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Are Petco's Dog Training Methods Outdated?

A dog died in a training class, and the pet supply giant is in the spotlight.

 |  Jun 5th 2013  |   569 Contributions


UPDATE, Friday 6/7: Sophia Belle's owners have revived their Facebook tribute page to post an important update that Petco has now agreed to pay for their vet and cremation fees. "OUR FIRST VICTORY FOR SOPHIA" is the post header, which goes on to say, " Unfortunately, it was only after the “In Memory of Sophia Belle” Facebook page received overwhelming support and attention from all of YOU, that Petco fulfilled the promise they made to us several months ago. Thank you all for your continued support… But like we said before, we are not going away quietly! -- Michele & Michael."

The couple is also asking readers to sign a petition that requires Petco trainers to be certified in pet first aid and CPR.

Recently there's been rumbling online regarding the death of a young English Bulldog in a Petco dog training class, and it’s getting hard to ignore the noise -- though Petco is doing its corporate best to do just that.

The facts are that Michele Moccia and Michael DiMaggio took their dog, Sophia Belle, to a puppy class at their local Petco and came home without her that evening, because she died during the class. The owners are sure one thing happened to their beloved pet, and Petco wants you to believe another thing. Either way, there is a dead dog, and she died while participating in a class at a large corporation that makes its money from pets. It needs to be looked into, so I decided to see what I could learn about it myself, especially because I am a dog trainer and the event happened during a training class. 

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Michele Moccia hugs her puppy, Sophia Belle. Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

The owners state that the trainer at the Petco class had their dog’s leash in her hand, and as Michael came into the classroom, Sophia Belle barked in greeting. According to the couple, the trainer was aggravated by the barking and pulled the dog up by the leash and collar –- in effect, hanging the dog. 

Michele Moccia states on the couple’s In Memory of Sophia Belle’s Facebook page: "When she was let down, she immediately vomited several times, and then collapsed. She was gasping for air, and her breathing became increasingly labored. My fiancé and I tried to free her airway to see if she was choking, but her condition worsened. Blood began coming out of her mouth.”

The owners rushed Sophia Belle to the closest veterinarian. She died there. The couple says the trainer killed their puppy. Here’s what Petco is saying: “On February 28, a dog being trained in our Levittown NY store, Sophia Belle, suffered what the veterinarians who have reviewed the case believe to be a fatal cardiac abnormality.”

The couple also reports that Petco told them they would pay for the vet bills, but they have not done so. Petco is mum on that. I asked Petco detailed questions, and this is what Marcie Whichard, vice president of animal care and education, had to say: 

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Little Sophia Belle. Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

 Dear Annie,

Thank you for contacting us about this matter. All of us at Petco are deeply saddened by Sophia Belle’s passing. While we appreciate your interest in our perspective, her owners said this week that they would likely not comment further on the specifics. Out of respect for Sophia Belle and everyone involved, we too are refraining from commenting further than we already have about this tragic situation. 

I call that a nonresponse. Don’t the grieving owners deserve more than lawyer speak? Don’t Petco’s customers deserve more?

So what exactly happened? The owners wanted to know, so they had a necropsy done. That report states, in part: “Sophia's cause of death is attributable to non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema (NCPE) or more specifically postobstructive pulmonary edema (POPE) as a result of a 'choke' or 'restraint.' We had a necropsy done on Sophia's body as well as a histopathology. The necropsy revealed Sophia died of cardiac arrest and that she was 100-percent free of any congenital heart defects.”

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Michael DiMaggio kisses his puppy, Sophia Belle. Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

What do I think happened? Since I wasn’t there, I can do little more than speculate and share with you some ugly truths about dog training. I do know of a dog who died in the name of “training.” It was an expensive, highly trained police dog who was pushed too hard by an ignorant, “professional” trainer in the summer heat, and the high humidity killed the dog within 10 minutes.

I know of two other dogs who were left in the “care” of a “trainer” in a hot car, where they died slowly and painfully. These “trainers” should have known better and should have been disciplined, but since anyone anywhere can claim to be a dog trainer, there is no one who can stop them from continuing to train dogs. That puts the onus on you, the owner, to know everything you can about a trainer and that trainer’s skills and training philosophy before you entrust your pet to them. 

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Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

I know that the idea of hanging a dog to choke it into “compliance” is still a popular concept among far too many dog trainers. I protest whenever I see it, and you can be sure that no trainer, veterinarian, or any human has been allowed to do this to one of my dogs. It’s a bone-headed and outdated training technique that only serves to prove to dogs that we humans are idiots -- and cruel idiots at that. When I see it in practice I ask loudly: “Really? This is the best your human brain can come up with?”

Did the Petco trainer employ this stupid maneuver? I don’t know, and Petco isn’t talking. There is much talk online that this should ever have been done to a Bulldog because they are a brachycephalic breed, meaning they have a short muzzle and a flat face. These dogs can have breathing concerns, but that’s besides the point because the “hang ‘em until they comply” method should never be used on any dog, regardless of the shape of their muzzle. 

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Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

I also know from my background in crises communications and public relations that Petco is being a giant bonehead and making a bad situation much worse. They need to pay for this couple’s vet expenses. They do need to review and improve how their trainers are trained, as the owners of this now dead dog are asking. They need to only permit flat collars or, better yet, harnesses on the dogs in their classes. They need to go on a public apology campaign and prove to the public that they will learn from this sad episode. 

If the trainer in question was using something as old-fashioned and harmful as the hanging maneuver, she needs to go back to school and choose a better school this time. If she lost her temper and was operating out of “this dog better obey me” mindset, please -- quit now. That isn’t training an animal; it’s behaving like a dictator. 

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Michele, Michael, and Sophia Belle. Image courtesy of the Sophia Belle Memorial Page on Facebook.

What can you as pet owners do? Know that you have to stand up for your pet, because he has no voice and cannot do it for himself. Never let anyone -– not a vet, not a trainer, not your Uncle Pete, not your spouse or your child –- physically harm your dog. Effective dog training does not physically hurt your dog. We have to all learn how to be guides and coaches for our beloved pets and walk away from outdated “training” that does nothing but scare or hurt our dog friends. 

By the way, the owners of Sophia Belle had planned on training her as a therapy dog. Her death not only caused enormous heartbreak for her owners, but now she has been denied a chance to help many other people.

Moccia and DiMaggio are taking the high road. They wrote on their Facebook memorial page, which has recently been taken down:

"TO THE TRAINER: We want to offer you our forgiveness... We don't know if you have viewed this page or if you even know about it, but we want to send you this message... We forgive you. Although your actions resulted in the death of our beloved Sophia Belle, we know in our hearts that you did not do it maliciously. ... We believe that offering forgiveness is the right thing to do and we hope that you will be able to move on. Our goal is to take this tragedy and turn it into something positive by evoking change at Petco and protecting other babies from similar tragedy." 

They are now asking Petco to step up and improve how their trainers are trained. I agree with that request. 

Are you listening, Petco? You are in a downward spiral of some very serious negative publicity, and you have the opportunity to turn it around now. Do it for the sake of dogs everywhere. After all, dogs (and cats and birds and rodents) pay for your salaries at Petco.

What do you think? Is Petco in the wrong here? Have you had a dog trained at Petco? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments. 

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