Canine Partners for Life in Cochranville, PA matched me with a 3 year old black Labrador that they had supposedly trained to assist me with my various physical disabilities. I spent one full week working directly with the dog on basic commands and introductory service skills. The dogs mental stability and ability to handle the stressors of service work were called into question when he growled at other service dogs and handlers from a distance. The problem continued throughout the week with him growling at people and other dogs and escalated to repeat growling and barking at a gentleman staying in the hotel room adjacent to mine at the end of the week. A staff member at CPL had previously disclosed to me that the dog had growled at voting solicitors at her front door on one occasion, leading me to believe that this behavior was a known issue.
The dogs behavior was indicative of a dog that is highly reactive to its environment and temperamentally unsuited for the stressful life of a service dog. Staff members at CPL insisted his behavior was normal and that he was stressed and testing me to see if he could get away with the behavior. Dogs that are 100% mentally sound and fit for service work do not growl because they are anxious, stressed, or testing a new handler. The behavior began less than 72 hours into my training with him not nearly long enough of a relationship history for him to be testing me at that level.
The dog jumped away from me when I fell instead of bracing the fall as he should have been trained to do. He left numerous, documented bruises on my legs, chest, waist and arms from knocking into me and from attempts to continuously remove his head collar. He was rough taking treats and left scratches and marks from his teeth, as well as bruises, on my hand. On one occasion, he jumped into the air to try to snatch food from me while I was standing. This behavior is absolutely unacceptable for a service dog in any capacity, and dangerous for a service dog that should be providing support to a person with mobility impairments.
It should be noted that the dog had already been matched with a disabled client and graduated through team training one year prior to my invitation to the facility. The previous owner had returned the dog and CPL refused to disclose exactly why, which I found odd. They cited confidentiality as the reason (why would a dog need confidentiality?), but a memo from a canine chiropractor in his medical records stated it was because the dog had been pulling on [the] leash.
I became concerned for my safety and left the program without completing team training at the end of the first week. Upon my return home, I sent a certified letter to the Executive Director requesting that my monetary donation of $1,000 be returned to me due to the extenuating circumstances. The purpose of that donation was to aid in providing a highly trained, temperamentally sound service dog for my personal use. The dog I was matched with did not meet these criteria. Not only did the Executive Director refuse to return the funds, but she claimed I abandoned the partnership before it could truly develop and said that I had never addressed any of my concerns with the staff.
First of all, a dog that is growling as a result of stress less than 72 hours into the partnership in an environment it is familiar with is temperamentally unsound. Period. This was not a behavior that would have improved with time. At the very least, he required remedial training and evaluation by a behaviorist, and even then, the chances he could have returned to a working career were slim. Second, I made multiple staff members and even clients aware of the issues I was having, so her claim that I never said anything is false. When I filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, the Executive Director replied stating that the monetary donation is only suggested and not required to attend team training. Clients are required to sign a waiver when making donations emphasizing they are non-refundable and I was told repeatedly by staff at CPL that the donation had to be received prior to the start of team training. Had I been aware it wasn't even required, I would not have made it.
Probably the most concerning part of my experience there was the direct handling I witnessed by the Executive Director herself. In fact, the local humane society was contacted by more than one recipient from the Summer 2011 class regarding the overly harsh correction methods witnessed during team training. The Executive Director yanked a clients service dog off the floor (all four paws) by its prong collar when it tried to eat food off the ground. She and the staff encouraged me to correct my dogs growling behavior, and the Executive Director even offered a demonstration during a lecture period as to how we should correct our dogs if they growled. She called her personal service dog to the front of the class, grabbed its face and harshly scolded it when it had done nothing to warrant the correction. The dog began to tremble and shook with its tail tucked when she called on it to serve as a demo subsequent times for the next few lectures. Those with advanced knowledge and understanding of canine behavior and training know that a growling dog should never be corrected, as doing so lowers the threshold of more serious responses such as biting.
Leaving CPL was not a decision I took lightly because it took a lot of time and money to prepare for the trip there. I consulted with two private dog trainers, a behaviorist, a different service dog agency, and two Assistance Dogs International board members. Not one person I spoke with condoned any of the behaviors or actions I witnessed from the dogs or the staff/trainers at CPL. I was applauded for leaving behind what I strongly felt was a "four-legged liability". I had been fooled into thinking that CPL had an upstanding reputation and that its size and experience would prove to provide me with a well-trained partner. I was absolutely floored at the things I witnessed on their campus and cannot, in good faith, recommend them to anyone.
I strongly encourage anyone disabled who is interested in adding a service dog to their life to thoroughly research programs and trainers before committing to working with one. Poke around online and speak with clients. I spoke with several CPL recipients prior to applying and it wasn't until after I left and reported my experience that they commented that their dogs "did/do that too" except they were led to believe the behaviors were ok so they didn't mention them to me.
The behaviors I witnessed were not isolated to my dog during the Summer 2011 team training. Several clients went home with dogs exhibiting behavior similar to mine, with CPLs assurances that it was all normal and part of the adjustment period. I lost a lot of money in an attempt to improve my quality of life, including transportation and lodging fees, and it angers me that other unsuspecting clients are being partnered with dogs that may not be temperamentally or physically sound for the stressful life of service work.
I encourage potential donors and volunteers to reconsider donating money and time to organizations that engage in practices like the ones I described here. Many times, service dog agencies unintentionally (or intentionally) take advantage of the fact that disabled clients have never owned a dog before and they attempt to convince them that abnormal behaviors are normal and acceptable. Canine Partners for Life may just be grossly misguided, but I definitely felt that they tried to take advantage of me. Fortunately, the dog I left behind was not re-matched for a third time. I only wish CPL would refund my donation at the very least so that I could pursue a temperamentally sound dog from a more reputable trainer.