Crazy Canine Custody Clash

A faked death, jail time, contempt of court
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2018, Updated June 2021

The rescue organization that placed Mack with the Patterson family did some wild things in an attempt to prevent the reunion of Mack with his family after the dog ran loose. Jamie Patterson and her seven children adopted the Boxer-Mastiff mix from Rough Road Rescue in Missouri in January 2015. He turned out to be a bit of a Houdini dog, which is behaviorist-speak for a dog who loves to break out of houses or yards and run free. In fact, the family was cited several times by the city because Mack was out and about.

One time when he got out, the family did not find him quickly as in the past. The reason was that Steve Svehla of Rough Road Rescue had him and refused to give him back, explaining that he thought the dog was not being well cared for. Part of the issue was that the adoption contract required a fenced-in yard, which the Pattersons had at the time of adoption. However, they had since moved to a place without a fenced yard, which Svehla said voided their contract and allowed the rescue to “repossess” Mack. The family was not even allowed to visit Mack.

The Pattersons hired a lawyer whose main argument in the case was that the rescue was acting like they had a long leash on Mack and that “at any time they could yank that leash and take him back.” The case went to court and the judge ruled in favor of the Pattersons, saying that Mack belonged to them.

Svehla refused to give them back their dog, and when the case was appealed, a second judge also ordered that Mack be returned to the family. That’s when things got even nuttier. Svehla showed up at a meeting point where he was supposed to hand over the dog, but instead he came with a box of ashes and said that Mack had died weeks ago of an infection. (Spoiler alert: He had NOT died.) Svehla handed over the ashes, said he was sorry for their loss and left. The kids naturally believed that the dog had died and were devastated.


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The judge smelled a rat and ordered an investigation into the dog’s death, which eventually led to Svehla’s confession that he had made it up to avoid returning Mack to the Pattersons. The judge sent Svehla to jail for contempt of court, and he currently faces a felony theft charge for his refusal to return Mack immediately after the case went through the appeal. He stands by his actions, saying that he did what he did to protect the animals. He said, “I don’t understand why it’s so wrong to fight for these animals.”

No matter what anyone thinks about the suitability of the Patterson home for Mack (and when a dog repeatedly gets out, there is room for concern), it’s difficult to defend Svehla’s actions. Telling seven kids and their mom that their beloved dog died when that is not the case is a horribly cruel thing to do. Defying a court order and going to jail with the belief that you and you alone should determine whether or not a family deserves the dog that they adopted, no matter what two judges have said, is extreme behavior by just about any measure.

After two years of legal battles, Mack is back with his family, which will probably please some people and upset others. What do you think about this case?

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