State investigating Raleigh service dog supplier after dozens of families complain of untrained animals

Posted January 21, 2019 4:58 p.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2019 10:34 a.m. EST

— More than 40 families have filed complaints with the North Carolina Attorney General's Office against a Raleigh company that trained service dogs and recently closed its doors.

Many of the irate customers said they paid Ry-Con Service Dogs thousands of dollars for animals that were never properly trained to work with their special-needs children.

"It's horrible. He didn't just take our money, he stole hopes and dreams," said Rebecca Peluso, a Florida woman who paid Ry-Con $9,600 for a service dog to help calm her 6-year-old daughter, Ella, who was diagnosed with autism, and help keep her safe.

Peluso said the dog the family received isn't even fit to be a pet, let alone a service dog.

"She wasn't trained. She wasn't socialized, housebroken. She was [an] underweight, skittish mess," she said. "She was aggressive. She went after our pet."

DeAnna Ranheim called Boone, the service dog she paid Ry-Con $14,600 for, a "very cute, very expensive pet.” The dog was supposed to provide stability for Ranheim's daughter, Kate, who has cerebral palsy, and keep her from falling. The family has enlisted a new trainer in hopes of bringing Boone bring up to snuff.

Mark Mathis started Ry-Con nine years ago after getting a trained service dog for one of his sons, who has autism. He said the nonprofit never had any trouble until financial difficulties forced its closure in November.

"All of the families that have filed complaints have done so as a result of our closing," Mathis said in a statement.

As Ry-Con was closing and clearing out its kennels, the nonprofit offered the dogs still in training to their families immediately, he said.

"We were concerned [that], with our staffing and financial challenges, we would no longer be able to operate the training kennels. The dogs’ care was our primary concern," Mathis said. "Some of them had to go home earlier than their original planned graduation. Some of them went home on time, but aftercare support was not immediately available.

"This is not the same as selling untrained dogs and certainly not a willful act or scam," he continued. "Our goal was always to provide an economical and valuable option to families in need."

Attorney General Josh Stein called the complaints against Ry-Con "deeply troubling" and said his office is investigating the company.

"You spend $12,000, $13,000, $14,000, and it turns out that dog is not a service animal, isn't even house-trained sometimes and, on occasion, bit the child they're supposed to be taking care of. You would be absolutely devastated," Stein said.

After hearing positive things about Ry-Con, Jen and David Russ of Fuquay-Varina signed on last March to get a service dog for their two 8-year-old boys, Jonah and Jackson, who have been diagnosed with autism. They started raising money to pay the $14,500 tab when Ry-Con closed.

"I felt very overwhelmed because we were really counting on getting a dog for them from Ry-Con, and then all of a sudden, they just shut down," David Russ said.

The family never paid Ry-Con any of the $3,000 they had raised, but those who complained to the Attorney General's Office say they want the money back that they paid for inadequate service dogs.

"Some of their hurt can't be fixed," Stein said. "The devastation of child who is dreaming of a relationship with an animal that can change his or her life only to be dashed, you can't undo that. But we certainly want people to be made financially whole."

The Russes have now signed on with a new service dog company, 4 Paws for Ability, and are starting over to try and raise money for a dog, including a Feb. 5 fundraiser at Chipotle in Fuquay-Varina.