AP: Families defrauded by unregulated service dog trainers

Sobie Cummings, 11, plays with her dog, Dallas, at the family's home in Waxhaw, N.C., Friday, March 29, 2019. A psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help to ease Sobie’s crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. But when they brought home a $14,500 Briard from Mark Mathis’ Ry-Con Service Dogs, Okami broke from Glenn Cummings' grasp and began mauling Dallas. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

May 3, 2019
ALLEN G. BREED

Rachel Cummings holds a photo of her daughter, Sobie, with their former service dog, Okami, at their home in Waxhaw, N.C., on Friday, March 29, 2019. She and her husband purchased the Baird from Mark Mathis of Ry-Con Service Dogs, in hopes the dog would help their autistic child. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
This May 23, 2018 photo provided by Rebecca Peluso shows Mark Mathis, owner of Ry-Con Service Dogs, during a training session with Ella Peluso and her service dog, Puzzle2, at Ry-Con’s facilities in Raleigh, N.C. Peluso says the dog became increasingly difficult to handle. “The final straw was her knocking down one of my twins trying to pull her top off and clawing my daughter’s legs up. My daughter was afraid of the dog and didn’t want to be in any room the dog was in after that incident.” (Rebecca Peluso via AP)
This 2017 photo provided by Shannon Poirier shows her son, Daniel, with service dog, Boston, at Lake Benson, N.C. In November 2017, Christian and Shannon Poirier say the dog, sold to them by Mark Mathis of Ry-Con Service Dogs, bit their 11-year-old son, who has autism. After repeated requests for a refund, they sued Mathis in small claims court and won. (Shannon Poirier via AP)
In this Nov. 18, 2018 photo provided by Nancy Evans, her daughter, Katie, snuggles with Bailey at a hotel in Cary, N.C. on the day they picked him up from Mark Mathis of Ry-Con Service Dogs. Nancy says her 19-year-old daughter had waited over a year for the dog. Katie suffered from PTSD and anxiety so severe that she could not even take the bus by herself. But when they got home to Toronto, the dog showed extreme aggression toward Katie’s older brother. An expert who examined Bailey declared her unfit for service, and a rescue group took her away. About a month after losing Bailey, Katie committed suicide. (Nancy Evans via AP)
Sobie Cummings, 11, plays with her dog, Dallas, at the family’s home in Waxhaw, N.C., Friday, March 29, 2019. A psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help to ease Sobie’s crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. But when they brought home a $14,500 Briard from Mark Mathis’ Ry-Con Service Dogs, Okami broke from Glenn Cummings’ grasp and began mauling Dallas. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
A “For Sale” sign stands in front of a row of empty kennels at the former training site of Ry-Con Service Dogs in Raleigh, N.C., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. Mark Mathis, the owner of the now-shuttered nonprofit, is facing dozens of complaints by families who say he sold them poorly trained, often aggressive dogs. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

APEX, N.C. (AP) — All the counseling, therapy and medication did little to ease 9-year-old Sobie Cummings’ crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. And so a psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help the autistic child connect with other kids.

To Glenn and Rachel Cummings, Mark Mathis seemed like a dream come true. His kennel, Ry-Con Service Dogs, was just a couple of hours away, and he, too, had a child with autism. But what clinched the decision were Mathis’ credentials.

“Is Ry-Con a certified program? Yes,” stated an online brochure. “In 2013, Mark was certified as a NC state approved service dog trainer with a specialty in autism service dogs for children.”

Ten months and $14,500 later, the family brought home a shaggy mop of a dog that Sobie had come to view as her “savior.” But when they opened the front door, Okami broke from Glenn Cummings’ grasp and began mauling one of the family’s elderly dogs — all as Sobie watched from the stairs in mute horror.

It was only after they had returned Okami and asked for a refund that the family learned the truth: Mathis was not a state-certified dog trainer. In fact, North Carolina has no such certification program — and neither does any other state.

The service dog industry — particularly in the field of “psychiatric” service dogs for people with autism and post-traumatic stress disorder — has exploded in recent years. But a near complete absence of regulation and oversight has left needy, desperate families vulnerable to incompetence and fraud.

“It is a lawless area. The Wild West,” says David Favre, a law professor at Michigan State University and editor of its Animal Legal and Historical Center website.

Properly training a service dog can take up to 1 ½ years and cost upward of $50,000, depending on the tasks it is taught to perform. But the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require that a service dog be professionally trained or certified. And, according to the U.S. Department of Justice , local and state agencies are prohibited from requiring that the dogs be registered.

“It needs to be specially trained to do tasks that relate to the person’s disability, but it doesn’t say anything about who does the training or the quality of training or the efficacy of it,” says Lynette Hart, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis. “So it’s a very broad, wide-open barn door.”

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Families defrauded by unregulated service dog trainers
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Families defrauded by unregulated service dog trainers
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All the counseling, therapy and medication did little to ease 9-year-old Sobie Cummings’ crippling anxiety and feelings of isolation. And so a psychiatrist suggested that a service dog might help the autistic child connect with other kids.