Written By: Alexandra Mester, The Blade
A Toledo woman is one of more than a dozen plaintiffs in a Texas lawsuit against a service-dog trainer after what was supposed to be huge relief turned into a nightmare.
Ashley Kinstler, 22, has Type I diabetes, a condition where her body does not produce the insulin that converts sugar to energy.
She paid $15,000 to Drey’s Alert Dogs of Jasper, Texas, last year for a black British Labrador named Keona. Keona was to be a diabetic alert dog who could smell Miss Kinstler’s blood-sugar levels and warn her when her sugar is high, low, or suddenly drops.
The two have bonded and Miss Kinstler loves her dog, but Keona is definitely not a service animal. She does not alert, struggles with even basic obedience, has a number of behavioral issues, and has been impossible to potty train.
“Keona has not had a true alert since we brought her home” in May, 2014, she said. “She is useless as a service dog, but totally lovable as a pet. And that is exactly what I have, a $15,000 pet who is not even potty trained.”
Roann and Timothy Pearson, the operators of Drey’s Alert Dogs, did not return a phone call from The Blade seeking comment. It is unclear whether they have an attorney.
Police in Jasper, Texas, seized 16 would-be service dogs July 10 from the Pearsons’ outdoor kennels for alleged abandonment and neglect. Chief Robert MacDonald said a young man had been hired to care for the dogs and did so for three months, but alerted authorities when payment checks bounced and the Pearsons did not return.
Mrs. Pearson surrendered the dogs to the city in a court hearing July 17, and they are being cared for at Mutt Mesh Animal Rescue in Alvin, Texas. President Linda Lopez said the dogs were all malnourished, suffering from internal and external parasites, and have a number of other medical and behavioral issues.
“They were laying in several inches of feces and urine,” Ms. Lopez said. “The two worst were the labradoodles. They were so matted they couldn’t see and their eyes were infected. When we were finally able to shave their ears, green pus came out of their ears.”
She said two additional dogs have been located and recovered. People had gotten them from the couple after Mrs. Pearson posted an ad on a Facebook page July 7, seeking to sell for $10 or give away the dogs before they were seized.
Ms. Lopez said all the dogs are fearful, but still desperate for companionship and attention. The dogs have been evaluated by an independent trainer and only five might have the temperament to become service dogs, Ms. Lopez said.
The rescue is working with authorities to determine which of the dogs have been paid for by the Pearsons’ clients, and if those families still want the dogs despite not being the trained service animal they paid for.
“The next step is a hearing to try and sort out if there are any people that have ownership rights to the dogs,” Chief MacDonald said.
The police investigation is continuing, and will take considerable time. The chief said the department is gathering and sorting through information and statements from alleged victims across the country, and then has to determine what must remain as a civil matter and what rises to the criminal level.
“I hope we are able to file some type of criminal charges in the case, but it’s not a guarantee,” he said. “It’s a fine line when you’re dealing with things like this.”
Chief MacDonald said the case is “probably the worst fraud case I’ve seen, and I’ve been in police work 35 years.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in a Travis County district court, includes five couples and eight individuals from Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Washington as plaintiffs.
Their attorney, Josh Davis, said the families have heartbreaking stories of their dealings with Drey’s Alert Dogs.
“They are in serious need for solutions to Type I diabetes, many of them for kids,” he said. “Drey’s Alert Dogs’ program, they were marketing themselves as experts in training dogs to alert owners when blood-sugar levels were low or high. All of that was complete garbage. They had no idea what they were doing and abused the animals.”
Like Miss Kinstler, some plaintiffs have a dog that is not functioning as a service animal, or they sent back a dog they had bonded with for further training and were given a new dog instead. Some received an aggressive or unhealthy dog, and others paid for a dog and never got one.
The lawsuit contends the Pearsons are in breach of contract, negligently misrepresented themselves, committed fraud and theft, and intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon the plaintiffs.
“These families are left out in the cold, and their money was stolen,” Mr. Davis said. “They either don’t have a dog, or they have a dog that doesn’t work. It’s just mean. You’re going after and hoodwinking families that did fund-raisers to get money together to help their kids.”
Like Miss Kinstler, many of the families hosted fund-raisers and accepted donations to obtain a service dog.
“I know none of this is my fault, but I cannot help feeling guilty for taking all of the community’s donations and investing it in something that failed,” Miss Kinstler said. “I will never get over that guilt.”
The lawsuit seeks both compensatory and punitive damages, as well as repayment for legal fees.
Miss Kinstler still suffers from severe anxiety related to her blood-sugar issues. She recently had an episode of extremely low blood sugar at work and was in imminent danger of passing out. If Keona had been a true service dog, she would have alerted to the problem well before her owner reached that dangerous point.
“I am constantly afraid and back to having panic attacks daily. All because of that one scary moment that could have been prevented if Drey’s had provided me with a working service dog,” Miss Kinstler said.
She would still benefit from a service dog, but unless what she paid for Keona is refunded, she cannot afford one.
“I could never pay for one myself, and I do not feel comfortable fund-raising and asking the public to do this all over again,” she said.
Miss Kinstler has asked that anyone who would like to talk with her or who donated toward her cause contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org