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Service Dog Organization Accused Of Selling Untrained Dogs

MONUMENT, Colo (CBS4) Angel Service Dogs, Inc. is a 501(c)3 that trains dogs to detect allergens that can be life-threatening to humans and alerts them. It is based in Monument, Colorado. The organization and its founder, Sherry Mers, have been in the media all across the nation touting the benefits of well-trained service dogs to protect children suffering from severe allergies, in particular peanut and tree nut allergies. Now several families who've spent $20,000 on these specialized dogs say they are not fit to do the job.

"Queenie was supposed to be a line of defense. She would go into any room before Nolan and Ben, sweep the room and alert them if there was a peanut there," said Christine Clifford, the owner of a dog trained by Angel Service Dogs, Inc.

Nolan and Ben are Christine Clifford's teenage sons. Both are highly allergic to nuts. The Cliffords say they were thrilled at the idea that a scent detection dog could give their sons a new measure of freedom. Christine and her husband, Dean, spent $20,000 for Queenie, a dog they were told could go to school, sporting events, anywhere their boys went.

"She's only been in school once and that was to visit the principal. She lunged at three different kids," Clifford told CBS.

The Cliffords say that Queenie is aggressive to strangers, she jumps up on people, and she is easily distracted. They say that she is not service dog material.

"She has never really alerted. Period. I've never really seen her do a good alert. Ever," Christine said.

The Cliffords had Queenie evaluated at the Foster Hospital for Small Animals at Tufts University. The report says, "She jumped on people, nipped hands, barked aggressively at certain individuals, became overwhelmed in crowds, and showed separation anxiety. Additionally, Queenie showed no aptitude for or interest in allergen detection."

MORE: Tufts University Report

"It's not even that we are not satisfied. We are emotionally devastated by this. We were promised a dog that would protect our children and it does not do that," Christine said.

"When Christine called she said, 'This dog is not working out, we'd like our money back.' They laughed and said, 'It's your dog now.'," said Dean Clifford.

The Cliffords are keeping Queenie as a family pet, but say that they've had to do rigorous obedience training with her.

Beth Caudle lives in Sacramento, Calif. Her two children struggle with food allergies, but her son Lincoln's are more severe than her daughter Reagan's. Beth wanted to get a scent detection dog for her son, so she ran a fundraising campaign among her friends, family, and community. She raised $20,000 and got Frost from Angel Service Dogs, Inc.

"We were totally excited thinking that this was it. It would give Lincoln independence, and protect him, and keep him alive," Caudle explained.

Caudle and her family traveled to Colorado to do the two week training period required by Angel Service Dogs, Inc. Beth said that she saw Frost exhibiting aggressive and anxious behavior in that two week training period. She says that when she got Frost home, the dog growled and snapped at her daughter.

"She wasn't safe around my kids…wasn't safe around other kids," Caudle told CBS.

Caudle had Frost evaluated at the University of California Davis Veterinary School. The report diagnoses Frost with human-directed aggression, separation anxiety, and apparent lack of training expected of a purchased trained service dog. The report goes on to say, "Frost should not be in your home, or any other home, serving as an allergen detection service dog."

MORE: UC Davis Veterinary School Report

"I was really scared. I was really devastated. I was disappointed," Caudle said.

Caudle notified Angel Service Dogs, Inc. that Frost was not working out. The organization did provide a replacement dog at no further cost to the Caudles. Charlie is the new dog. Caudle reports that while he's not aggressive to people, he is aggressive to other animals. She says that the family is keeping Charlie, but can't use him as a service dog. Caudle has not had Charlie independently tested.

"He's completely unreliable on detection…great pet…but not the service dog we paid for," Caudle said.

Richelle Angeli is a mom from New Hampshire whose daughter has severe nut allergies. Angeli says she went through Angel Dog Services, Inc to raise the $20,000 needed to get Parker. Angeli says that she was hopeful that Parker would be able to be with her daughter full-time and go to school, on the bus, to church and everywhere else her daughter went.

"When we met the dog and saw the dog was jumping all over everybody, I was very hesitant," Angeli told CBS.

When Angeli got Parker home, she sent him to school with her daughter. She reports that Parker barked at the other children in class and had a hard time settling down. She provided an incident report from the school's principal that details Parker getting anxious during a 5th grade class assembly. The report says, "Parker lunged at the male student and bit his wrist." The report indicates the bite did not break the skin, there was a red scratch mark, but that Parker was no longer welcome in that school.

"That leaves us without a service dog. We hung up his vest. We didn't want to take any chances," Angeli said.

When Angeli contacted Angel Service Dogs, Inc. to tell them Parker bit a child at school, she got a written response from the organization that says, "Angel Service Dogs, Inc was greatly saddened to hear of your problems with Parker." The response goes on to offer a free evaluation of Parker via Skype or videos or Angeli could pay to send Parker to Colorado for evaluation. The letter says Angeli could donate Parker back to Angel Service Dogs, Inc for re-homing, and if she decided to get another trained dog, Angel Service Dogs, Inc would assist her with another round of fundraising.

MORE: Angel Service Dogs Written Response

"I was still living the dream at that point and the dream was over," Angeli said.

She decided to keep Parker, but did have him evaluated by an independent dog trainer in her area. Gail Martin describes herself as a Professional Dog Trainer with certifications through the Council of Professional Dog Trainers and the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors. In her report, she says, "It is my professional opinion that Parker should not have been in a program for service dogs. I do not believe he would even pass a basic Canine Good Citizen test given by an AKC evaluator."

MORE: Independent Evaluation of Parker

CBS4 talked to two more families in Washington State and Illinois, both telling the same story of paying Angel Service Dog, Inc for trained dogs that then didn't work out in their homes. CBS4 also talked to five dog trainers who say they worked for Angel Service Dogs. They tell stories of dogs that were not the right temperament for service work being sold as service dogs anyway.

"The dogs they got for these clients were from Craiglist and puppy mills, so there was never any assessment done, proper temperament testing, or anything like that," said Kathlyn Ross, a dog trainer with 14-years experience.

Ross says she worked for Angel Service Dogs, Inc in 2011. She says that she told the owners of Angel Service Dog, Inc. that Frost, Beth Caudles first dog, was not ready to go home with a family. She provided video to CBS4 that shows Lincoln Caudle working with Frost. The video shows Frost being distracted. When Lincoln tries to get the dog focused on scent detection, Frost does not seem interested.

The trainers say that many of the dogs they worked with responded well to training and are working for their families to this day. They indicate that some dogs worked well with the trainers, but then had a hard time making the transition to their families. They also felt that the families were not well prepared to maintain the training when they got home.

The founder of Angel Service Dogs, Inc, Sherry Mers, has appeared in the media repeatedly touting the benefits of trained dogs that can detect allergens, including in a story done by CBS4 in November of 2009. CBS4 called and asked to interview Mers about these complaints, and she declined. When we approached her in person, she also didn't want to comment. She did , however, provide us with a client who said she's very satisfied.

Deann Payne has owned General for two years and says that he's very well trained and very helpful.

"It used to be I'd be in the hospital at least once a year. I haven't seen the inside of a hospital since I got him," Payne told CBS4.

Mers also encouraged clients from across the country to call CBS4 with their reviews. We talked to about 8 clients who said that their dogs were well-trained, and good at finding allergens. One mother said her children are able to live a more normal life thanks to the dog they got from Angel Service Dogs, Inc.

Sara Owens is a mom living in Washington State. Her son, Tyson is 13 and has a German Shepard trained by Angel Service Dogs, Inc. She tells CBS4 that they've had the dog for a year and she gave an alert on peanuts in a granola bar just last week.

"You never think you have to protect them from food. Knowing she is there to alert for him…it's amazing to me. It helps him, it helps all of us. It means the world to me," Owens told CBS4.

Angel Service Dogs, Inc is a Better Business Bureau, BBB, accredited organization with an A rating and 0 complaints listed on the website. All of the families that CBS4 talked to with complaints say they've filed their grievances with the BBB, but they aren't on the website. The Colorado Springs chapter of the BBB tells CBS4 that not all complaints get posted on line.

Christine Clifford, Beth Caudle, and Richelle Angeli admit that Angel Service Dogs, Inc. has graduated dogs that are working for other families. But they feel when a child's life is on the line, the organization should not be graduating any dog that doesn't work.

--Written for by Special Projects Producer Libby Smith

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