Blind man's guide dog causing row at Bloomingdale condo building

 
 
Updated 1/5/2011 6:36 AM
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  • Tim Spencer, with his guide dog, Iggie, is fighting complaints and fines stemming from the dog's barking.

      Tim Spencer, with his guide dog, Iggie, is fighting complaints and fines stemming from the dog's barking. Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

  • Tim Spencer, who is blind, is led by his guide dog Iggie at his Bloomingdale condo.

      Tim Spencer, who is blind, is led by his guide dog Iggie at his Bloomingdale condo. Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

  • Tim Spencer and his guide dog, Iggie; wife, Heather; and son Andrew, 3; are fighting complaints about the dog's barking.

      Tim Spencer and his guide dog, Iggie; wife, Heather; and son Andrew, 3; are fighting complaints about the dog's barking. Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

When Iggie, a black Labrador, moved into Tim Spencer's Bloomingdale condo, it seemed a tough time was about to get better.

Spencer has retinoblastoma, a rare cancer of the retina that took his left eye when he was a toddler; he lost his vision completely two years ago.

His 3-year-old son Andrew is battling the same cancer and has had more than 40 surgeries to fight it, his dad said.

"I was an athlete and always wanted to be the dad who took my son to the park and threw him a ball, so I thought I'd at least be safer with a guide dog to take him out instead of using a cane," he said.

Spencer traveled to New York, and in November he graduated with Iggie from Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a group that trains guide dogs from birth.

The building where the Spencer family settled a month earlier, 1 Bloomingdale Place, forbids pets, but the condo association made concessions for Iggie under the Americans with Disabilities Act even before he arrived.

Things seemed to be looking up, Spencer said. Their new condo is near Andrew's school and wife Heather's work, and it offers indoor parking and security cameras.

"It's a safe place," Spencer said.

But then the notices started coming in the mail. And the phone calls from the condo board began, with complaints of too much barking from Iggie.

Today, the Spencers face about $300 in fines for violating condo rules. An attorney for the association said the family faces a hearing to try to resolve dispute.

But Spencer claims the allegations and fines are unfounded.

"I am getting harassed for a tool I use to function," Spencer said. "For the first six months, guide dogs go through separation anxiety. And he'll bark a bit because he's scared and in a new environment.

"But we were getting calls once while we were at Children's Memorial Hospital during one of my son's surgeries, and ... every week it's something different."

More training?

The barking stems from Iggie being left alone for too long, according to Pam Park, an attorney with Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit of Buffalo Grove, which represents the condo association board.

"This is not just one resident complaining," Park said. "The association has received several complaints from residents around the Spencers' unit because the dog is barking excessively.

"The dog is being left alone for three, four, five hours at a time. We would question whether the dog was trained to be left for such long periods of time," she said.

Spencer said Iggie is rarely left alone for more than two hours, with one exception being during Andrew's surgery just days after the dog arrived in November. He also said the dog is left alone primarily during daytime or early evening.

Still, he is using tips he learned from Guiding Eyes to try to alleviate the barking, such as leaving Iggie with a toy coated in peanut butter and leaving on the TV.

He said some neighbors have been supportive and even bought Christmas presents for Iggie. Only a few, he said, are complaining.

Wayne Rosmis, president of the condo association board who lives in the unit directly next to the Spencers, declined an interview and asked Park to speak for the board.

Park said the board is trying to respect Spencer's rights and be sensitive.

"We would suggest the dog be given additional training," Park said.

School can step in

Although students such as Spencer spend only 26 days training with their dogs at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, the canines have a much more rigorous regimen.

Students from throughout the country travel to the school to obtain a dogs like Iggie, which have been trained since puppies.

"We like to say that training starts from the time they are born," Guiding Eyes spokeswoman Michelle Brier said.

That starts with early socialization to get dogs accustomed to new sights and noises, like people in funny hats, traffic, construction and emergency vehicles, she said.

Later, the dogs are taught house manners, basic obedience and more socialization.

"Dogs are left in crates so they get used to being alone," Brier said. "Then, once they are considered candidates to be ideal guide dogs, they continue to train for another five months to a year."

Brier confirmed that Spencer contacted the school recently for more training tips. She said he's "doing his best to rectify the problem" and the school would send a trainer to Bloomingdale if complaints continue.

Becky Barnes, a Guiding Eyes staff member who helps support graduates and who is also blind, said she is skeptical that Iggie is barking excessively after such thorough training.

"I really don't think these people are being totally honest," Barnes said. "Dogs are dogs and they might bark occasionally, but they are trained for separation anxiety and to be alone. Plus, your dog is with you most of the time because you need it to function."

Spencer also has an attorney but said he hopes the condo association will see at the upcoming hearing that his family is working to respect their neighbors.

"Ultimately I want to get along with people," he said. "We are a friendly-family, but I don't like bullies, and that is why we are trying to make a stand."