Customers turned to Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers for a potentially lifesaving tool: highly trained dogs that would alert them, with the nudge of a nose or paw, to spikes or dips in blood sugar. What they got, the US state of Virginia alleged on Tuesday, were "little more than incredibly expensive pets."
A lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Mark R. Herring in the Madison County Circuit Court, accuses the company of violating the state's Consumer Protection Act by charging US$18,000 to US$27,000 (NZ$25,000 - NZ$38,000) for three-month-old Labrador retriever puppies that were unable to perform their task or even to walk properly on leashes, respond when called, or remain calm around loud noises or new people. Customers were told that they would receive ample "scent training" support; instead, their requests for assistance were regularly ignored, the suit says.
"This suit alleges not just dishonest and unlawful business practices, but a recklessness that could have endangered the lives of customers who relied on the claims made by Service Dogs and its owner," Herring said in a statement. "Our investigation shows that, in many instances, Service Dogs was simply selling a $25,000 pet, leaving customers with a huge bill and no protection against a potentially life-threatening blood-sugar situation."
The lawsuit followed a lengthy investigation based on complaints from more than 50 customers, Herring's office said. Beyond deceiving customers about the company's dogs, the suit alleges, owner Charles D. Warren Jr. illegally encouraged them to solicit charitable donations. He also lied about having served in the military, according to the suit, which seeks restitution for customers as well as civil penalties and attorneys' fees.
On behalf of the company, attorney John B. Russell Jr. said via email Tuesday afternoon that it denied the allegations "and we absolutely deny that we have ever set out to mislead, cheat or defraud our many happy clients." Russell said Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers had been working with the attorney general's office to address the concerns raised and, "in many areas, we had already changed our procedures long before their investigation began."
Accusing Herring's office of wanting to destroy the company and its owner, Russell promised "to fight these ridiculous allegations at every step."
Virginia's action comes amid growing scrutiny of service dogs both on the ground and in the air. Several states have moved in recent months to crack down on people who misrepresent their untrained pets as service dogs to gain access to public places, as federal disability law requires. Major airlines, meanwhile, have tightened requirements for both service animals, which are trained to perform specific tasks, and emotional support animals. At least two bills in Congress are aimed at limiting service animal fraud on flights.
Despite growth in the use of service animals and the agencies that provide them, no national certification, registration or training protocol exists. That means owners can easily purchase "service animal" vests for ordinary pets. It also means that there is no oversight of service dog companies. One voluntary accrediting organization, Assistance Dogs International, has sought to set training standards, and it counts dozens of the most prominent service dog groups as members. Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, which says it also provides service dogs for people with autism and post-traumatic stress, is not one of those.
Diabetic-alert dogs are said to use their sensitive noses to discern fluctuations in blood-sugar levels. But studies on their effectiveness have been mixed, and researchers say it is not clear exactly what the animals detect. Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers promised customers that assigned dogs possessed a "proven scent ability" and that they could be trained to seek help or even dial 911 on special devices, according to the attorney general's lawsuit.
"However, the [dogs] were not trained prior to their arrival at the consumers' homes," the suit says. "Numerous consumers had difficulty getting the [dogs] to 'alert' with any consistency, or at the appropriate time."
That was the case for Florida resident Jovana Flores, who told the ABC affiliate WJLA in 2015 that the diabetic-alert dog for her 13-year-old son did little more than serve as a pet.
"In hindsight, now, maybe I should have been a little bit smarter, but you're looking for any bit of hope," Flores said. Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers sued Flores and other families after they stopped paying for their dogs, according to the TV station's report.