As many of you are aware there are always two sides to every story. When the media contacted us the other day about one of our service dogs in training we were taken aback. For those of you that don’t know much about us, we have been dog trainers for more than twenty years and have been training service dogs for more than a decade. We take the utmost pride in our work and our program and we do our best to not only see the good intentions of people but we help them in any way we can.
Our service dogs are placed all over North America. We have trained service dogs for psychiatric clients, autistic clients, mobility clients, clients with PTSD, our soldiers returning from war and for people with mobility and medical alert needs. We do things differently than most. The first being is we are not a non-profit and we let our clients know this from the very first phone call. We are not a non-profit for a couple of reasons, one because we want to spend our time working with our clients and training their dogs and, two the way our training program is set up we design a program for the individual needs of the client. That means we don’t have a kennel of dogs waiting to be placed and there is not a two-year waiting list for people that are in need of a service dog. This also means we find suitable dogs for our clients and we base that on their specific needs. While we typically work with a local breeder for most of our service dogs that provides Labrador Retrievers, we also work with a German Shepherd breeder in Colorado and several other breeders in the past that had dogs that met a particular need. Most of the time we start training when the dog is a puppy, other times when they are young juvenile dogs. Occasionally we have even trained the client’s own dog if it passes our strict criteria and temperament testing.
The way our program is designed, we find a dog for the client and then ask for the payment of the dog in full. On a rare occasion a breeder does donate a dog to our program, but usually we charge the client the exact amount the dog costs.
Our program requires two main things to get started. An in-depth interview that usually takes place over days of phone calls, email, and text messages, and a note from their doctor that says they would benefit from the use of a service dog. Under our understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) we don’t ask the doctor to outline the medical history of the client, just that they would benefit from the use of a trained service dog. Once those two things are done we speak to the client to develop a training program and go about finding them a suitable dog. Sometimes we find a dog right away, other times it takes months. Yes, it is true that there are times when a dog does not work out. But through our careful selection and knowing the lines that our breeders are using we have a pretty good success rate, especially with the Labs and German Shepherds.
Once the dog is found we start our training program, which is typically an 18 to 24 month program. It starts with basic obedience with an emphasis on commands for eventual service work, then on to Canine Good Citizen, Public Access Training, advanced training where we train the dog for the specific tasks, then we place the dog with the client and begin to work with them on how to work with and train their service dog. If our clients are able and willing we will often break our training program up into sections and the dog will go to their home in between training sections (ie. a month at their home between CGC and Public Access Training, etc.). Most of our clients welcome this time with their new companion and it sets the program up for success in that the dog knows and bonds with the client and the client gets a chance to work with the dog and offer input on the training program. To our knowledge we are the only training program in the country that does it this way and we have never had a problem until now…
So now that you have a good background on our program, here is our side of the story of Kenzie.
Last winter a client from Juneau, Alaska contacted us wanting a service dog. We did everything that I mentioned above. She and her husband did to. We received a doctors note, pages and pages of email, phone calls and our standard breed referral fee.
We set about to find a suitable dog. It took us a couple months and we found Kenzie in February or so and tested her out. She looked like she would be a good fit and we contacted the client. We told her that the dog, an AKC registered Newfoundland, not quite two years old, would cost $500.00 and would be required to be spayed before her paperwork would be released from the breeder. The client agreed and we picked Kenzie up in Anchorage in mid-March.
Just two days after Kenzie’s arrival, the client and her husband flew to our home and training center in Willow from Juneau and spent the day with us. She fell in love with Kenzie and after much discussion and answering questions they signed the contract before they left.
At that moment Kenzie started our training program. She worked with us here for almost two months on basic obedience, and basic obedience only. She was around a lot of dogs. We train up to seven dogs at a time in our camp program. Some of the dogs she got along great with others she didn’t. We didn’t see anything that would cause alarm.
We were in constant contact with our client. She mailed copies of insurance, emails, requested pictures and commented many times on pictures we posted on Facebook. They bought a $600.00 dollar specially made harness as well. At some point we scheduled an out of state trip to the east coast to re-certify a couple of our service dogs and time to visit family. Our client asked if Kenzie could come stay with them for a couple months. We agreed. During this time in their home it was agreed that Kenzie would be there just to bond with the client and her husband and work with them on the stuff she already knows—basic obedience. It was understood, or so we thought, that Kenzie would not be used as a service dog, meaning she would not go to restaurants and other places in public. She was not ready for that type of work yet!
On May 18, we met with the client and her husband at the airport. They flew in from Juneau early that day and we arrived about three hours before our flight so we could work with them and Kenzie. This was the first time the dog was ever exposed to things like the elevator, the client’s wheelchair, hundreds of people, the noise of the airport and so on. We took tons of pictures and video that are posted on our Facebook page. The client seemed happy and no issues were raised. We all went through security and Kenzie did great. Remember this is a dog that has only had basic obedience training. We went our separate ways to our respective gates to wait for our flights.
Everything seemed fine. We didn’t hear from the client when we arrived in Seattle and assumed she did well on her first airplane ride.
We had an overnight in Seattle and an all day flight to the east coast. During that day, the 19<sup>th</sup>, they took Kenize to the glacier, to the grocery store, to a restaurant and she met lots of tourist on her first day. All of this was agreed on beforehand that would <u>not</u> happen. The client posted happy pictures of her and Kenzie at these places on her Facebook page.
As soon as we landed in Baltimore and turned on our phones there was a text message from the client to contact them immediately. It was 5pm on the east coast, which means it was only 1pm here in Alaska. We called the client immediately and she and her husband, said that Kenzie was not going to work out. She growled at their other dog, a Malamute mix, that she said would not be living there during Kenzie’s visit and even snapped at the husband. What? Kenzie never showed any form of aggression towards us and after more than a 30-minute phone call we all agreed that Kenzie had done way too much in her first 18 hours and she was in a new place, a new home and totally new environment. Remember she was only supposed to be there for bonding and “hanging out.”
We knew Kenzie’s temperament. She lived in our home for two months. She even had a birthday cake with a silly hat on for her birthday. We knew she would be fine in their home. Besides we just landed 4,000 miles away. What could we do?
Over the next eight or nine days we did not hear from the client. We went about our work and vacation and assumed that she was doing well. We didn’t expect daily updates.
On the 27<sup>th</sup>, one day before we were supposed to fly home we got another distraught call from the client. We were in rush hour traffic in New York City and the client again said that Kenzie was not going to work out. Their chief complaint was that she drooled too much and they were unable to brush her. Kenzie is a Newfoundland. Yes, they drool, especially when overly excited or anxious and they do require a decent brushing every week or so. The client said that she was unable to do it in her wheelchair and her husband couldn’t because he had a bad knee. Understandable. Kenize was professionally groomed just a few days before she left our care so she wouldn’t need too much brushing after just two weeks.
The client was adamant that they didn’t want Kenzie and the conversation went back and forth for more than an hour. Michele finally said, Kenzie is your dog and she is in training as a service dog. If you want to withdraw her from the program she is your dog and it is up to you what you want to do with her. She is a service dog in training that was bought for you. If she returns to us she will spend her nights in a crate. She is too big of a dog to do that too. She is your dog.
We told the client that we would be flying back and would be home sometime late on the 29<sup>th</sup>. At the end of the phone call it seemed like everyone was on the same page, even though the client did say they didn’t take her to the scheduled veterinary appointment for her to be spayed on the 26<sup>th</sup>. We chalked that up to the client being unsure and we all even chuckled before hanging up.
We arrived home and did not hear from the client again. We sent a couple text messages and no response. It is not uncommon for clients and their new dogs to have growing pains. They are dogs. We expect that. You expect that if you are a dog owner. The weekend here went without a return call and we went about meeting with clients, teaching lessons and getting the business back on track after being away for a week and a half.
On Tuesday morning, June 2<sup>nd</sup>, we get a call from a reporter, asking our side of the story about Kenzie. What? Michele answered her questions and I (Robert) immediately sent a text message to the client. I said something to the effect of, why did you contact the media? That they signed a contract. That Kenzie was a service dog in training in a two year program and make themselves available for me to fly down to Juneau to pick up Kenzie. We did not get a reply.
We then had begun our search as to what has happened with the client and Kenzie over the last couple weeks while we were gone. On her Facebook page there are lots of smiling pictures of them and Kenize, at the glacier, meeting people, and happy comments.
We then found a post on May 28<sup>th</sup> on Facebook that the client had posted a picture of the very expensive harness (granted which they paid for) on some flea market site. We knew then that this was not going to end well.
On Wednesday, the 3<sup>rd</sup> the article came out. We immediately saw that my text message was used in the story. The one they refused to reply to. We then called their home number and as we were leaving a message on their machine they picked up and hung up again. They turned their cell phones off and they went straight to voice mail. I sent a second text message stating I would be happy to come down and get Kenzie. No reply.
In hindsight maybe we could have done things differently. But we trusted these people and like I said we try our best to see the good intentions of people. We have trained at least 50 service dogs over the years and we have never been in a situation like this one. Granted Kenzie was their dog but also we were 4,000 miles away. What were we supposed to do? Fly immediately back home and take Kenize back? We are a family business with our 17-year old daughter holding down the fort at home. We were on a business trip and a short vacation. We knew Kenzie would be fine in their home if they would have just followed the directions. Directions that they agreed to.
I don’t know what is going to happen from here. Technically Kenize is their dog so we cannot demand that she be returned. The client did sign a contract for which they technically owe. Even in cases where dogs don’t work out we find one that will. But as of right now it is just a crazy situation. Dog training is a very interesting business. We know that we cannot please everyone. There are times when we don’t meet the expectations of our clients. We are human. We make mistakes. But we are also in a service business that requires effort and commitment on the part of our clients. When a dog comes to us for training there is still work that needs to be done by the client for the training program to be successful. If they don’t follow through then all of the money they put into the dog’s training will be quickly wasted. Remember dogs will be dogs. People have to remember that. We train dogs every day because it is a rewarding challenge. Over the years we have worked with some of the most amazing clients in the world and we hear from them every week on how their dog is doing. And this is not just our service dogs.
We hate to have this incident change how we do business. Especially with our service dogs. We have such a good success rate with dogs that are placed and working with their handlers. But when things like this happen it makes you want to second guess everything. I am just not sure if we are ready to do that.
Thank you for taking to the time to read our side of the story.