Three North Texas families say they feel betrayed by a nonprofit that was supposed to provide them with life-saving, specialized service dogs, trained to help manage Type 1 diabetes.
These dogs, called diabetic alert dogs, can cost about $20,000. But these families said their dogs don’t do their jobs and are no more than expensive house pets.
A diabetic alert dog is specially trained through scent detection to alert a diabetic to blood sugar lows and highs, and that can be especially important to some diabetics like Krista Middleton and Brian Worthy.
Both say when their blood sugar drops dangerously low, they often don’t know they’re dipping into that danger zone.
"And then I'm passing out. I'm going into comas. My kids are finding me in seizures," said Middleton. "It gets to the point where, as a mom, I wanted to make sure my kids weren't the ones to find me convulsing."
The dog, in theory, alerts to problems before the situation spirals out of control so the diabetic person can seek help or treatment.
That's why Middleton and Worthy both decided to get one. Mindy Guidry made same decision for her daughter. And they all thought these dogs would be life changing.
"It was," Guidry said. "Not in the way I thought it would be."
Guidry complains her dog is often oblivious to the young diabetic she's supposed to protect. She paces, poops, pants and is petrified in public.
"I cannot take her out in public at all. Even in our own household she's scared," Guidry said.
Middleton and Worthy insist their dogs aren't service dogs material either.
They all worked with a Virginia-based non-profit called Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers. It calls its training program "a joint effort" with its out-of-state trainers and the owner. The one or two year process includes an initial in-home session of up to five days, long-distance training and education and up to seven more multi-day visits.
It helps clients pay by helping them set up fundraisers. These families had to raise about $20,000 each. But these families insist the training is insufficient.
"I can teach a dog basic obedience, sit, stand, stay, like you can, but when it comes to scent detection I have no experience with that," Worthy said.
"Every three months a trainer would come out and train us on how this dog is supposed to work, and we'd work on that set of goals until the next time. But our one goal was how do we get this dog to alert and not a trainer could ever help us," said Middleton.
Warren Retrievers spokeswoman Jennifer Bulotti told NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit when a dog isn't working "instant intervention and training is provided."
But Middleton and Worthy both said when they told the non-profit their dogs weren't working, they didn't get a response.
"We never heard back from the owner of the company, ever," said Middleton.
Warren Retrievers requires owners to stick with the program.
"Sadly, all three clients did not complete the two-year training program, nor did they comply with contractual obligations," Bulotti said in an email.
The non-profit said Guidry had a "minimum of three trainings" and it "rarely received" weekly progress logs.
She still owes more than $6,600. And while it offered her a replacement dog, she declined.
Warren Retrievers said Middleton had "four visits" and "refused additional training." And while it said she still owed more than $4,000, it offered her a $1,000 refund or intensive training. She declined the refund and disputes what she owes.
Worthy had nine visits, but it recommended he "continue to train" to get desired results. He owes no money.
Dan Warren is founder and president of the nonprofit. Tax records show in 2012, he received $157,411 in compensation.
But NBC 5 Investigates Consumer Unit's research shows in 2008, before starting his service dog nonprofit, he was convicted of passing forged documents.
Prosecutors said while working at a car dealership, he had someone prepare phony tax returns to help customers get loans for cars. He was sentenced to five years' probation. The nonprofit said his past "is irrelevant."
But the Virginia Attorney General's office has received 30 complaints against Warren Retrievers, including complaints from Middleton and Worthy. The AG’s office declined to provide any information about the complaints saying they were "confidential" and remained "under investigation."
Warren Retrievers insists it has 200 satisfied clients. Among them is Delaney Alves, who has his $20,000 dog Dex. He's 18-months-old now. But Alves said Dex started alerting immediately when he got him as a 16-week-old pup.
"He started off with general puppy like actions, scratching behind his ear or his neck, yawning with a loud whine," Alves said.
"A dog yawning, dogs yawn sometimes just because their nervous. Dogs yawn for all kinds of reasons. That's not a distinct behavior," said Eli Lilly researcher and pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Dana Hardin.
Hardin has never met Dex, but she does study diabetic alert dogs. She believes a dog must be an adult and fully-trained before being placed with a family.
"If someone is getting a dog that's only 6-months-old, for example, that''s a red flag to me because that dog can be good as gold at six months and turn into a holy terror as a teenager," Hardin said.
She is pushing for industry standards, which currently do not exist.
"This is the Wild West," she said.
Brent Brooks agreed. He's president of The Diabetes Alert Dog Alliance (DADA) -- a nonprofit working to set those standards.
"This is an industry that's fraught with fraud," Brooks said. "It angers me to have to say it but you have to be skeptical."
Brooks breeds and trains diabetic alert dogs through his company, Brooks Labradors. He charges $25,000 a dog in part because he said it takes 18- to 24-months of intense scent training before the dog goes to a permanent home.
"The only way to do that is over many, many, many months of aggressive training with thousands and thousands and thousands of repetitions," Brooks said.
Brooks said families looking for a diabetic alert dog should insist on seeing breeding records. Warren Retrievers, however, disagrees, saying for competitive reasons it doesn't share that information.
Alves said he trained Dex by using Warren's program.
"It's a slow process, but it does work," Alves said. "We've slowly trained him into actually giving us physical alerts, whereas it's a nose if it's low or a paw if it's high."
He believes Dex is the real deal and said while there may be doubters, Dex is proof Warren Retriever's program works.
Still Worthy, Middleton and Guidry insist their dogs are not lifesavers at all. They said they're just expensive house pets.