Emily and Joseph James of Wilton paid $14,000 for a “service dog” that a Yuba County nonprofit group assured them would be highly trained to help their autistic son Sammy with his anxiety and his tendency to wander into dangerous situations.
What they got in return for their investment in Bolt, a boxer mix, was a “very sweet” family pet incapable of performing the tasks needed to assist their 4-year-old son, they said.
“Bolt is a very good boy,” said Emily James. “He will always have a home with us. But he’s not a service dog by any means.”
Others in California and across the country who had similar experiences with Pawsitive Service Dog Solutions are calling the corporation a fraud, and demanding refunds of money that in many cases they raised through emotional appeals to the public.
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Four families have filed a lawsuit against Pawsitive in Santa Clara Superior Court, alleging fraud and breach of contract, among other things. More than 20 others may join the lawsuit, said Los Altos attorney Matthew Coleman, who is representing the group. Some of the families received dogs “completely unsuited” to help their children, he said. Others deposited money with Pawsitive and received nothing in return.
The nonprofit, incorporated in 2011, is in the process of filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection, said Chico attorney Doug Jacobs, who is representing the company in the dissolution. Families who invested in the dogs have no guarantee that they will receive reimbursement for their losses, he said.
“We’re turning it all over to a bankruptcy trustee,” Jacobs said.
According to the lawsuit, families of children with autism and other disorders contracted with Pawsitive to obtain trained service dogs to perform tasks such as “tethering,” to keep youngsters from bolting away from their parents; “scent tracking,” to locate children in case they slipped away from adult supervision; and “applying pressure” to anxious youngsters to calm them.
Pawsitive told prospective clients that the corporation spent about $25,000 to breed, raise and train each service dog, according to the lawsuit. Families were expected to provide about half of that cost, and dogs would be matched with children based on the individual needs of the client. Pawsitive pledged to provide “ongoing support” to families that received its service dogs.
On its website, the company claimed to “train and partner healthy, reliable, exclusively bred, highly trained service dogs with individuals of all ages challenged by Autism Spectrum Disorders and other developmental disabilities, thereby providing relief, security, and a dramatically improved quality of life to the affected individual and their families.”
But Pawsitive and its dogs were not as advertised, according to the lawsuit. The animals the families received were unable to perform even basic tasks, the suit says, and exhibited behaviors “wholly inconsistent” with trained service animals.
In one case, a dog named Curly dragged a family’s young daughter “through the house by the arm and leg, as if the child were a toy,” it says. The dog, supposedly trained to prevent a teenager with Down syndrome from bolting away and getting lost, is skittish, fails to come when called and “could not care less” about where the teen goes, according to the court document.
Another Pawsitive dog, named Cooper, was supposed to accompany a young autistic girl to school to keep her calm. But Cooper was “unable to apply pressure to her without walking all over her” and making her cry. He grabbed food out of the hands of schoolchildren, and failed a basic “canine good citizenship” training program.
A third Pawsitive dog, Java, matched with a 6-year-old autistic boy, tried to climb into a primate exhibit and dive into a flamingo pond during a school trip, and did not respond to basic commands, the suit says.
The suit alleges that Pawsitive does not raise its service dogs from puppies, as it claims; fails to train dogs in accordance with industry standards; and overcharges clients. The corporation also has failed to maintain proper financial records and engages in false advertising, the court document claims.
Carmel Mooney, executive director of Pawsitive, did not return messages seeking comment about the lawsuit, nor did her attorney, Gina Gingery.
Jacobs, the bankruptcy lawyer, blamed Pawsitive’s downfall on “one disgruntled person” who launched a campaign on the Internet that quickly snowballed and sent the corporation into a free fall.
“Unfortunately, this is the society that we live in,” said Jacobs. “Based on the words of one disgruntled person, clients started to jump off. No one was interested in fulfilling their contractual agreements. The money stopped coming in, and the coffers were drained. It’s a horrible statement when things just blow up, and people choose to believe evil things rather than good ones.”
Emily James has a far different take on the situation. She said Pawsitive callously preyed on families desperate for help for their children.
Her son Sammy has a tendency to break away from the grasp of his parents and “do things that are inherently dangerous,” including running into streets and parking lots, James said. The family tried electronic tracking devices, among other techniques, but found them to be unreliable. “We were having a very hard time finding something to help us,” she said.
After seeing a documentary about service dogs and autistic kids, the family contacted Pawsitive and “they assured us they could help,” said James. The family hosted bake sales and rummage sales, solicited help from its church congregation and posted a video online to attract donations to pay for a service dog. In April, they sent $12,500 to the Yuba County nonprofit. They later sent another $1,500 for an unanticipated “placement fee,” Emily James said.
Soon after learning they had been matched with a dog they named Bolt, the family attended a session hosted by a Pawsitive trainer. They were surprised to find that “the dog was not trained for tracking at all,” James said. “Sam would hide. The trainer would give the dog a command for finding Sam, and Bolt just sat down. He was also bad at very basic stuff. He refused to sit unless you said it six or eight times.”
Last month, as the dog was still “in training,” James said, she learned that Pawsitive would be filing for bankruptcy protection and would no longer be placing dogs with clients. James and her husband demanded the dog that they had paid for, and got him. But they still feel bilked.
“He didn’t come with papers, a vaccination schedule, a health history, or anything like that,” she said. “He was just a naked dog. He didn’t even have a collar.”
The family plans to pay for further training for Bolt, but “we’re not sure he’ll ever be a service dog,” James said.
She and her husband intend to join the lawsuit against Pawsitive, which was filed in May.
The suit asks for an injunction preventing Pawsitive from misrepresentations to the public, a mandate that the company turn over its financial records, restitution for “ill-gotten gains” by the corporation and unspecified monetary damages.
Coleman, the lawyer who filed the claim, said he and the families he represents will appeal to the California attorney general, which oversees charitable organizations, to intervene and recover funds “squandered” by Pawsitive.
They also are calling for state regulatory oversight of the service dog industry “so that families with developmentally disabled children, who already are stressed, don’t fall prey to unscrupulous or incompetent ‘service dog mills’ such as what we’ve seen here.”