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Service Dog For Ava

July 28, 2020

Last year, Ava Reed and her parents welcomed a little puppy named Maggie into their home.

One day, they hoped, Maggie would be able to replace Ava’s mobility walker, helping her balance, walk up stairs and get up after a fall, since 8-year-old Ava has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a neurological disorder that makes it difficult to walk and maintain balance.

But after the trainer who partnered with the family to fundraise for and train Maggie threatened to take the dog away, the Reed family is suing for breach of contract, fraud and unjust enrichment (meaning that the trainer unfairly received money for services he didn’t provide).

Jeff Tawater, the trainer and executive director of K9 Direction, told The Commercial Appeal Friday that he has changed his mind and no longer plans to rehome Maggie. He also says if the Reeds are willing, he’d continue the dog’s training.

“We’re not in the business of taking dogs away from little children,” he said.

Tawater’s attorney, Jeff Ward, said Tuesday that they have reached a settlement, although he wouldn’t disclose the terms. The Reed family disputed the idea that they had reached an agreement, and the case had not yet been dismissed according to online court records.

Initially, all the Reed family wanted was Maggie’s paperwork for her registration with the American Kennel Club and a training schedule from Tawater after he didn’t meet expectations for training her as a service dog, the Reeds say. Now, the lawsuit means something more, the parents said.

“You’re not ever going to do that to another child again,” said Jimmy Reed, Ava’s father. “You’re raising funds in the name of children with disabilities — ” “And abusing them,” finished Karon Reed, Ava’s mother.

In early 2019, members of the Arlington community raised about $11,000 to purchase a service dog for Ava and to pay for her equipment and training, Tawater and the Reeds told The Commercial Appeal in an article published Feb.5 2019. Any extra money would be used for veterinarian bills, they said.

Maggie, the dog, would live with the Reeds and be trained by Tawater, they said. The Reeds say they were under the impression that the dog belonged to their family because she was purchased with funds raised for the purpose of getting Ava a service dog. They never signed a written agreement with Tawater.

Their agreement “was for the sole benefit and use of” Ava, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit maintains that Tawater broke that agreement when he failed to train Maggie to perform as a service dog for Ava.

Tawater says his organization maintained ownership of Maggie out of the dog’s best interest. This allows him to ensure that a dog isn’t trained with negative methods like a shock collar, he said. It also means someone can’t claim to want a service dog and then walk away with a donated pet that cost several thousand dollars, he said.

Over the past year and a half, the Reeds say they have asked Tawater for a training schedule and for Maggie’s registration — and that they were unhappy to see that Maggie was only receiving basic obedience training.

On July 7, Tawater told Jimmy, “FYI I’m dissolving K9 direction. I will continue training Maggie as we agreed.” The Reeds provided The Commercial Appeal with copies of their text correspondence with Tawater.

All $11,000 of the money raised for Maggie had gone through Tawater’s organization, as had Maggie’s purchase, Jimmy Reed said, so he texted Tawater on July 15 asking for “a breakdown of the funds received and a breakdown of what you have used them for (purchase price of Maggie etc.) along with the remaining funds that are reserved for Maggie.” After some back and forth, according to the texts provided by the Reeds, Tawater said, “That’s not how this all works” and that Maggie was bought using $2,000, but the rest of the money went toward operating K9 Direction, with him agreeing to train a dog for free for Ava. On July 17, Tawater texted, “If you don’t want me to continue to train Maggie for Ava, I’ll come get her and give her to the next person on the list who might appreciate the help.”

That day, Tawater began posting on his personal Facebook page as well as in a Facebook group used widely by Arlington residents about how “someone in Arlington we provided a free service dog for is upset about their free service dog” and was “trying to get ownership of the dog signed over to them and asking about how much of the money K9 Direction raised is left.”

Tawater said he made that Facebook post after Karon Reed posted on her personal Facebook calling him a “terrible person.”  In the comments on one of the posts, Tawater said he was “not concerned at all about the safety or health of the dog.”

“They take good care of her. But she can quickly be placed with another person who needs a service dog so we’re going to court to get her back if necessary. She’s easily already had $10,000 worth of advanced training.”

He later posted that he had five dogs available for adoption — as pets. Among them he listed a yellow Labrador who he said would likely be held up in court, Maggie.

Maggie isn’t the only dog Tawater has threatened to take away from a family. He repeatedly mentioned on Facebook another family that he was having trouble with and whose dog he might take back. The Reeds said they are in touch with that family, but that the family did not want to speak with The Commercial Appeal. Tawater said he wishes he had never made those Facebook posts.

“It’s definitely something the Reeds and I should have worked together to resolve,” he said. “Social media’s not necessarily the right place for things, but when things have been said about you, you feel the need to defend yourself.”

Through their lawsuit, the Reeds particularly want to clear up the issue of ownership. They love Maggie, they say, and would be devastated if they couldn’t keep her.

But they also say they have questions about Maggie’s breeding and her training that they need answered before they can know that she’ll be able to wear a harness and help Ava walk up stairs or get up from falls.

Another trainer evaluated Maggie as part of preparation for the lawsuit, they said, and looked at records of her parents. A service dog that does mobility work, like Maggie will need to do for Ava, must have good hips and elbows, and the trainer was concerned about the “fair” rating for Maggie’s sire’s hips, the Reeds said. An expert at the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals, which did the hip and elbow evaluations for Maggie’s parents, said they both had acceptable ratings to be a breeding pair for a mobility dog. At the same time, he said Maggie would need to be evaluated to see if she herself had the qualities to do the job.  Ava is about to enter the third grade. In February 2019, Tawater told The Commercial Appeal that this is when Maggie would be ready to go to school with Ava.

“She’s nowhere near ready to go,” Jimmy Reed said. In fact, it would be dangerous to leave Maggie alone with Ava, said Monica Timmerman, the family’s attorney. Not because Maggie is aggressive, but because she does get excited and can tug at the leash. She can’t go off with Ava alone, much less accompany her to school, Timmerman said. In an uncontrolled, natural environment, Maggie can do just one command, according to the lawsuit: sit. Tawater says that’s not the case. “Training a service dog is way different from training another kind of dog,” Tawater said. “What she has to do with Ava is be a steady platform for Ava to depend on for her balance, for helping her across obstacles or just helping her walk in general or long distance. The most important thing Maggie will do or ever learn is walk politely beside the handler, not forge ahead, not lay back, not jump up or turn to the side or other side, keep her focused on the handler, not on other stuff. That’s a huge part of her training and she has that nailed 100%.”

Maggie is just now coming out of adolescence, Tawater said, meaning she is still calming down. She still had training to complete, but he thought she might have been ready to accompany Ava to school by the spring.

Remington is another dog trained by Tawater through K9 Direction, this time as a service dog for 19-year-old Grace Richardson, who has balance issues after having stage 4 cancer and more than 50 surgeries.

Kim Richardson, Grace’s mother, agrees with the Reeds that Remington’s training has not brought him to the level of a fully trained — or even partially trained — service dog. She cut off ties with Tawater when his conflict with the Reeds began.

Unlike the Reeds, Richardson purchased Remington directly, so there’s no question of ownership. She plans to find another trainer.

“I don’t think he knows how to do that advanced training that our dogs need to make the jump from being a well-behaved dog into the next step of a very well-trained service dog,” Richardson said.

When Richardson split off briefly from Remington and Grace at a store recently, she then had to stop the dog from nearly pulling Grace over in excitement when he spotted her at a distance, she said. Remington can do some neat things: picking up a dropped cellphone, getting a water bottle out of the refrigerator, but he’s not consistent. He can’t help Grace take stairs, he’s too excited to accompany her to church, he can’t go with her on doctor’s visits.

Tawater says that Remington isn’t the dog he would have chosen as a service dog, but that he has done very well.

“We were getting close,” he said. “We were definitely in the last quarter of his training.”

Remington is able to focus on Grace, help her over curbs and accompany someone to a movie theater, Tawater said. But, he agreed that he still needed to learn to walk upstairs and have other training.

As for Maggie, Tawater said he still believes she is on track to be an excellent service dog for Ava and that despite everything that’s happened between him and the Reed family, he wants to resolve things.

He doesn’t put a deadline on training a dog since they, like people, can be unpredictable, he said.

“We would have continued to train the dog for as long as it took,” Tawater said. “I want just as anybody does for Maggie to fulfill the role that she was intended to have.”

The Reeds say they wouldn’t take Tawater up on that offer. Their trust has been broken, they say.

The lawsuit by the Reeds asks that any funds raised on behalf of the Reeds be placed in a trust for the use and benefit of Ava, that the Reeds be awarded $11,000 in compensatory damages, that the court assess punitive damages against the defendants and that the court enter an order restricting Tawater from contacting or harassing the Reeds. The lawsuit also asks for an order restricting Tawater from taking any steps to take possession of Maggie.

It’s the family’s preference that any money be put into a trust for Ava, Timmerman said.

If the Reeds get to keep Maggie, they hope to find out whether she can still do mobility work for Ava and, if so, want to hire another trainer.

And if Maggie isn’t able to be a service dog, a question they don’t yet have an answer to, they want to keep her anyway. Ava has grown attached to her since she nicknamed her Maggie Moo-Who.

The Reeds say it was especially difficult to see Tawater threatening to take Maggie away from Ava and to put her in another home as a pet.

“He sat in the room with us when we sat there with Ava and said, ‘Hey Ava, you’re going to get a service dog,’” Jimmy Reed said. “There were all the promises, all the hope of you’re not going to have to use a walker at school. You’re going to have a dog to help you.”

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