Kim Haskell, a 55-year-old Juneau woman whose medical issues require her to use a wheelchair to get around, was excited to pick up her new service dog at the airport last month.
“Isn’t Kenzie a beauty?” she posted on Facebook in one of many photos she shared of the 2-year-old black Newfoundland.
“My girl on an outing to a baseball game. 3 more days before she will be here for some training. Can’t wait!” she wrote in another post.
At the airport on May 19, Haskell shared a video of her leaning on Kenzie as the dog did the “brace” command to stabilize Haskell as she stood up. She beamed with pride. The next day, Haskell posted pictures of she and Kenzie posing at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
“She did great and the tourists love her,” she wrote online.
Her tune quickly changed. The first night at the house, she said Kenzie growled and snapped at the other dog in her home (her daughter’s dog, a Malamute-Husky mixed breed). Then, it bit her husband.
“We got home, and she went crazy over our other dog,” Haskell said in an interview Monday. “She was growling and snapping, and it took two of us to hold her back while we put the other dog away. So this went on for the evening and we couldn’t get her settled down, and at one point she bit my husband. And my husband said this is not going to go.”
The couple, who had received the dog for a monthlong trial, had already signed a contract agreeing to purchase it. They informed the agency they wanted to return the dog. They were told they couldn’t.
“Right in our contract it says we can return within 24 hours without a problem, and yet we contacted her within 24 hours and she’s like too bad,” Haskell said.
The agency that gave them the dog, a canine school in Willow named Alaska Dog Works, has been fighting over the legal contract and what to do with the dog.
On Tuesday, Alaska Dog Works co-owner Michele Forto, who owns the business with her husband Robert, told the Empire they would make arrangements to pick up Kenzie and take her back to Willow.
Forto said it’s no wonder Kenzie acted out that first night in Juneau — it was bitten by a husky as a puppy and still doesn’t like husky mixes. She said she did not know that it was going to be in a home where there was a a husky mix.
“Kim assured me that her daughter’s malamute mix would not be in the home,” Forto said by phone Tuesday, a claim Haskell says is untrue. “At the airport, they still didn’t tell me … I just wouldn’t have agreed at all.”
Forto believes Haskell wants to return the dog because she thinks it drools too much, an issue that arose when Haskell first met the dog a few months ago.
“They basically told me that it isn’t Kenzie, it’s not her training level, it’s not how she is around the other dogs — it’s the drool,” she said. “They don’t want to deal with her drool or her brushing, and that kind of saddens me because they had agreed to it.”
Haskell is adamant that is not the case. She said the drooling was something to get used to, but it was a minor issue. The dog’s temperament was the deal-breaker.
“She’s just not the right temperament for a service dog, even though she’s great in many ways,” Haskell said of Kenzie.
She added, “Every place we go — and it’s not just our dogs, it’s not that she’s being territorial or anything — it’s any place we go, when we take her on walks, she growls at other dogs. She has growled and lunged at our teenagers on several occasions, who she gets along with normally but (she growls and is startled) when they move just wrong.”
Haskell wanted a service dog to help with her mobility issues, and she’s been working since January to raise the money to buy one. She has multiple disabilities including diabetes neuropathy, nerve damage that causes her feet and legs to go numb. As a result, she has trouble balancing on her feet.
“I wanted a dog that can help when I fall because I have on numerous occasions fallen, and nobody hears me,” she said, adding that the dog can also help her retrieve household items, open doors, pull her wheelchair and various other tasks. “Pretty much, it’d give me more independence. Right now, I rely on my husband do to a lot, and the dog could help.”
Alaska Dog Works was the first agency she contacted, and Michele Forto found Kenzie for her through a trainer that breeds Newfoundlands. After Haskell and her husband Norm met the dog in mid-March, they agreed to purchase it. They paid Alaska Dog Works a $350 finder’s fee, $500 to purchase the dog from the breeder and entered into an $8,000 contract. Over time, they made four payments that totaled about $2,000.
The dog came to Juneau last month under an agreement that the Haskells would take it for two weeks to a month while the company’s owners were on vacation. Then, Kenzie would go back to training in Willow.
Haskell said after she contacted the company that first night and informed them it wasn’t going to work, the Fortos convinced her the dog was just stressed from the flight from Anchorage to Juneau and the new environment. The Haskells agreed to give it some more time. Within a week, the Haskells called again and told them it was enough. At that point, the company said they wouldn’t take the dog back, Haskell said.
“She said, well, you agreed to use her as a service dog, and I don’t want her back because if you’re not going to use her, I have no use for her,” Haskell said of a conversation she had with Michele Forto. “So she said it’s between you and the breeder.”
Haskell voiced several other complaints about the company, including her belief Forto accepted the dog for free from the breeder and pocketed the $500 Haskell paid to purchase the dog from the breeder. When asked about that Tuesday, Forto confirmed the breeder gave her the dog for free, but she used the $500 to pay for a dog kennel/crate for Kenzie and dog food. When asked if she informed the Haskells of those purchases (which do not show up in any records the Empire was provided), Forto said yes. Haskell said that’s untrue. She said she was already paying $35 a month for dog food at that time.
Haskell said she also found out through paperwork that Kenzie has always growled at other dogs. In the paperwork, Alaska Dog Works chalked up the growling to correcting other dogs’ behavior.
“Kenzie does not like when other dogs don’t listen she feels the need to ‘mommy’ the situation and growl at the dog that is misbehaving so it stops acting out,” a behavior evaluation of Kenzie at 2 years old states.
Another issue arose in getting Kenzie from Anchorage to Juneau for the trial run: Kenzie was too big to travel in a kennel per Alaska Airlines regulations. Alaska Dog Works got Kenzie through security as a service dog — when really she was still just in training and not certified — so she could travel with Haskell, a disabled person, on the plane, which federal laws allow. Forto admitted in a phone interview Tuesday with the Empire that wasn’t “exactly ethically correct.”
“We got her through security as a service dog, not exactly ethically correct for what I like to do, but that’s what we did to help out Kim,” Forto told the Empire by phone Tuesday.
After Tuesday’s phone interview, the Haskells received a text message from Robert Forto that questioned why they were involving the media and accused them of being calloused for wanting to return Kenzie. But he agreed to pick up the dog, which the Haskells have been caring for since they first received it.
“When Michele spoke to you last week you were adamant that Kenzie was not going to work out,” the text message from Robert Forto reads. “We were 4,000 miles away. What did you expect us to do? You accepted her and signed a contract saying to that effect. I will fly down there and pick up Kenzie and put her back into training per the contract. This is a two-year training program. People just don’t to (sic) renege on a contract after two weeks because the (sic) don’t like the dog. It doesn’t work that way. Dogs are not disposable.”