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$60,000 Awarded In Death Of Dog

Times have changed regarding canine value
By Karen B. London PhD, March 2019, Updated June 2021

Denise Swank paid $6000 to a man to train her German Shepherd Gunnar, but it all went terribly wrong. A little over two weeks after the man took Gunnar to his training facility, the dog was dead. According to an autopsy, the cause of death was heat stress or hyperthermia.

An investigation into the conditions where police believe that Gunnar had been living revealed inhumane conditions. The dogs there were treated cruelly and, according to the official criminal complaint, deprived of food, water and proper shelter. Sadly, Gunnar apparently died a painful death that was completely avoidable.

Swank sued the trainer for negligence, breach of contract and for violation of California health and safety codes. The judge in Napa County agreed with the accusations in the lawsuit and awarded Swank $60,000 in damages for a loss that included emotional distress, pain and suffering.

The trainer did not appear in court and did not answer the complaint. His only comments on the ruling are that he plans to appeal, that he did nothing wrong and that he is not to blame for Gunnar’s death. It will not be easy to enforce the ruling, though Swank can use the judgement to collect what she is owed through wage garnishment and liens on property. (The trainer has even refused to return the $6000 training fee.)


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The trainer and another man associated with the business have each been charged with eight felony counts of animal cruelty. There were seven additional dogs found at a facility during the investigation where Gunnar is believed to have died. That location was different than the address that the trainer had given Swank when she hired him.

The heartbreak of losing a dog in such circumstances cannot be fixed by any sum of money, but perhaps the judgment will prevent the death of other dogs in the future. For a long time, dogs were legally considered nothing more than property and their monetary value was typically considered what it would cost to replace the dog. (No individual dog can ever be replaced, but that reflected their legal status for many years.) It is encouraging that this judge understood that the true value of Gunnar to Swank went way beyond her financial investment in him.

Suffering—including injuries, mistreatment and even fatalities—are all too common in residential dog training situations. Though there are certainly reputable ones, there is always a risk that a dog is not being treated well when out of sight of the guardian. Some people have seen great results in their dog’s training, but many others have realized later that it was probably a bad experience for the dog. Extreme caution and due diligence are advised when considering a residential dog training program.

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life

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