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, entrusting him to a trainer to break his habit of aggression toward new dogs.
But Ashley Stone and Lane Lawrence rushed to a veterinary hospital two days later, where a team worked overnight but ultimately couldn’t save their 5-year-old husky mix, Bear.
“We’re trying to grieve,” Stone said. “But it’s really hard to even be able to process what’s happened when we don’t have answers.”
It’s not clear why he became so ill, and the training company says Bear was well cared for before he began whimpering one night in June.
The couple says their experience points to a need for the government to step in to prevent future deaths of pets: There’s no state oversight of Utah’s shelters, rescues or overnight training programs. And advocates say animal control agencies across the state often lack the resources and training needed to fully investigate after something goes wrong.
An ‘inadequate and outdated’ system
Stone noted the state required her to train for 1,600 hours in order to obtain a cosmetology license to do hair. But there’s no such mandate for pet groomers, trainers or others caring for four-legged loved ones.
Federal regulators oversee only large-scale commercial breeders, and a patchwork of requirements across Utah’s cities and counties are “extremely inadequate and outdated,” said Rachel Heatley, advocacy and investigations director at the Humane Society of Utah.
For example, some cities restrict how many dogs people or trainers can have, she said, but have no limits on the number of puppies. And many animal control offices have a budget of just a few hundred dollars a year, Heatley added.
It means standards like temperature control and access to clean food and water often aren’t enforced in the Beehive State. And there’s little recourse after a pet falls ill or dies.
Colorado is different. The state regulates a variety of pet services, from grooming to board-and-train programs like the one Bear attended. A license is needed for any sort of training that takes place when the owner’s not present, said Nick Fisher, section chief for the Colorado Pet Animal Care Facilities Act Program.
The agency’s investigators can order necropsies – autopsies for animals — to investigate what may have led to a pet’s death, he said. Over the past three years, PACFA told KSL it has received 407 complaints about dog boarding/training facilities.
Disciplinary action has been taken in 28 cases since 2019. Fisher says that’s usually in the form of a civil penalty.
A finding of neglect or cruelty is referred to law enforcement to investigate.
If the trainer is convicted of cruelty or neglect, PACFA can revoke, suspend, or deny their license.
A license may also be revoked after three failed inspections or in the case of an extremely egregious violation.
Colorado’s regulations are considered the strongest nationally. But most states have some sort of standards on their books, Heatley said.
The Humane Society of Utah says no one in Utah currently maintains a comprehensive list of dogs injured or killed in boarding/training facilities, making it impossible to know how often it happens in our state.
Stone and Lawrence are urging Utah lawmakers to pass requirements for any business caring for pets overnight to obtain a license and undergo regular inspections, with support from the Humane Society.
“To me, any facility where an animal is staying overnight is priority no. 1,” Heatley said.
No Utah lawmaker has signed on to sponsor a change just yet, but the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is working with Heatley’s organization to figure out the details of oversight, like which kinds of pet businesses the agency would regulate and how many extra employees it would need to bring on.
“We recognize that there is a need for some oversight to ensure that Utah’s animals are being cared for,” said Bailee Woolstenhulme, department spokeswoman.
‘No way to really make this right’
Bear was diagnosed with heatstroke at the Cottonwood Veterinary Hospital, declared 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 didn’t show any signs of being sick until he began crying on the evening of June 17.
“We just want to make this right in any way that we can, understanding that there’s no way to really make this right,” Brown said.
His company has issued Stone and Lawrence a refund, covered the veterinary bill for Bear’s care and offered to pay for a new dog, he said.
The couple suspects Bear was left in hot weather, saying the veterinarian told them such severe heatstroke doesn’t occur without severe environmental conditions.
But Brown believes the dog was already sick upon arrival and noted an animal control officer who found there was no neglect.
His employees are required to obtain hundreds of hours of training and learn proper first aid, he added.
Brown said Bear “started out mopey and slow and lackadaisical,” after arriving at the trainer’s home, but that’s normal for dogs with aggression and anxiety as they adjust to the new environment.
He said the dog stayed in an air-conditioned house with access to water and allowed outside for short bathroom breaks, with regular monitoring. He was brought to the veterinary hospital when he showed signs of distress, Brown said.
“I know that he was getting great treatment. He was with folks throughout the day,” Brown said. “And I believe that unfortunately, he was sick when he came to us and spiraled because he was feeling stressed. I feel awful about that.”
Brown acknowledged he’d want answers, too. But he doesn’t believe there are widespread problems or deaths at Utah’s training programs that would illustrate a need for a new law.
“We’ve been doing this for 15 years and dogs have been safe, happy,” he said. “This is not normal.”
Hunter Hansen with Sugar House Pet Care, a dog walking and pet sitting service, sees it differently. He is in favor of stricter rules.
“This industry is entirely self-regulated, except for very sparse things here and there,” but few pet owners know that, he said.
‘No proof’ of wrongdoing
The animal control officer who responded after Bear’s death and determined there was no neglect reached her conclusion based on a conversation with the trainer’s wife, who reported the dog had been staying inside, with access to food and water, but did not eat a day prior to his death – something the trainer’s wife attributed to stress, according to a police report.
The dog’s dehydration and fever could have been due to several possible reasons, the officer wrote.
“I felt there was no neglect that took place at the dog trainer house,” the report states. “I let her know that I will not be pursuing charges against the trainer due to no proof they did anything wrong. Case closed.”
Two veterinarians told KSL a number of factors can contribute to heatstroke in dogs, and they don’t necessarily have to be in a warm place to overheat.
If they’re not able to breathe well – whether due to choking, anxiety, or dehydration – they can get heatstroke, said Utah emergency veterinarian Jeffery Simmons.
Anxiety can also play a role.
Stress is unlikely to raise a dog’s temperature as high as Bear’s, he added, but that can happen in combination with another factor like poor airflow 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 just as straightforward as one 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 suing and consulted attorneys, they said, but learned they don’t have much of a case without a witness or evidence of what may have happened.
“This is a loss that isn’t measurable in the first place,” Stone said.