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CBS 2 Investigation: Did Heavy Handed Trainer Cost L.I. Couple Their Dog?

NEW YORK (CBS 2) -- Her owners called her spunky, funny, and tough. A Long Island couple is mourning their 6-month-old dog, Sophia Belle, a pet that the couple treated like a child.

"She was perfect. She was my baby. I'm going to cry," Michelle Moccia recently told CBS 2 investigative reporter Tamara Leitner.

Michelle and her fiance, Michael DiMaggio, brought Sophia Belle to a Levittown Petco in February for obedience training. But during their second visit, the couple claims, something went very wrong.

"The trainer pulled back hard on her leash, lifting her little paws off the floor and choking her," DiMaggio said.

The couple was shocked.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," Moccia said.

DiMaggio said he tried to revive the bulldog on the spot.

"She wasn't breathing and she was looking at me and I was telling her it's okay, you're a good girl," he said.

The couple rushed Sophia Belle to the vet, but it was too late. She died of pulmonary edema. It's unclear if her death was triggered by a pre-existing condition or by choking.

"In a dog with a small trachea, the trachea can collapse. A collapsing trachea can cause respiratory distress which can lead to something called pulmonary edema," explained Long Island veterinarian Deborah Nearenberg.

Petco released a statement expressing its sadness over the dog's death, but has not taken responsibility for the dog's passing.

"All of us at Petco are deeply saddened by Sophia Belle's tragic passing, but we are confident it was not related to the actions of our store team.

"We take any animal-related concerns very seriously, and this instance has been no different. We thoroughly investigated the circumstances around her death, including a full review by Petco and outside experts of Sophia Belle's veterinary reports and the complete store video of the dog training class she attended. We strongly believe our trainer acted appropriately throughout the training class and that neither the medical reports nor our store video showed any signs of undue force or injury to Sophia Belle related to the trainer's actions.

"Petco trains thousands of pet parents and their dogs every day through a positive training curriculum focused on rewarding good behavior and on strengthening the relationship between pets and their pet parents.

"We understand there is no way to make up for their loss, but in an effort to help, Petco has paid for all veterinary expenses and offered to help find a new puppy when/if they are ready."

Petco told CBS 2 that its trainers go through a hands-on, 16-week program.

The company offered to buy the couple a new dog and pay their veterinary bill, but DiMaggio and Moccia told CBS 2 that it isn't about the money. They said they want to see Petco's policies changed, and for the company to ensure that all trainers are trained in CPR.

So far Petco has not made any changes to its policies.

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