Assistance dog controversy: Disabled children left with unsuitable dogs

Amy Brosnan, a 25-year-old UK woman who has autism, with her Service Dogs Europe dog Dakota.

After spending thousands on assistance dogs for children, families say they were given inadequate animals and refused refunds, writes Kelly O’Brien

COLLECTIVELY they paid more than €156,000 to obtain highly trained assistance dogs to help with conditions such as autism and epilepsy. Now the group of 26 customers has voiced serious concerns about the company that took their money.

The majority, who were seeking an assistance dog either for themselves or for a vulnerable member of their family, allege not only did Service Dogs Europe not give them what they paid for, but that officials at the organisation have, to date, refused to refund their money.

In addition, within the last few days the company’s Facebook page has been deleted, its phone number is not working, its website is down, its fundraising website is down, and customers say their emails are not being responded to.

Service Dogs Europe, with an address at Corderry, Knockbridge, Dundalk, Co Louth, offered to train assistance dogs for people with conditions such as autism, epilepsy, Down syndrome, diabetes, dementia, deafness, and various allergies as well as mobility dogs for wheelchair users and those with other disabilities.

Service Dogs Europe, which is not a charity, charged customers a wide range of fees for its services — the majority of consumers report paying fees of up to €7,000.

Though Service Dogs Europe, which has been in operation for more than two years, claimed to train dogs to the standards of Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which approves training programmes for assistance dogs, it has been revealed that Service Dogs Europe was not approved by this regulatory body.

ADI has, in fact, distanced itself from Service Dogs Europe. In a statement to the Irish Examiner they said: “They (Service Dogs Europe) pretend to work according to ADI standards”, but the company is not an accredited member of ADI.

In general, assistance dogs are required to be calm, obedient, in good physical health, and be comfortable around people and other animals.

Depending on their specific training, such dogs are expected to be able to carry out tasks such as guiding a disabled person attached to the dog by a harness, or in the case of diabetes alert dogs, should be able to tell, by scent, when a diabetic person’s blood sugar level is low.

In emergency situations, a well-trained assistance dog can often mean the difference between life and death.

Most charities that provide these dogs have waiting lists of between six to 10 years. Service Dogs Europe, however, provided paying customers with dogs within a matter of months.

But a number of people who used their services claim the organisation did not provide them with a dog that was fit for purpose. When they complained, the customers said the company became argumentative, hard to deal with, and difficult to get in contact with. The vast majority of those who have voiced their concerns say they have repeatedly been denied a refund. A number of them said they still have the dog they were provided with, which, they claim, is essentially now just a pet. Others said they were able to return the dog they received, but now have no dog and no refund.

Some fundraised to pay for the dog while others took out loans or used their savings. Tanya Fletcher from Sligo paid €6,080 for a dog to help her son, Dylan, who has autism as well as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She said she received a two-year-old Labrador in January but the dog was not fit for purpose. Instead of comforting her son, the dog would run away from Dylan if he was experiencing difficulties.

“Service Dogs Europe basically told me it was my fault that I wasn’t doing things properly with the dog, which I was,” she said, speaking to Joe Duffy on RTÉ 1’s Liveline show, which ran a number of segments about the allegations.

A number of others with similar experiences also voiced their grievances on the programme.

Meanwhile, Amy Brosnan, a 25-year-old woman with autism who lives in the UK, and her mother, Cathy, told the Irish Examiner they thought a dog from Service Dogs Europe would turn their lives around. They said they paid £2,000 (€2,700) and received a dog in March.

The dog, they claim, was not fit for purpose and was later diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease.

“As a special needs family our world was turned upside down. What should have been a life-changing experience turned out to be a nightmare,” said Cathy. “Service Dogs Europe refused to give me my money back.”

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission confirmed it has received correspondence from consumers in relation to Service Dogs Europe. Customers said they also contacted the gardaí about their issues.

Service Dogs Europe, which was headed up by CEO Henry Fitzsimons, offered to either provide customers with a dog or to train the dog the customer already owned.

If the customer chose to get their own dog trained, they then sent their dog to Service Dogs Europe for three weeks to be assessed. After this, if the dog was deemed suitable, they completed a further eight weeks of training at the premises.

If the customer chose to receive an adult dog, they could either go to Service Dogs Europe for three days of training with the dog, or the dog could come to their house and a trainer would do three days of training there.

If the customer chose to receive a puppy, the puppy would come to the house untrained and would be sent back to Service Dogs Europe at various later dates for training.

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA) raised questions about the training, specifically the length of time Service Dogs Europe spent training each dog.

“Any training should always involve the owner. You can’t expect to send a dog off for a few weeks and have it come back untrained. It’s ridiculous,” said ISPCA CEO Dr Andrew Kelly.

“Other places that provide assistance dogs, charities, they train the dogs for a lot longer. The dogs they train are also a lot older.”

The Irish Examiner attempted to contact Service Dogs Europe numerous times, but the company did not return this paper’s phonecalls or emails.

A representative did respond via private Facebook mail before the company Facebook went offline, purporting to be Service Dogs Europe CEO Henry Fitzsimons. The representative said he was not willing to speak to the Irish Examiner.

“I have said all I need to say to the Daily Mail. We have nothing to hide and this can be clearly seen from our Facebook page and the Daily Mail’s story,” he wrote. “If you choose to run the story all I ask is that you, unlike the Joe Duffy show, do research and run a balanced story.”

Another representative of Service Dogs Europe, employee Michael Henry, spoke to Joe Duffy on Liveline. He said he was aware of a number of grievances some customers have with Service Dogs Europe and, as sales operator manager, it is his job “to try and look after the customers and the many enquiries we get in”.

When confronted on air by an unhappy customer, Charlie Morris from the UK, Mr Henry said after the show they would discuss Mr Morris getting a refund.

The next day, Mr Morris appeared on the programme and said he had been refused a refund once again.

Service Dogs Europe drew further ire from customers who said their negative comments were being deleted from the company’s Facebook page. Some claim they were blocked from the page, others claim they were asked to write positive comments, while a few said they were being targeted by the company which regularly posted comments directed at past customers, unhappy customers, and former employees.

 

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