Reporting Liz Collin
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – They’re $10,000 dogs, sold to a vulnerable population with the promise of offering safety and protection, but some Minnesota and Wisconsin families who bought in can’t believe what they’ve got.
In the contract, the families were told the dogs would give their kids with special needs some much-needed help. But when WCCO-TV investigated, our search for answers from the company selling the dogs ended in a way you wouldn’t expect.
Lucas Hultman is a little boy who lights up for those he loves, but he’s unable to ever tell his family how he feels.
“Everyday I come home, he’s waiting in the window waiting for me,” said Grant Hultman, Luca’s dad said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, it would be great for him to have someone waiting there for him.’”
The Hultmans believed the time had finally come to give Lucas the voice he’ll never have of his own. The Hartland, Wis., family had been desperate to improve life for their son after doctors diagnosed him with Angelman Syndrome.
“He’s 6, but he’s probably at like a 1-year-old level,” said his mom, Mary Hultman.
Angelman Syndrome is a condition marked by smiles and laughter, but those who care for these kids are constantly reminded of what they’ll miss.
“The only thing that will keep you up at night as a parent is just thinking you want more for him,” Grant Hultman said.
It’s why the Hultman family was convinced that relief would come from what they were told would be a highly-trained Great Pyrenees.
Donation drives in three different states raised the $10,000 they needed to bring the dog, named Happy, home this summer.
The contract said Happy would be trained in obedience; know how to behave on and off a leash, in public, and what to do if Lucas would start to act out.
The dog can’t do anything even close.
“I’d be embarrassed to say this is what we did with your money,” Grant Hultman said. “It’s a slap in all of their faces.”
He tries to get the dog to sit, stay, come and shake — and Happy can’t do any of it.
“There are people taking advantage of people all the time, but to take advantage of special needs kids. There are no words to describe it,” Mary Hultman said.
The struggle is the same at the Wallraff’s household in Woodbury.
After working for months to raise the money, they brought Bella home in August. They were told she would calm their 12-year-old son, Andrew, who has autism.
“All of a sudden, we’re in a worse position than we were before,” said Jeni Wallraff, Andrew’s mom.
Jeni says Bella has chewed and ripped her way through their home since she got there, leaving her mark at least a few times a day, since they say she isn’t even house trained.
“I think I’ve shampooed this carpet at least five to 10 different times,” John Wallraff said.
When they’ve tried to get answers, they couldn’t even piece together how old Bella is or if she’s had all of her shots from the paperwork they were given.
“I can’t believe that someone can operate like this and continue to do it,” Jeni Wallraff said.
Both dogs came from Compassionate Paws in Pine River, Wis. Its mission statement is repeated all over its website: Training service dogs for those who suffer from developmental disabilities.
Eight different Minnesota and Wisconsin families are suing the company with the same complaint, that its dogs aren’t trained in anything. Even worse, allegations say the pets have bitten people, knocked children down and attacked other animals. Most claim they had no choice but to give the dogs up. All say they were never given their money back.
So far, the Walraff and Hultman families are not part of the lawsuit.
“We’re already stressed out and just looking for some help and she’s taking advantage of us,” Mary Hultman said.
Vicki Pingel runs Compassionate Paws. Her husband has recently been appointed executive director. When our calls went unanswered, we went to her farm in Pine River, Wis.
We asked him if the dogs were being trained, and he told our news crew to leave.
We did, and he watched us go. Until moments later when we heard three shots from a gun from his property.
Alan Peters is the executive director and founder of Can Do Canines. In 24 years, his organization has trained more than 400 assistance dogs.
“To see people jerked around and their money taken, and they just want something to help their child it’s a really, really sad thing,” Peters aid.
Its trainers put in $25,000 worth of work and give the dogs away for free to children and adults with disabilities.
Can Do Canine’s pets are already spoken for three years out.
“They bump into a long waiting list and that’s where the trouble begins,” Peters said.
So Peters says families turn to the internet and companies like Compassionate Paws.
Its website allows people to donate directly to help kids get their dogs but in Andrew Wallraf’s case, we found his donation page up two months after his parents bought Bella.
His family has no idea if donations were still being made.
After watching the only training video on Compassionate Paws website, Peters said he could tell right away something was wrong.
“That video showed a woman leading a dog around with a piece of food. It’s something any person could do,” Peters said.
In their contracts with Pingel, the Wallraffs and Hultmans both agreed to 120 hours of training for their dogs. At Can Do Canines a dog will spend 900 hours with trainers before they’re allowed to go home.
“The public can’t tell the difference between one assistance dog and another. That absolutely not only gives us a bad reputation but effects people with disabilities everywhere,” Peters said.
Peters recommends families look for organizations that are affiliated with Assistance Dogs International. There are three organizations in Minnesota and three in Wisconsin. Compassionate Paws is not one of them.
The Wallraff’s believe they have no choice but to look for a new home for Bella.
As for the Hultman’s, they will keep Happy knowing she will never do what they were promised. They are focused again on speaking up on their son’s behalf, to protect other families in the same position.
“She’s still probably selling dogs right now. Her business needs to stop,” Grant Hultman said.
Vicki Pingel and Compassionate Paws’ attorney told me he did not want to comment for this story but in court documents, the company asked for the case to be dismissed and for the families to pay Compassionate Paws for damaging its reputation and costing it business.
The company says the placement of a service dog is just the beginning of training and it should continue at home. Families we spoke with said Pingel won’t return their calls or emails.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has taken four complaints about Compassionate Paws in the last two years. Consumers can file complaint here.