Dogs supposedly trained to detect and respond to potentially life-threatening blood sugar levels in people with diabetes were, in reality, often untrained, un-housebroken puppies with hefty price tags—currently set at $25,000. At least, that’s according to a lawsuit filed this week by Attorney General Mark Herring on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
According to the lawsuit, the non-profit company Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers and its owner Charles Warren Jr. made extraordinary claims about their “diabetic alert dogs.” The company and Warren said that the dogs were highly trained, and that their performance was “backed by science.” The SDWR website advertised the animals as being able to: detect low/high blood sugar levels through scents in skin and breath; retrieve needed food and medications, such as insulin; seek help when required; and even dial 911 in an emergency.
“Diabetic Alert Dogs are 100% accurate and often alert as much as 20-45 minutes before a meter shows there’s even a problem,” the company boasted. And customers were promised regular access to trainers as needed to help personalize the dogs’ training.
For these remarkable tricks and services, SDWR has charged customers anywhere from $18,000 to $27,000 per dog through the years. The current cost is around $25,000 and the company encourages customers to fundraise to help pay for the animals.
Virginia has a bone to pick about almost all of that. Though the prices were real, the dogs’ abilities were not, according to the lawsuit. Customers said they received “ready” dogs that were not at all trained to detect and respond to blood sugar levels. And the scientific evidence behind whether dogs are generally effective and accurate at monitoring blood sugar levels is shaky.
Moreover, SDWR’s dogs lacked even basic pet training, according to the lawsuit. Some dogs were merely puppies that were not housebroken, struggled to walk on a leash, chewed on things, and didn’t respond to their names. They also displayed behaviors incompatible for service animal work, including frequent barking, jumping on people, and being terrified of loud noises.
Even when SDWR delivered older dogs, customers reported that the dogs were still untrained. And access to trainers was also not as advertised. When trainers were available, they spent their time on basic obedience issues, customers said.
“[T]hese hopeful and vulnerable consumers receive poorly trained, ill-behaved dogs that are not equipped to help them manage a life-threatening disability and are little more than very expensive pets,” the lawsuit concludes.
The Commonwealth alleges that SDWR and Warren violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act by deceiving consumers, as well as illegally encouraging them to solicit charitable donations.
SDWR’s attorney John B. Russell Jr. sent an email to the saying that the company denied Virginia’s claims and will “fight these ridiculous allegations at every step.”
“[W]e absolutely deny that we have ever set out to mislead, cheat or defraud our many happy clients.” He added that the company was working with attorney general Herring’s office to address issues and “in many areas, we had already changed our procedures long before their investigation began.” He accused the office of wanting to destroy SDWR and Warren.
The legal dog fight comes as authorities try to sink their teeth into the growing issues around popular service and emotional support animals, the notes. Despite their popularity, there are no national certifications or registration systems. However, one voluntary accrediting organization, Assistance Dogs International, Inc. has tried to set standards and lists several prominent service dogs groups as its members. SDWR is not one of them.
SDWR also says it provides dogs for people with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and seizures.