In 2013 after doing a little bit of research we decided that a service dog could help our young daughter Ara who is diagnosed with autism as well as other health conditions. We found an organization, Great Lakes Assistance Dogs (GLAD) in MI that seemed to be great, they even helped us come up with tasks that the dog could do for our daughter and they already had a few started dogs so the wait would not be long. We had to raise $500 to start the process and get a dog matched to our daughter’s needs. Once we sent in the $500 we signed a contract and needed to raise another $12,000 for the dog. I immediately got to work making a Facebook page, sending out emails to family and friends, setting up funding pages etc.
As we raised money communication got sparse and I began to worry, but the director would always reassure me that they were just very busy. After we raised all the money the dog had a few health issues, but again were reassured that everything was fine and if not they would match us with another dog. We were told that a trainer would bring out the dog for us to meet him and just get to know him. We tried to schedule the meeting many times but they kept changing trainers and then putting off the date.
Finally a few weeks before we were to go to Michigan to pick him up they came out, they also charged us an additional fee for this, which was not in the contract. The dog had an ear infection and I had to give him medication while he was here. I sent messages to the director about this and again was reassured it was not a big issue and it would be resolved by the time we picked him up.
Finally it was time to drive to Michigan to pick up Cooper, it was a whirlwind of meeting in different places (never at the facility) and with very little actual training. We passed the Public Access Test (looking back parts were skipped over or half done) and they told us we could go home with him. I asked for his paper work, vet records and tags and they told me they would mail them to me, so we left with just Cooper and the last of his ear medication and no further instructions.
Within two weeks of being home we were having training issues and received Cooper’s paper work in the mail. I was surprised to find out he was kicked out of another service dog organization for having a chronic health issue. When reading his records I found out Cooper was a year late on his vaccines and he was due for his ear to be rechecked before he even left Michigan. I had to immediately make a vet appointment to have all his shots done, recheck his ear and to ask about his skin and constant itching issues. The vet recommended allergy testing as well as topical medications.
Within the next few weeks I realized Cooper did not know any actual tasks and was so food motivated he would nip your hands.
We contacted GLAD and they did not help us, they did give us back $400 for the allergy test which came back with over 20 items he is allergic to. We reached out to our local dog training community to help us with Cooper and took him to an independent evaluator, who temperament tested and administered the canine good citizen test, which he did not pass.
During this period of time we found a few other families that had very similar experiences with this organization, one had paid $12,500 for a service dog but received an untrained dog who now is an expensive pet, another was still raising money when they realized that the dog they were matched with had some health issues, they returned the dog and were not re-matched or given the portion of money they had raised.
We also found out that the organization was not a legal nonprofit as they were advertising (they were using another companies number), and that many of the director’s claims in experience/titles were false as well. Cooper’s training/behavioral issues and allergies all led to us retiring him from work within just a few months of having him. Thankfully our friends offered to adopt him as they had experience with dogs that had health issues and had the funds to provide for all his extensive lifelong special needs. We were completely devastated by this experience and our daughter was heartbroken. She did not understand why her Super Cooper could not stay with us and help her. The organization did nothing to help us and even threatened to sue us.
We have been very public about what has happened to us and other families. We don’t want another family to go through this devastating experience. The scary thing is that it happens all to often and there are several programs/organizations out there that make money scamming families with disabled children. The dogs are also victims as they get recycled to other unsuspecting families when they are returned to some of these programs.
So what can you do?
The number one thing is to research everywhere, call the state and local government to see if the organization is licensed, google search “program name + Complaints” take all negative reviews and complaints seriously, and ask a lot of questions of the program and ask to see the facility. Remember you are raising a great deal of money and have a right to know everything about the program. Here is a blog post I wrote about red flags of programs to avoid and other information http://adventures-in-dog-training.blogspot.com/2015/01/how-to-find-good-service-dog-program.html
Now our story is not over just yet. In January of last year we brought home a standard poodle puppy and Ara named him Luke. His breeder thought he had the right temperament to be a service dog. We started owner training and Luke is now 17 mo old and doing great. We have put in over 380 hours of training and it has been an amazing experience. Ara and Luke are very bonded and she has made huge progress in many areas, such as being able to go shopping, out to events with big crowds and even navigate stairs. Training a service dog takes a huge amount of time and devotion but for us it is worth it.
I am a wife and mom of two beautiful girls, one of which has Autism among other health conditions. We live in the beautiful state of Montana.
Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.