“Have you ever seen a child go into anaphylactic shock?” Christine Clifford, the mother of two sons with severe peanut allergies, asks me. (I haven’t.) “You are literally watching your children begin to die.”
May was Food Allergy Awareness Month, and if you aren’t aware of this potentially deadly allergy to peanuts, you need to be, because the number of children affected by it grows exponentially every year. It’s estimated that roughly two children in every classroom are affected.
What are worried parents to do? Enter specially trained dogs who alert with a trained behavior (such as a “sit”) if they detect peanuts in any form, giving their owners a measure of safety not provided in any other way, thanks to a dog’s incredible nose. The Americans with Disabilities Act states that service animals must be allowed to accompany people with disabilities wherever the public is normally allowed to go, including schools, where many children get accidental peanut exposure. Peanut-sniffing dogs are an expensive option — many sell for as much as $20,000.
While many service dogs come from specialty breeders of dogs such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers, the service dog industry is unregulated. Anyone can pull any dog out of a shelter and on the same day start “training” the dog to sniff peanuts — and be legally allowed to sell that dog as a peanut-sniffing dog. Yes, some certified trainers have successfully trained shelter dogs to become service dogs. The trainers look for a specific kind of dog who is calm but who also has the stamina to be a working dog, and it is helpful to know about the dog’s early experiences.
I talked to Massachusetts resident Christine Clifford, who feels lucky in that she’s had to rush her sons to the hospital suffering from a peanut reaction only twice this year. She knows parents who have made that life-or-death trip 15 or 20 times a year.
“The threat of sending your child off to school and getting that frantic call that he can’t breathe makes a parent desperate to help their child,” she says.
Clifford saw a Today Show news segment featuring a highly qualified peanut-dog-sniffing trainer who was then employed by Sherry Mers, owner of Angel Service Dogs. Like most people, Clifford assumed that the national news outlet had properly researched the organization, but she would come to learn that was not entirely the case, and the trainer she’d seen on the show later resigned, along with the entire training staff, apparently because of objections over the dogs who were chosen and sold as working dogs.
Professional dog trainer (and a K9 handler while at the Air Force Academy) Ciara Gavin worked for Angel Service Dogs.
“The day all of the trainers and many of the volunteer staff all walked out was a day I will never forget,” Gavin told me. “It seemed very clear that [the Mers] did not care whether a dog was working well for the family or not.”
She heard Brett Mers, Sherry’s husband, shout at parents who were hoping to help protect their little girl.
“I offered to donate my training fee to the daughter’s medical fund,” Gavin says. “To this day, I have never received a penny from Angel Service Dogs for my work with that dog, nor was any money ever refunded to the family. They gave a family a dog that would not work for them and kept every cent.”
After watching The Today Show, Clifford located the company online and filled out an application. She was contacted by Sherry Mers, who said she had a suitable dog, but that the family needed to pay the $16,500 purchase price (which included training for the new owners with their dog, but not airfare, hotel, or meals at the training center) upfront. She says they were later asked to pay an additional $4,000 in incremental fees, such as a $500 “conference room fee.”
While Angel Service Dogs’ contract states that Clifford had one year to raise half the amount via fundraising, which Mers offered to assist with through an account on her organization’s website, Clifford says Mers told her over the phone that she would need to raise the funds in just seven weeks.
Not all service dog organizations are run this way. Guide Dogs for the Blind, for example, requires no payment for its intensively trained service dogs. Instead, it raises money from donors to provide the service. In addition, their trainers are required to complete a three-year apprenticeship and a licensing program and they are peer reviewed.
Clifford says Mers promised to help fundraise the purchase price for the dog by contacting local media in Clifford’s home state to get coverage of the need for a peanut-sniffing dog. In theory, viewers who saw or read the media stories could click on Angel Service Dogs’ website and donate to help raise money for a dog specific to their community. The contract states that the nonprofit would take in tax-deductible monies on behalf of the family. However, red flag No. 1 popped up as Clifford says she was told she would not have access to that account. That troubled her, so she decided to use personal funds and wrote a check for her new lifesaving dog.
Clifford and her sons flew to the organization’s training center in Colorado to meet Queenie, their new dog, who Mers had chosen for them before they arrived. This was a warning sign for me, because other national organizations that train service dogs, like Guide Dogs for the Blind, carefully match dogs with their new owners and strive for a partnership that works for both the dog and the human.
Clifford and her sons spent ten 12-hour days in training alongside six other dogs and their new families. The training was conducted by Mers and her husband, Brett, a retired Air Force officer, and volunteers, according to those present. The organization states on its website that its allergy alert dogs “are trained by Master handlers above the standards set by the American [sic] with Disabilities Act.” That sounds good, doesn’t it? Red flag No. 2: The ADA has no enforceable requirements outlined for service dogs.
Clifford says they were not told where their dogs came from, but she later researched Queenie’s background and found that she had had several previous homes and was also at a Pikes Peak animal shelter.
Clifford and her family were exhausted — as was Queenie — by the relentlessly long days of hearing the Mers talk about the dangers of anaphylaxis. “All the parents were well-versed on that,” Clifford says, “but we developed enhanced fear due to it being brought up again and again. We were constantly reminded how dangerous our children’s reactions to their specific allergies were, and it was nerve-wracking for us.”
The Mers’ training covered dog CPR and basic dog obedience and detection handling. Clifford began to notice that several of the dogs pulled on-leash, lunged at other dogs, and wouldn’t stop barking. When she complained about Queenie’s performance, she says she was informed that they were doing the training “wrong” and the fault was theirs, even when Queenie failed to make even one alert on peanuts while at the center. “Those 10 days amounted to intense brainwashing,” Clifford now says.
She spent a small fortune to travel to Colorado, purchase the dog, go through the training, and watch as her children fell in love with the dog. She had her doubts about Queenie’s ability to detect peanuts, but she remained at the training center for the entire 10 days because, as she says, “it was based on hope — hope that a dog could keep my boys safe.”
The Cliffords returned home, and Clifford tested Queenie on peanuts without her boys present, as she had been instructed to do. But Queenie never alerted. The dog also lunged at three children at the school and seemed to have a jumpy temperament, the opposite of what a calm service dog should have. She says that all of the training at the Colorado location except for one outing was done at the center, so Clifford had had no way of evaluating Queenie’s behavior in public until she got home.
Clifford took Queenie to the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University for assessment. The vets there reported: “She jumped on people, nipped hands, barked aggressively at certain individuals, became overwhelmed in crowds, and showed separation anxiety. Additionally, Queenie showed no aptitude for or interest in allergen detection.”
Clifford wondered if hers was an isolated case, so she contacted others who had purchased a dog from Mers’ organization. They were hard to find at first because their contracts stipulate that owners of Angel Service Dogs must receive permission from the organization to talk about the organization or their dogs, including on social media, or face a potential $5,000 fine.
Beth Caudle in Sacramento, California, told Denver CBS4 in an interview that her service dog, Frost, exhibits aggression and anxiety and that he “isn’t even safe around my kids.” She took her dog to the University of California Davis Veterinary School, where he was diagnosed with “human-directed aggression, separation anxiety, and apparent lack of training expected of a purchased service dog.” More alarming, the report stated that “Frost should not be in your home, or any other home, serving as an allergen detection service dog.”
I had an extensive interview with New Hampshire resident Richelle Angeli, who also purchased a peanut-sniffing dog from Angel Service Dogs. Angeli says that once her application for a dog named Angel was accepted by the organization, she began fundraising. She was excited because she says that Mers told her that Angel had been trained to detect several nuts, and Angeli’s daughter has severe nut allergies to more than just peanuts.
“Two days before we were set to travel to Colorado to begin the 10-day training period with Angel,” Angeli says, “Sherry Mers called me and said that Angel was too traumatized by being moved around as a result of local wildfires and we would be getting a dog named Parker.” Parker, she would learn, only alerted on peanuts.
“While at the training center, I noticed that several dogs — including Parker — didn’t have good leash manners and barked at people. Parker jumped up on people to say hello,” Angeli says. She kept going with the training, as she did observe Parker alerting on peanuts, and her daughter was in love with the dog.
Back at home, Parker accompanied Angeli’s daughter to school and did seem to be able to alert on peanuts, according to Angeli. However, a month later he bit a child at a school assembly and was removed from the school and not permitted to return. “I was humiliated and shocked,” Angeli told me.
She called Mers to find out what they should do. “I told her that I wanted a service dog for my daughter, just as I did the first time I called and spoke with her,” Angeli says. Angeli didn’t expect the solution that Mers allegedly proposed: Angeli could donate Parker back to the organization and fundraise for a new dog.
“I realized in that moment that the dream was over. My daughter helped us make the decision not to get another dog from this place. She asked, ‘Why would we get another dog from that woman?'” Parker, Angeli says, is now “the world’s most expensive pet.” They removed his service vest the day he bit the child and retired him as a service dog.
Clifford says she met with several other families who had experienced similar results. Most have ended up keeping their dogs as pricey pets, but do not trust them as allergen-detecting dogs. When Clifford called Mers and expressed her concerns about Queenie, Clifford says, “She just laughed at me and then she stopped returning my phone calls.”
I asked Sherry Mers several times for an interview for this article. She did not respond to my requests. In an interview with Colorado’s KOAA News, Mers said she has “people come in and test the dog and tell us whether they meet the standards.” Deann Payne, who owned one of the dogs from Angel Service Dogs, told the news station that she is pleased with her dog General’s performance as her service dog and that she has no regrets about purchasing him.
As this story was going to press, my research revealed that in April 2014, Angel Service Dogs filed a trade name affidavit in Colorado allowing the company to do business under the name Liberty Service Dogs. They also applied for trademark protection with the US Patent and Trademark Office for Liberty Service Dogs. The trademark application was filed on behalf of Angel Service Dogs. The metadata states that Liberty Service Dogs will be training dogs for PTSD, autism, and mobility needs.
Clifford says she’s learned that it’s too much of an expectation to allow a child to handle a dog at school all day, just as it is a lot to ask a service dog to be around children who run and play hard during lunch and at recess, the most likely times a child will be exposed to peanuts.
Clifford does endorse the idea of trained dogs who visit schools and clear them of the presence of peanuts at the beginning and end of each school day. She is also working to get EpiPens available on all ambulances and at all school districts in her county. Additionally, she is trying to change the service dog industry to install protections for both the dogs in training and for those purchasing the dogs.
Queenie is still with the Cliffords, but not as an allergen-detecting dog. They’ve signed up for an entire year of behavioral modification at Tufts University to try to help her become a normal pet.
Check out Annie’s companion piece to this story, “5 Tips to Avoid Getting a Service Dog Who’s a Dud.”
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About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She and her husband get to take their four highly trained dogs with them everywhere dogs are welcome because of their exceptionally good manners. Phenix generally leaves her six donkeys at home on the ranch . . .but she is thinking about clicker training those little hairy hee-hawers as well.
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