Bear, a 5-year-old husky mix, died last June. (Family photo)
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SALT LAKE CITY – A Utah couple didn’t expect to see their dog again for three weeks and entrusted them to a trainer to help overcome their habit of aggression towards new dogs.
But Ashley Stone and Lane Lawrence rushed to a veterinary clinic two days later, where a team worked overnight but ultimately failed to save their 5-year-old husky mix, Bear.
“We’re trying to mourn,” said Stone. “But it’s really hard to process what happened when we don’t have the answers.”
It’s not clear why he got so sick, and the training company says Bear was well taken care of before he started whimpering one night in June.
The couple say their experience suggests the government needs to step in to prevent future pet deaths: there is no state oversight of Utah’s shelters, rescues, or overnight training programs. And proponents say that animal control agencies across the state often lack the resources and training necessary to conduct a full investigation when things go wrong.
An “inadequate and outdated” system
Stone noted that the state required her to exercise 1,600 hours in order to obtain a hair cosmetics license. However, such an order does not exist for dog groomers, trainers or others who take care of four-legged friends.
Federal regulators only oversee large commercial growers, and a patchwork of requirements in Utah’s cities and counties is “extremely inadequate and out of date,” said Rachel Heatley, director of advocacy and investigation for the Humane Society of Utah.
For example, some cities place restrictions on how many dogs people or trainers can have, she said, but there is no limit on the number of puppies. And many animal control agencies have budgets of just a few hundred dollars a year, Heatley added.
This means that standards like temperature control and access to clean food and water are often not enforced in the beehive state. And when a pet gets sick or dies, there are few options.
Colorado is different. The state regulates a wide variety of pet services, from grooming to board-and-train programs like the one Bear participated in. A license is required for any type of training that occurs when the owner is not in attendance, said Nick Fisher, division director for the Colorado Pet Animal Care Facilities Act Program.
Agency investigators can order autopsies – autopsies of animals – to find out what could have led to the death of a pet, he said. In the past three years, PACFA told KSL that it had received 407 complaints about dog boarding / training facilities.
Disciplinary measures have been imposed in 28 cases since 2019. Fisher says this usually comes in the form of a civil penalty.
A finding of neglect or cruelty will be referred to law enforcement for investigation.
If the coach is convicted of cruelty or neglect, PACFA may revoke, suspend, or deny their license.
A license can also be withdrawn after three failed checks or in the event of a particularly serious violation.
Colorado regulations are considered to be the strongest nationally. But most states have some kind of standards on their books, Heatley said.
The Humane Society of Utah says that currently no one in Utah keeps a comprehensive list of dogs injured or killed in boarding / training facilities, making it impossible to know how often this happens in our state.
Stone and Lawrence urge Utah lawmakers to meet the requirements for any overnight pet grooming business to obtain a license and undergo periodic inspections with the assistance of the Humane Society.
“For me, any facility that an animal stays at is a # 1 priority,” said Heatley.
No Utah legislature has yet committed to promoting change, but the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is working with Heatley’s organization to find out the details of the oversight that would need to be brought in.
“We recognize that some supervision is required to ensure that the animals in Utah are looked after,” said Bailee Woolstenhulme, spokeswoman for the department.
“No way to really get this right”
Bear was diagnosed with heat stroke at Cottonwood Veterinary Hospital, classified as severely dehydrated and in critical condition with a temperature of 108.3 degrees – about six degrees higher than normal for a dog, according to copies of his medical records.
Ty Brown, known as Ty the Dog Guy, has a network of trainers in several states, including the man who trained Bear at his Riverton home. Brown said the dog showed no signs of illness until he started crying on the evening of June 17.
“We want to get this right in every way we can and understand that there is no way we can really get this right,” Brown said.
His company issued a refund to Stone and Lawrence, paid the vet bill for Bear’s care, and offered to pay for a new dog, he said.
The couple suspect that Bear was left behind in hot weather.
However, Brown believes the dog was already sick upon arrival and noticed an animal control officer who noted that there was no neglect.
His staff would have to complete hundreds of hours of training and learn proper first aid, he added.
Brown said that Bear “started out foggy and slow and listless” after arriving at the trainer’s house, but that’s normal for dogs with aggression and fear as they adjust to the new environment.
He said the dog stayed in an air-conditioned house with access to water and was allowed to take brief toilet breaks outside under regular surveillance. He was rushed to the veterinary clinic when he showed signs of distress, Brown said.
“I know he was treated great. He was with people all day,” said Brown. “And I think that unfortunately he was sick when he came to us and felt stressed. I feel terrible about it.”
Brown admitted that he wanted answers too. However, he does not believe that there are widespread problems or deaths with the training programs in Utah that would highlight the need for new law.
“We have been doing this for 15 years and dogs are safe and happy,” he said. “That’s not normal.”
Hunter Hansen of Sugar House Pet Care, a dog excursion and pet care service, sees it differently. He advocates stricter rules.
“This industry is completely self-regulated except for very sparse things here and there,” but few pet owners know that, he said.
‘No evidence’ of wrongdoing
The animal controller, who responded after Bear’s death and found that there was no neglect, came to her conclusion based on a conversation with the trainer’s wife, who reported that the dog had stayed indoors with access to food and water, but hadn’t eaten the day before to his death – which the coach’s wife put down to stress, according to a police report.
The dog’s dehydration and fever could have been due to several possible causes, the official wrote.
“I felt there was no neglect in the dog trainer house,” the report said. “I let them know that I will not bring charges against the coach as there is no evidence they did anything wrong. Case closed.”
Two vets told KSL that a number of factors can contribute to heat stroke in dogs and that they don’t necessarily have to be in a warm place to overheat.
If they can’t breathe well – whether it is from choking, anxiety, or dehydration – they can get heat stroke, Utah emergency doctor Jeffery Simmons said.
Fear can also play a role.
Stress is unlikely to raise a dog’s temperature as high as Bear’s, he added, but it can happen when combined with another factor like poor air circulation or heat, he said.
Eating something toxic like chocolate could have the same effect, noted Kara Tassone, president of the Utah Veterinary Medical Association.
“It’s not always as easy as a day in the sun,” she said.
Stone and Lawrence buried their dog in one of their favorite spots in the Uinta Mountains, where they often hiked with Bear.
They considered filing a lawsuit and consulting lawyers, they said, but realized that there is no case without witnesses or evidence of what might have happened.
“This is a loss that cannot be measured in the first place,” said Stone.