of mind, and needed to protect you, then the “no pets” clause in your lease agreement may be overruled by the court. You will have to provide evidence, such as a history of drug deals or break-ins where you live, or statistics that show that you live in an area that has more than its share of criminal activity.

Protection

I’d suggest, though, that you don’t attempt this line of argument if you own a small dog like a Chihuahua or a Yorkie – you’re just going to get laughed out of court.

3. Is Your Dog a Nuisance?

Some tenants have successfully argued that their dog is not destructive, not prone to barking, not aggressive, and generally displays no behavior that would cause any reasonable person to believe that he is a nuisance. In such cases, the court may find that the “no pets” clause is unreasonable, and therefore should not apply.

The Final Word

Often, people assume that because there is a “no pets” clause in their lease, or because their landlord has added one, they have no choice but to either give up their dog or look for other accommodations. This is not always the case. Dog owners do have a certain level of protection under the law.

It’s always best, though, if it is humanly possible, to work out any issues with your landlord before ending up in the court system. Sometimes, all it takes is a bit of common sense on both sides, and a willingness to cooperate. Most landlords would rather accommodate a good tenant than toss them to the curb, and so as long as they’re assured that your dog won’t damage the property, they’ll likely be willing to meet you halfway.

About the Author Ash

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