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Hundreds of families from around the U.S. each paid a Virginia non-profit thousands of dollars for service dogs that were not trained at all, and, in some cases were not even delivered, according to two lawsuits, one filed by Virginia’s attorney general.
The company, called Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR), charged $25,000 for dogs that it said could detect and alert clients about dangerously high or low levels of blood sugar in people with diabetes; help people afflicted with seizures from epilepsy or other disorders by getting help and providing stimulation; protect children with autism by assisting in search and rescue and discouraging self-harm; and bring comfort and help to those suffering from post-traumatic stress. However, it turned out that the dogs could perform none of these functions — some were barely house trained and served as little more than expensive pets, according to the lawsuits.
Customers with these special needs were encouraged to solicit the necessary funds from family and friends through a fundraising site operated by SDWR. The company was established in 2010 by its CEO, Charles D. Warren, and members of his family and declared bankruptcy in May 2020. As a result, those who provided their generous support to help loved ones with disabilities are now out thousands of dollars.
Virginia’s attorney general is suing the company for violating the state’s consumer protection and solicitation laws. The lawsuit also alleges that Warren lied to consumers and donors when he claimed to have served in the U.S. Marine Corps and that he trained dogs for the military. Warren did not serve in any branch of the U.S. military, according to Attorney General Mark Herring.
“Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers and Dan Warren not only allegedly took part in dishonest and unlawful business practices, but their reckless actions put the lives of their customers who were relying on the business’s claims in danger,” Herring said in a statement.
A jury trial is scheduled to begin October 7, 2021.
In addition, four people who paid thousands of dollars for dogs they never received are suing Warren and his associates in federal district court in Virginia. According to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Warren expanded the service dog scheme in 2016 to begin targeting families with autistic children. Warren allegedly began telling consumers that he could provide them with dogs that had received training through a “proprietary training and placement program [that] ensures that every family with an Autism Dog finds the independence and safety they are looking for.” Among other things, Warren said that his dogs could help in finding a lost child and in redirecting children from self-harm.
A Facebook support group called "SDWR Families Coming Together" now has 328 members, made up of “families affected by the sudden and secret closing of SDWR, Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers," according to the group’s description.
Although there will always be unscrupulous con artists preying on people at their most vulnerable, there are ways to avoid them. People seeking service dogs should work through organizations that specialize in specific disabilities, be it autism, diabetes, or post-traumatic stress. For instance, Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the U.S., lists several groups specializing in canine assistants on its website. One of these is 4 Paws For Ability, which trains dogs to assist with a range of human conditions. While it isn’t cheap — a 2017 study by 4 Paws for Ability concluded that it costs from $40,000 to $60,000 to train a service dog — at least clients can rest assured that they will be getting a dog that is thoroughly trained.
For more on the Virginia attorney general’s lawsuit, click here.