Service Dogs Europe

Every day last week, Joe Duffy spoke on
about an organisation based in co. Louth called
Service Dogs Europe.
I’d heard about it before, but not in any major detail. I listened to the show last week, to all the people who called in with their experiences of this organisation , and I can’t stop thinking about it since.

Service Dogs Europe claims to train assistance dogs for people with autism, hearing difficulties and a variety of physical disabilities and medical conditions. They train dogs to alert people to seizures and for people who are diabetic. They seem to train dogs for everything except guide dogs! Unlike Irish Guide Dogs, Assistance Dogs Ireland and My Canine Companion who all train dogs for children with autism, and Dogs for the Disabled who provide dogs for people with physical disabilities in Ireland, Service Dogs Europe do not have a waiting list, so dogs are available to families much quicker. But unlike the other organisations, SDE is not a charity, so people pay up to 7000 euros for one of these dogs. People can choose a puppy from the puppy program, which lives with the family until a certain age when it is taken to SDE to be trained for a few months. Families can also choose an adult dog provided by the organisation, or give their own dog there to be trained.

Henry Fitzsimons is the CEO, head trainer, and only board member of Service Dogs Europe. He has two sons on the autistic spectrum, and wanted to train dogs to help people like them. He has 25 years experience training dogs, but I can’t seem to find a list of his exact qualifications online. As far as I can tell, his trainers come from all over the world, so I don’t know their qualifications either.
Henry Fitzsimons states that their dogs are trained to the same standards as Assistance Dog International (ADI), but they clearly aren’t. They aren’t even registered with the ADI, who inspect all service dog training organisations thoroughly. So that’s the problem. This organisation is a scam!

When parents contact Service Dogs Europe, they are promised a well-trained dog that will help change their child’s life. If they can raise the money, they won’t have to go on a waiting list of up to five years, so of course this sounds perfect. But it is far from that, according to the majority of callers to the Joe Duffy show. These dogs turn out to be no more than very expensive pets, who in many cases aren’t even housetrained. People have reported their dogs coming back from training in worse condition than they were sent, fearful, underweight, badly behaved, aggressive, and in one case actually biting the child it was apparently trained to assist. I only heard two callers who had positive experiences, but they had only owned their dogs for a number of weeks, and the dog hadn’t been sent back for it’s formal training yet. Many people who avail of these dogs come from the UK, and there were questions about whether these dogs were even brought from Ireland legally.

Parents of children with special needs will do absolutely anything to help their child. They are some of the bravest, most determined people I’ve ever met. Sometimes these parents are vulnerable, and can be easily led by promises of something that could change their family’s life, which is what Henry Fitzsimons promised them. These parents are under stress, desperate to find anything that will help, so maybe they didn’t do enough research. Henry can probably talk the talk, although funny enough he was unable to talk to Joe Duffy last week and had a colleague to do his dirtywork. His website may look professional, though I don’t think it reads professionally at all in places. When you visit his training place, you have to arrive at a specific time, and are frowned upon if you come unexpectedly or early. People talk about always only seeing the first two kennels closest to the main entrance. When you leave with your dog, you may be forced to write a testimonial about the benefits of the organisation, even though you have hardly had your dog home, and haven’t seen anything that it was trained to do yet. When you have problems with your dog after training, Henry will offer more training. When that doesn’t work or if you don’t want it, you’ll be told that the dog just wasn’t right, or that it was your fault and he’ll offer you another dog. If you ask for your money back you’ll basically be laughed at.
What these parents are unaware of is that it is impossible to train a dog so young to assist somebody in the way that Service Dogs Europe say they can. Assistance dogs are always at least 18 months before they qualify, and undergo intensive training. It is impossible to train a service dog within a couple of months. They aren’t mature enough yet.
SDE use dogs from breeders, but I bet they don’t pay much for them. They also use dogs which are donated or come from rescues, where they have no idea of their history. SDE are expecting to put these dogs, after little or no training into families with young children, to keep them safe. This is devistation waiting to happen!
Henry Fitzsimons also runs a website called
Let’s Go Fundraise
where you can set up a page for people to raise money for your service dog. But of course when it doesn’t work out, they don’t get their money back.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, Henry Fitzsimons also runs a dog training facility called
Top Dog Training
where owners leave their dogs for two weeks to be trained. People spoke of how they left their dogs their at a cost of hundreds, had no updates in between, and returned to find no improvements in the dog’s behaviour. Again dogs were in poor condition, fearful and aggressive, with one client having to subsequently have her dog put to sleep. Any worthwhile dog trainer will tell you that it’s impossible to successfully train a dog without teaching the owner how best to interact with the dog too, so leaving a dog with someone for two weeks will not work at all. This is another scam!

As a guide dog owner, and someone who benefits from an assistance dog on a daily basis, I’m outraged that an organisation like Service Dogs Europe exists in Ireland, and that people have been too afraid to speak up and do nothing about it. This affects all assistance dog owners, regardless of where we were trained. It is easy to print up a certificate that looks professional, and if people don’t know any better, they think it’s real. Assistance dogs have access to all public places. If a badly trained dog from SDE comes into a restaurant and misbehaves, the owner has every right to refuse the next person who comes in with a dog. That could be me, or somebody else with a perfectly trained, well behaved dog from a reputable organisation. People often tar everybody with the same brush, so if they see a poorly behaved dog, they think they are all the same.

Henry Fitzsimons needs to be reported and stopped. His businesses need to be closed down, and he should be banned from working with animals. What he is doing is not only cruel to animals, but to parents, families, children with disabilities, and anybody who uses an assistance dog.
People need to ask questions.
People need to stop bringing their dogs to his training facility. Don’t be fooled by the lies on his website.
Make sure that breeders do not donate or sell dogs to him.
If you hear anybody mentioning this organisation, make sure they know the truth before making life even more difficult for their families.
Share this post, and please do anything you can to help spread the word about the corruption that is Service Dogs Europe in Ireland.


Holidays in Spain

I mentioned in my last
that I was doing something with Sibyl that I’ve never done with a guide dog before. Two weeks ago, Nicky and I went on a ten day holiday to Spain with my whole family, and Sibyl came too.

Before I write about the holiday itself, I think it’s important to mention that taking a dog on holiday requires a bit of extra planning and preparation, and the pet passport takes a bit of work to get sorted before you go. It’s not something I’d recommend for every dog, and I really thought carefully about taking Sibyl before we went. I’ve only had her for three and a half months which isn’t long at all. Her trainer or Irish Guide Dogs staff may have been very surprised if they’d known I was taking her so soon. But I know her well enough to know that nothing really phases her, and she’s the kind of dog you could take almost anywhere.

Two days before we left for Spain, I had to have Sibyl checked by the vet to ensure that she was fit for travel. He stamped her passport and gave her some medication which she needed before entering a new country. The department of agriculture checked her passport at the George Best airport in Belfast before we checked in. She was the first dog they’d had traveling outside the UK, so they were very excited! Special assistance in Belfast and Malliga airports were fantastic, as were the air hostesses on the plane. Sibyl didn’t react at all during the flight, and I think we were all shocked by how calm she was.

The holiday was great fun. We spent a week in a town called Salobrena, where we rented a house ten minutes walk from the beach. The area was lovely, but the streets were steep and narrow, with steps everywhere, and a steep walk to and from the beach. The weather was too hot to take Sibyl out during the day, and it would have been impossible for me to learn my way around. As a result we were quite restricted, but she had a cool place to lie in the house, and it didn’t bother her at all. I brought food with me, which the airline let me carry in my hand luggage. As long as she had that, water and company, she seemed happy enough.

After a week in Salobrena, we moved to a house in a town called Otura, near Granada city, which was cooler and much easier to get around. I wish I had more time there, because Sibyl definitely could have learned some routes, particularly the walk to the restaurant and golf course, which was straightforward. At times I wondered if bringing her was a good idea, but when she was able to work, I had great freedom. I was able to walk with my small nephews, follow everybody in the airport, and follow them to restaurants if we went out to eat. A particular highlight was when we drove 2000 Meters up the Sierra Nevada mountains where people go skiing in the winter. There was a nice breeze, perfect weather for a dog, and I was able to walk around with her guiding, and she did some great work.

Before leaving Spain, I had to have Sibyl checked and wormed by the vet there. Depending on the country, this has to be done within a certain timeframe, so we went three days before coming home to Ireland. We had spent some time with friends from Spain who lived near where we were staying. Their sons were Spanish students who stayed with my parents for a year, so we got to know the family quite well. The father booked the appointment with the vet and brought me there, so it was great to have somebody who could translate anything if necessary. When they see the passport they know what to do, so it’s straightforward enough. They loved Sibyl, and gave her a couple of treats and cuddles after she was wormed. Spanish people in general seem to love dogs, and they were everywhere. Our neighbours had seven! We weren’t in a tourist area so people spoke little English. They probably didn’t see many guide dogs in that area because they would mostly live in the cities, so even though they stared a bit, we had no access issues at all during the ten days.

Nicky and I traveled home together, as the rest of the family are staying longer. Again the assistance at both airports was fantastic, and Sibyl was her usual chilled out happy self. We flew into Dublin so I had a four hour bus journey to do when we landed. I think we were both glad to get into our own beds that night. Sibyl seems happy to be home, and she’s got Dougal and O.J here for the next two weeks to keep her company. I might need another holiday after that!

I couldn’t have been happier with how well our holiday went, and how easy it was to travel with Sibyl. This doesn’t mean I’ll take her on every holiday from now on, and there’ll probably be lots I won’t bring her on. I was lucky that my family planned things well, were there to help if necessary, and were able to help me to get around when I couldn’t bring the dog.
I know I’m going to do lots of fun things with Sibyl and take her to lots of interesting places. I love how adaptable and confident she is, and I think she will give me more confidence as a guide dog handler in the future. Our holiday in Spain definitely showed me what great work she is capable of.

Three Months Update

Sibyl has been my guide dog for three months now. In some ways it feels like she’s been here longer because she settled in so quickly, but when working, she still feels like a very new guide dog.

The last few months have been challenging in some ways. I’ve really had to adapt to a much smaller dog, and learn to feel as safe with her as I did before. There’s something nice about having a big protective dog by your side, but I’ve discovered that small ones can have equally big personalities!

I’ve really had to work hard at developing a good spending routine with Sibyl, and I think we’ve just about done that in the last week or so. It really takes a lot of patience, and sometimes involves changing plans or the types of walks we do. Saying that, dogs are dogs, and they’ll still need to go at times, but as long as she doesn’t go when her harness is on, and manages to wait until we get to grass, It’s fine.

An unexpected part of having a new dog was a small lump that a friend found in Sibyl’s mouth just over a month ago. Although her trainer and the vet were convinced it was nothing serious, the vet removed it two weeks ago, due to how quickly it had gotten bigger. If I wasn’t lazy I’d go and look up the medical term, but basically it was a virus, which could return, but which may have fallen off on it’s own. As the vet said though, better safe than sorry! It was disappointing because I’ve had so many things like that happen with O.J before, and this is obviously a new dog, so how could I be so unlucky again, especially after only having her for ten weeks at that time. Anyway thankfully she recovered with no problems at all. The ear infection she had at the same time seemed to be a bigger deal than the operation was, but that’s on the mend too, I think.

Sibyl and I both still have lots of work to do. Although I’m very happy with her work so far, I haven’t had that “one brilliant walk” yet. Guide dog owners will know what I mean, the one where you think waw! This dog is amazing! I think from that point on, you start to feel like you have a good solid trustworthy working dog to guide you. They say it can take six months to a year to really settle with a new dog, and I’m sure that somewhere within this timeframe, that amazing walk happens. I’m not rushing things though, and I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made so far, especially considering we’ve had to work out a spending routine, deal with a change of food and a small operation.

Although Sibyl’s work is far from perfect yet, I’m bringing her somewhere soon which will be a bit of a challenge, and something I’ve never done with a dog before. She has so much confidence and nothing really phases her, so I think she’ll be fine. I’ll blog all about that soon.