Therapy dog gets widow in HOA tiff

Article Courtesy of The East Valley Tribune

By Slim Smith, Tribune Columnist

Published December 7, 2005

The homeowners association at Sunland Springs Village in Mesa prohibits condo owners from having dogs on their property. They are pretty serious about this, apparently. Just ask Julia Houck.

Houck, 82, has owned a condo at Sunland Springs Village for the past 17 months. She and her husband, Elmer, never gave the no-dogs rule much thought.

But this summer, Elmer was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Juliaís brother, Anthony Canale, owns a poodle name Cognac who is a therapy dog at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa. As Elmer Houckís condition deteriorated, Canale would bring Cognac for regular visits.

Cognac was trained and certified by the Banner Baywood dog therapy program, which requires that dogs meet high standards of behavior. Dogs are dismissed from the program for being aggressive, barking or being too active. Cognac passed with flying colors.

"He and Elmer bonded immediately," Canale said. "Cognac would hop in his lap and Elmer would stroke him for hours. They were great pals."

Anyone who has owned a dog can understand what a comfort they can be. This is especially true when you are sad or sick or down on your luck. Dogs donít worry about what they should say. They are not judgmental. They will not spout platitudes. They are content in their simple affection.

Somehow, the folks who run the homeowners association got wind of the dogís visits and informed the Houcks that dogs are forbidden at the condos. Elmerís doctor, however, notified the association that the three-times-a-week visits from Cognac were part of Elmerís medical treatment and the association acquiesced.

On Nov. 17, a day after Elmer Houck died, the family placed a notice of his passing on a bulletin board near the condo office. Later that same day, Julia Houck said she got a phone call from Jenny Nicholson, the association manager, reminding her that since her husband was now dead, the dog couldnít visit.

Nicholson disputes that she made any reference to the dog in that phone conversation.

"I just called to give her my condolences," Nicholson said. "I donít remember mentioning the dog at all."

On Dec. 2, Julia received a bill from the association for $50, saying an anonymous resident had seen the dog at her condo on Nov. 28. Houck flatly denies this. She plans to appeal the fine at the association boardís Dec. 14 meeting.

Nicholson said she sent the letter announcing the fine at the direction of the board and conducted no investigation.

"If a board member sees the violation, thereís no further investigation," Nicholson said.

Imagine a place where you are guilty until proven innocent, where you do not have the right to face your accuser, where the person accusing you is also one of the people who will judge your case.

In most countries, that would be called a mockery of justice.

In the U.S., we call it homeowners association board.

For an 82-year-old woman still very much in the grieving process, the prospects of going before the board to prove her innocence has been overwhelming.

Canale is worried about his sister.

"Itís been pretty hard on her," he said. "Sheís all alone now and still grieving. And then you add in how sheís been treated by the HOA. I just find it appalling. No one should be treated that way."

Houck, who still canít recount her story without bursting into tears, said her blood pressure has been elevated because of the dispute. In fact, her doctor has recommended she get regular visits from Cognac for companionship and comfort.

I think that is an excellent idea.

It is, of course, against the rules at Sunland Springs Village. And I am sure that pathetic, mean-spirited snoop who regularly watches Houckís home to see if she is entertaining visits from Cognac will be ever vigilant.

I am sure that the association will show the same good judgment and compassion it displayed when Cognac was visiting a dying man. I am sure they will continue to send bills to a sick and grieving widow for any future offenses.

Because letís face it: Rules are far more important than people at Sunland Springs Village.

Shame on them.