The mother of boy with autism has said she was “absolutely devastated” after finding out her son’s assistance dog, which the family raised over €6,000 to secure, was allegedly unfit for service.
To make matters worse, she said the company that provided the dog, Service Dogs Europe, not only failed to replace the dog, but has, so far, failed to return the family’s money.
Now Limerick woman Gillian O’Brien Murray said she is at her “wits’ end” — not only does her son, three-year-old Joseph, not have an assistance dog, the family has nothing to show for the money that family and friends helped them raise.
Gillian, along with her husband Michael, first looked to a number of charities to try and secure an assistance dog but discovered the waiting lists “were huge”.
Through internet research, they came across Service Dogs Europe and got in touch with its CEO, Henry Fitzsimons, who explained what the company was offering — a specially trained dog that would be able to help Joseph, guide him on walks, and alert someone in case of an emergency.
The couple said the sooner Joseph could get a dog the better, so they decided to go with Service Dogs Europe and began raising funds.
Gillian said a local community group, Friends of Autism/ADHD, donated €2,000 and the rest was raised by family and friends and members of the public. They received their dog, a golden retriever puppy called Star, on February 16.
“From the get-go we were thrilled with all of this,” said Gillian.
“We knew we were getting a pup that needed to be trained further but we didn’t know the scale of what was going to happen when we got her home.
“On the way home she got sick in the car but we put it down to travel sickness because she’s only a little pup. But then she just wouldn’t eat. Literally would not eat.”
Gillian had bought food from a pet store that day, so she rang them for advice. She also contacted Service Dogs Europe who allegedly told Gillian to bring the dog to a vet.
“The following day after that we took the dog to a vet. He had to give her injections because she was so rundown and he was really worried about her,” said Gillian.
“He said if she doesn’t start eating she’s going to have to come back in here and go on a drip because she’s completely undernourished. But it gradually got worse and worse, she was just petrified.”
It became clear to Gillian that Star would never become an assistance dog. While her son had bonded with the pup, Gillian contacted Fitzsimons who allegedly apologised, confirmed Star was not suitable, said she had “slipped through the net”, and promised to provide a different dog. Gillian agreed.
“We were devastated because Joseph had bonded with her in these three and a half weeks and it was a big thing, removing her from the home.”
Gillian said she was promised a new dog in April, then in May, August, and September. The dog never came. In the meantime, Gillian said the relationship between her family and Mr Fitzsimons deteriorated. She alleged Mr Fitzsimons began “shouting down the phone” at her husband on one occasion.
“I don’t know where it came from. We never had any dealings like this from the man before and all of a sudden he’s screaming at us. We did contact the guards and they informed us that because it’s a phone call is was basically a ‘he said, she said’ scenario and there wasn’t much they could do.
“But they said if he continued to contact them they would step in.”
The Irish Examiner has made numerous attempts over a number of weeks to contact Mr Fitzsimons and the Service Dogs Europe team to get a response to Gillian’s allegations. Various emails to the organisation were not responded to, though a representative did respond to a private Facebook mail from this reporter.
The respondent, who purported to be Henry Fitzsimons, said the organisation had “nothing to hide” but said they were not willing to speak to the Examiner about the issues people have been having with them.
Speaking to Joe Duffy’s Liveline programme on RTÉ radio, a Service Dogs Europe employee, Michael Henry, confirmed he was aware of the Murray family and their grievances and confirmed that a “heated” discussion between Michael Murray and Henry Fitzsimons took place.
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