News 5 Investigates

May 28, 2014 7:13 PM by Eric Ross

News 5 Guardians: Service dog organization accused of selling untrained dogs

A non-profit service dog organization is accused of scamming people out of thousands of dollars by selling dogs that are not properly trained, then taking the money and running.

The dogs are supposed to detect life-threatening allergens, but several families who have spent nearly $20,000 on these specialized dogs say they aren't fit to do the job.

The organization's founder, Sherry Mers is defending its practices, saying it's the owners who are at fault.

Logan Gonzales loves his Labradoodle, Roxie. The two have a unique relationship that goes far beyond just a boy and his dog.

"She's my best friend," Logan said.

Logan is highly allergic to peanuts. His parents said they spent $17,000 for the dog and travel expenses to pick up Roxie in Colorado. After taking the dog home, the Gonzales family says she is unable to detect peanut allergens in a public setting.

"I thought I failed my son," Logan's mother, Judie said. "They (Angel Service Dogs) made me believe it was my fault."

Kathlyn Ross trained two dogs for Angel Service Dogs before parting ways. She too alleges the dogs sold by Mers were not properly fit and trained to be service animals.

"When the dog isn't what these people hoped and wished for, that's traumatic," she said.

Ross sent News 5 a video she says was taken of a dog at graduation. She claims the dog in the video was clearly not ready to be sold as a service dog.

"The dog would walk right past the scent so that tells me it was not trained," Ross said.

Sherry Mers disputes claims made by Ross and Gonzales. She says her dogs go through extensive training before stepping foot inside a home.

"We have people come in to test the dog and tell us whether they meet the standards," Mers said. "Then when the people are here to get their dogs, we have them sign off three times for each task that they saw the dog complete that task before they take the dog home."

Mers allowed us to tag along as she took a future service dog for a check-up at the Veterinary Speciality and Emergency Hospital.

"This dog looks fantastic," said Tanja Nuhsbaum, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVO with the Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado, a veterinary specialty and emergency hospital. "Everything looks normal."

Mers also put us in touch with one of her satisfied customers, who purchased a dog named General to help sniff out peanut allergens.

"I got General because I was in the emergency room at least once a year, sometimes twice," Deann Payne said.

Payne says the investment was well worth it, and has no regrets about purchasing General from Angel Service Dogs.

"Since I have had General, I have had no reactions," Payne said. "I've been overly satisfied."

Mers and Payne agreed to show us General's ability to detect peanut allergens. Mers placed a small amount of peanut butter underneath a bench outside. As General approached the bench, he did alert to the presence of peanut butter.

As for the complaints about dogs not working out, Mers says the owners are to blaime.

"You really need to keep up with training 2-3 times a week with any service dog," Mers explained. "If you are not doing that, the dog is not going to stay up to standard."

Trainers like Kathlyn Ross find it hard to believe families would dish out thousands of dollars and refuse to keep up with training.

"It's (the service dog) supposed to save their child's life so why would they not do the training and not keep up with it?"

Mers says the success rate for dogs she places in homes is extremely high, and says with any organization, there's always the possibility of getting a complaint or two.

"Anytime someone is not happy, it saddens us," Mers said. "You want everyone to have success but it's a two way street. Once those dogs go home, we are absolutely here to offer support to those people. If something is going terribly wrong, we have offered to replace dogs in the past."

Logan's family says Angel Service Dogs did offer to retrain Roxie for an additional $2,500, but the Gonzales family is not willing to pay. They say they've paid enough, even turning to the community to help purchase Roxie. Logan's mother, Judie, is disappointed, and feels Angel Service Dogs betrayed them.

"I mean they sold my family and this community on a dream and that dream is just not a reality," Judie said.

News 5 inquired about complaints against Angel Service Dogs with the Better Business Bureau and Colorado Attorney General's Office.

The BBB has no complaints on file.

Carolyn Tyler, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office says they have three complaints on file. However, the contents of those complaints are protected under consumer privacy protection laws.

Mers says all dog owners who have spoken out against her organization were all satisfied customers in the beginning. She says the complaints represent a small fraction of the 65 dogs she's placed in homes across the country.

 

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