COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Briggs Geister decided to buy a service dog from Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope based on the company’s glowing online reviews and its reasonable prices.

Her husband has difficulty walking and uses oxygen due to a terminal lung disease, pulmonary fibrosis and post-polio syndrome. She hoped a service dog would give him companionship and much-needed physical support.

So Geister gave Noelle’s $9,000 for Lilo, a 16-month-old goldendoodle, and paid to have a trainer come to her home in Longmont to teach her to work with the dog. But a few days later, when a nurse came to the door, Lilo barked incessantly and urinated on the floor. Soon after, when Geister took her husband to a doctor’s appointment, the dog growled at doctors. Overwhelmed by her husband’s illness and a dog unprepared to help, Geister felt forced to return it, but the couple has not been paid back.

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Geister is one of many Coloradans who have filed complaints with the state’s Department of Agriculture accusing Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope, a Colorado Springs-based service dog company, of selling animals that are poorly and improperly trained, including some that lack the temperament to be service dogs.

“These people are not ethical and need to be shut down,” Geister said. “This makes me so upset that they are doing this to handicapped people. It’s just so unethical. It blows my mind.”

Multiple people claim that Noelle’s has taken advantage of families of those with disabilities, endangering the people the service dogs were supposed to help.

The Department of Agriculture is investigating the business. Spokeswoman Christi Lightcap said because the investigation is ongoing, the department can’t comment further.

Noelle’s is owned by Tina Rivero. Shelly Dill, a lawyer representing Noelle’s, said the company takes the investigation “very seriously.”

“Noelle’s Dogs Four Hope strives to put out well-trained dogs to help its customers. It believes it has done so, and there are many happy customers,” Dill said. “For the few customers that have stated that they feel that their dogs haven’t been adequately trained, Noelle’s has offered them additional training and worked to offer them a full refund for their dog.”

Brandis Perry was given a service dog from Noelle’s to help her 6-year-old daughter, who suffers from seizures. The dog was a gift from The Resource Exchange, a Colorado Springs center that serves people with disabilities. But Perry said Noelle’s dog training has been unhelpful and unproductive, and that her dog Trusty has separation anxiety and other behavioral problems. Perry has been trying to train the dog herself, but is still unsure if Trusty is ready to be a service dog.

“It’s like having another kid, another responsibility that I have to worry about when we were promised a service dog,” Perry said. “So many people have gotten these dogs, and now we’re all screwed with a pet. More money, more time, more issues.”

Garry Butcher, a spokesman for The Resource Exchange, said the center had provided money for service dogs to many families, and around half reported facing challenges.

“Families reported mixed reactions to their dogs and experiences with Noelle’s. At least half had good experiences and the dogs were meeting the service expectations,” Butcher said in an email. “The other half had more challenging experiences ranging from challenges with allergies to the dogs to health issues with the dogs to challenges related to training the dogs.”

Rebecca Haacke, a former puppy raiser and dog trainer for Noelle’s, said she knows of at least eight customers who have had bad experiences with their service animals. She said the company’s basic training program for dogs is good, but the service’s final training, in which the dogs are supposed to learn skills like assisting a person having a seizure or helping a person walk safely, is rushed and done improperly.

That was Rebecca Hyer’s experience when she bought Hiro, a golden retriever, through Noelle’s in 2015. Hyer purchased Hiro as a puppy with the help of charitable donations and community support, planning to eventually use him as a service dog for her daughter, who has epileptic seizures. She raised the puppy in her home and then sent him to Noelle’s for specialty training when he was 13 months old, expecting that he would come back a fully prepared service animal.

“He came back a broken dog. They ruined him,” Hyer said.

Hiro had been a happy dog that was comfortable in Hyer’s home. When he returned, he was overweight, had a double ear infection and was afraid of brooms. He had little confidence and was ill-prepared to assist Hyer’s daughter. She has since hired a new trainer for Hiro, but he’s still not prepared to act as a service dog.

“It’s definitely hurt our wallets,” Hyer said. “We feel terrible that all the families and charitable organizations donated to us. We were scammed out of a big chunk of change.”

© 2017 The Denver Post
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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