Service Dogs for Soldiers? It Sounded Good, But This Rescue Turned Out to Be Rotten
After word got out that I had worked to shut down a fake Pit Bull rescue, I started getting lots of messages regarding various questionable rescues. One of these was Raja Renata Ranch (later called RRR Service Dogs) in Tennessee. Several of my colleagues had received similar inquiries, and the evidence we were acquiring was making it clear that, although Raja Renata Ranch appeared to be a good rescue group on the surface, we suspected something rotten at the core. Our suspicions were confirmed after a raid on Schifando's Clarksville, Tennessee, home resulted in the discovery of four dead puppies. Further investigation led to the seizure of 39 living dogs and 37 bags of animal remains from the barn Schifando was using for her Raja Renata Ranch program.
Founded in 2011, Raja Renata Ranch called itself an "organization to help meet the need for service dogs for Soldiers." As of now, I could find no record of the group obtaining 501(c)3 nonprofit status, although its website stated it was pursuing it. Raja Renata's staff claimed its focus was "pulling dogs from death row in shelters and turning them into service dogs for Soldiers suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), physical injuries and more." It also claimed to provide service dogs to nonmilitary members "at very low cost ... based on financial need." The group often started fundraisers online to pay for the service dogs.
However professional RRR's website appeared, it still left many vital questions unanswered. I visited the group's Facebook page to find out more about its training. The response I got was, "We actually don't certify service dogs here. Our program is different in that we have the Soldiers training their dogs with our help and weekly training soldiers." It cited the U.S. Justice Department's Americans with Disabilities Act policy regarding service dogs, which is relatively lenient, leaving much room for interpretation.
In January 2013, I wrote to the group's founder, Nicole Schifando, for more information. She responded that Raja Renata Ranch was a "registered nonprofit with the state of Tennessee and ... licensed by the state gaming commission to solicit funds." Concerning training, she stated, "Training depends on each team. With the training we do (where the veteran/Soldier works with the dog on a specific task or two all week and then we review their work and proceed to the next task or command the next training) the process usually takes six months to a year but the Soldier is still receiving the benefit of having the dog with him during that time."
At the time of my initial inquiry, Schifando was not a certified dog trainer. Through networking, I also discovered that she was operating a breeding program for German Shepherds.
In March 2012, Schifando had posted on the RRR Facebook page that she would be closing her rescue, although she would complete the training for the service dogs left in the program. She intended to place all other dogs in forever homes or with fosters. But within just a few months, she was pulling dogs from shelters again, including two from my local shelter. One was a German Shepherd named Church and the other a Boxer named Simmer. As a volunteer and concerned animal advocate, I expressed my concerns to the then-president of the board of the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society, Leigh Ann Falconer, as well as the "rescue coordinator," Charlene McCuller, with sending dogs to this rescue group because it seemed beyond suspicious; however, I was quickly reprimanded for questioning the decision of the rescue coordinators, as I was only a volunteer.
So the dogs were sent to Schifando, and within days, there were pictures of them with their new soldiers. Most rescues have a quarantine period, keeping the dog separate from other animals to prevent potential disease and to observe the dog's temperament. After getting called nearly every name in the book by fans of Schifando and RRR Service Dogs, including accusations of being unpatriotic, I gave up. Fortunately for the dogs, other concerned people kept up the investigation.
On June 5, 2014, Nicole Hulbig (aka Schifando) was arrested on suspicion of four counts of aggravated animal cruelty "after Montgomery County Animal Control officers found four dead, decomposing puppies at her Clarksville home," according to the Leaf Chronicle. Many people were outraged, and many more -- including me -- have unanswered questions, the biggest ones being, "Where are all the dogs?" and "What happened to all the money raised for these dogs?"
I spoke with Melissa Kitchens, a former donor, about her experience with Nicole and RRR Service Dogs.
"It just really got to me when my friend's little girl was affected. ... Her money is gone, her dog isn't trained, and they're kinda screwed. She was a preemie ... had a brain bleed so she has balance, vision, speech, social issues as a result," she said.
Melissa has two disabled children of her own, and she donated what she could for her friend to get a service dog from Nicole.
"There are so many local families who could greatly benefit from the [financial] assistance that was offered to the RRR program," Melissa said. "It could have funded research, rehab, or even started a foundation that reached out to our local military families who have exceptional children. ... The support and physical aid could have done so much more in the right hands."
Like many others, Melissa feels like she's been had: "Our veterans who have served their community and country, just to have their trust taken advantage of ... and never last or least, the countless animals that were destroyed in the path of the RRR organization."
As the news hit social media and various news outlets, people began to come forward with pictures of dogs they had sent to Nicole's organization. "Where is my dog?" is the biggest concern for most of these people. One such dog, Whiskers, was one of three rescues from Afghanistan that a California woman, Amy Konstantelos, and a group of fellow dog lovers raised thousands of dollars to bring to the states and transport them to RRR for training. A reward is being offered for any credible information about the animals' fate and/or their safe return.
USA Today reported that deputies found 37 bags of animal remains and seized about 40 live dogs from the property of Nicole's mother. The paper reported that many of the dogs seized had been living in a barn in stalls or small cages without food or water, surrounded by their own waste. The dogs seized were taken to Sumner County Animal Control. Some have been reunited with their owners, but many more remain unclaimed. A Facebook page has been started to share the stories of dogs sent to Raja Renata Ranch and to assist in locating dogs sent there.
I asked Falconer, former president of the Thomasville-Thomas County Humane Society board, if she had information on the whereabouts of Church and Simmer, the two dogs sent to RRR in 2012. She responded, "Charlene ... has confirmed with one of the soldiers up there that the dogs are safe and sound with their families."
The investigation is still in progress regarding the location and well-being of dogs entrusted to Nicole's care, as well as the funds sent to her organization to care for these dogs. All of the dogs that were taken to Sumner County Animal Control have been reported safe in the hands of rescuers, adopters, or foster homes.
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