I sit, out of touch with most of the world for a few days, in a spot from where I had no intention of writing blog entries. I had thought anything from the satire to human rights treaties to my more random entries could wait until I got home. Then, I received the email, pasted in below from my friend, colleague and well known expert in blindness issues, Dena Shumila.
A little background on Dena for those who want an idea of her qualifications as a spokesperson for us blinks. Dena has worked in the disability groups at companies ranging from Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and SAP to Earle Harrison’s dealership to Serotek (author’s of Freedom Box) to DeWitt and Associates. She has participated in the Access Forum and numerous other organizations on blindness and pan-disability groups. She is also a close friend of mine and someone whom I trust implicitly and for whom I would provide a reference on her outstanding skills and even more outstanding character. Dena currently lives in the suburbs of Minneapolis with her fiancé and guide dog but is often spotted elsewhere working for her numerous consulting clients.
In the email below, Dena describes a bizarre situation involving an unlicensed “guide dog school” based in Madison, Wisconsin. As is typical for one as well educated and thorough as Dena, her open letter includes citations to sources that you can confirm yourself.
In Dena’s letter, pasted in its entirety below, she describes the highly unethical practices of the OccuPaws Guide Dog Association. As far as I could find in my search this morning, OccuPaws has no licensed guide dog trainers on staff. They also seem to train their animals in attack tactics and other non-standard practices for a guide dog school. I could not find references to them in other more mainstream guide dog web sites and, as far as I can tell, they will, as Dena asserts, place trusting blinks in danger if they continue with their incredibly peculiar and unethical practices.
The mother of one of OccuPaws’ co-founders has, according to a quote from her in Dena’s letter, threatened to “contact “the DA and her personal attorney” to take action against Dena personally and search engines (google, Yahoo, etc.) for “defamation of character.” Dena, to my knowledge, has no non-disparagement contract with OccuPaws, a non-profit organization based in Wisconsin. I didn’t look up the OccuPaws tax status but I will assume they carry a 501(c)3public charity designation, the operative term being the adjective “public” modifying the word charity. As a “public” institution which gathers tax exempt contributions from members of the public, they are not exempt from public criticism in the manner that a private individual might be so a case of libel or slander is ridiculous in this matter. Next, all such “defamation,” slander or libel suits are matters of civil law, hence, a district attorney would only find a letter from said organization expressing a complaint annoying and, of course, frivolous. Furthermore, if anyone should take legal action in this matter, I think Dena, on behalf of potential guide dog users who may be fooled by the dangerous claims made by OccuPaws, should take her information to the Office of the Wisconsin Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division to report an organization which may be placing its consumers into a highly dangerous situation.
If OccuPaws, its founders, board of directors or the individuals cited in Dena’s letter want to take legal action against me, they can have their lawyer write to me, Christian D. Hofstader, C/o Disability Law Center, 11 Beacon Street, Suite 925
Boston, Massachusetts, 02108. Please send such correspondence in both print and accessible formats so I can read it independently but also have a copy I can fax to the Internal Revenue Service, along with a number of other documents regarding the misleading statements made by OccuPaws on their web site, challenging their tax exempt status as public charities are held to a higher standard than typical corporations and I feel quite confident that OccuPaws doesn’t want to lose its 501(c)3status.
Finally, if they continue with a lawsuit against Dena, no matter how frivolous it may be, I will place a PayPal link on www.hofstader.com so people can contribute to her legal defense fund. As such funds are difficult to set up in an official manner, it will not be a tax exempt charity but, rather, any donations will need to be “gifts” from those who choose to contribute so neither Dena nor I need to pay taxes on such monies.
As I describe in my article titled “August 2005,” I know exactly what it feels like to try to try to defend oneself against law suits while not in a financial position to afford high quality lawyers. My personal situation was one of the most stressful of my life and I will not let any such frivolities be perpetrated on my friends or other blinks without helping out in some manner in the future. So, if you know Dena, please send her a note to help cheer her up and, please, if OccuPaws, its founders, “staff,” board or any individuals associated with it do take legal action, send a gift that we can use to help defray the costs of defending Dena as, although I am 100% certain that she bears no liability, hiring an attorney to handle a defense in even the most frivolous cases can be very expensive.
Everything that follows is Dena’s letter:
To Whom It May Concern
I would like to provide the community of guide dog users with additional information about a newly formed non-profit organization. The agency, known as
the OccuPaws Guide Dog Association is located in Madison, Wisconsin. My hope is that a national organization for guide dog users will assist me in making
OccuPaws accountable for its inconsistencies and lack of qualifications (described below). I am deeply fearful that a prospective guide dog handler, with
Little knowledge about how guide dogs are safely trained will be physically or emotionally harmed if they are matched with an improperly trained dog.
I am also concerned about the generous individuals who might be persuaded to support an organization that does not employ the standards of quality and
Safety that characterizes a reputable dog guide school.
As one of OccuPaws’ original founders, I can attest to its lack of both organizational infrastructure and qualified training personnel. I have been a guide
Dog user for more than a decade, and am aware of the tremendous skill required to train such an animal safely. I also understand the unbelievable amount
Of time, effort, money, expertise and commitment it takes to run a successful guide dog training program. When it became clear that my co-founder did not
Wish to develop OccuPaws with the ethical and professional standards that are the foundation of well-established training programs, I ended my affiliation
With the organization. I could not, in good conscience, continue to support an agency that possessed such an unrealistic and cavalier attitude about the
Process of training a guide dog. I was nearly killed by a dog that should never have been given the responsibility of guiding a blind person, and I could
Not have lived with myself if my actions had caused someone else to experience that kind of terror and emotional devastation.
In late June of 2006, I published a letter that warned prospective students and donors about the unethical practices of the OccuPaws organization. This
Document appeared on several guide dog-related list serves, but can be viewed in the archives of the Yahoogroup that belongs to the National Association
of Guide Dog Users. Its content was based on excerpts from the OccuPaws Web site, as well as my own first-hand knowledge of the organization’s practices.
Today, however, even though it has been more than 90 days since this posting, I received an email from Patricia Schenck, an OccuPaws board member, and
The mother of the organization’s founder, Nicole Meadowcroft. This email threatens to sue me for defamation of character, unless I remove my statements
About OccuPaws from all public forums. When I reviewed the OccuPaws Web site, I discovered that much of the incriminating material that had been referenced
In my original statement had vanished. Clearly, the strategy of the OccuPaws organization was to read the letter outlining my concerns, attempt to erase
All record of their validity from the OccuPaws Web site, and then threaten to sue me (thinking that all proof to substantiate my claims had disappeared).
Fortunately, much of the original content from the OccuPaws Web site was cached by the various search engines, and it also appears in their organic search
result listings. In addition, many of the Web pages I reference, as well as emails from OccuPaws’ personnel, have been archived on the hard drive of my
Computer. I am happy to provide this documentation upon request.
Regardless of the motives that have been attributed to my public expression of concern regarding the practices of OccuPaws, and my questions about their
intentions, the facts are indisputable, and the facts are these.
list of 7 items
• No member of the OccuPaws organization is a certified guide dog instructor.
• No OccuPaws associate (including its founder) has ever trained a guide dog from start to finish.
• In spite of this lack of experience, the founder of OccuPaws has publicly advertised herself as a guide dog trainer.
• In spite of statements to the contrary, the founder of OccuPaws has publicly stated that the organization intends to graduate its first guide dog in
spring of 2007.
• The founder’s current “guide dog” is an in-tact male, who doubles as both a breeding stud and a personal protection dog.
• The founder of OccuPaws conducted formal harness training with a 9 month old puppy. This puppy was also kept in-tact, and was being trained in the practice
of bite work.
• In an attempt to keep me from asking difficult questions, a family member of OccuPaws’ founder has threatened me with legal action.
NOTE: Because of the threats I have received regarding a defamation of character law suit, I have included a Reference section at the bottom of this document.
This Reference section includes Web page and email excerpts that support each of the above claims.
Without the assistance of other members of the guide dog community, I will be unable to continue with my efforts to prevent this organization from hurting
Someone. My hope is that other concerned individuals will assist me in asking the difficult questions that need to be asked, and expose the inconsistencies
that exist. I also hope that such intervention will either compel the OccuPaws organization to provide proof of its legitimacy, or require its personnel
to implement practices that are ethical, realistic, and safe.
If you have any questions about the references I have listed below my signature, or require additional documentation, please contact me at your convenience.
No member of the OccuPaws organization is a certified guide dog instructor, and none of its associates has ever trained a guide dog from start to finish.
Explanation and Proof:
When I recently challenged one of OccuPaws’ associates about the agency’s overall lack of guide dog training experience, and the absence of qualified personnel,
I was informed that the organization’s trainers would be attending a 2 day seminar with a “certified guide dog instructor” who “comes from a school in
California.” Apparently, after this brief exposure to training practices, these individuals, who have no additional guide dog training experience, plan
to begin training guide dogs on their own. The OccuPaws website also alludes to collaboration with a “certified guide dog instructor.” My intention is
to contact the 3 California-based guide dog schools, to see if, in fact, any of them has allowed one of their trainers to conduct such a seminar. My suspicion,
however, is that they have not. My speculation is that the “certified guide dog instructor” being referred to is an extremely accomplished and respected
trainer in the area of Schutzhund, but I believe that it has been over a decade since he formally trained a guide dog.
(Email from Marlene Morga, September 27, 2006.)
“We have a Certified Guide Dog Trainer coming Monday & Tuesday to work with us, give advice and check out the dogs we have. The Lab is almost 2 yrs
old, and who will be working him is still in the air until after the Trainer talks to us and shows us what must be done. He wants us to train several
dogs each as demos. So nothing we have now will be put out with anyone. Several years down the road......”
In the same email message, the following statement is made about the 2-year-old Lab mentioned above.
“I found a lady that donated a young male that might just turn out to be the very first graduate .....”
The founder of OccuPaws has publicly advertised herself as a guide dog trainer.
Explanation and Proof:
The following 2 excerpts were taken from an article, which appeared in the DeForest Times Tribune, on August 22, 2006)
Article Excerpt 1:
“Meadowcroft, a dog trainer, decided to train her own 3-year-old German shepherd to be her guide Dog…She was so successful with training her own guide dog
that she started her own company last fall.”
NOTE: I witnessed Admiral’s training first hand. Virtually all of it was done by another visually impaired guide dog user, and not by the founder, as she
Article Excerpt 2:
After a year in a puppy raising home, “the OccuPaws guide dog is then turned
over to Meadowcroft and her instruction for final training…”
NOTE: It seems presumptuous that an individual with minimal guide dog training experience is publicly advertising herself as a guide dog trainer.
The founder of OccuPaws has publicly stated that the organization intends to graduate its first guide dog in the spring of 2007.
Explanation and Proof:
The following excerpt was taken from the same article, which was published by the DeForest Times Tribune, on August 22, 2006).
Article Excerpt 3:
OccuPaws “hopes to start recruiting students for the graduating class of guide dogs by spring.”
NOTE: Alarmingly, in spite of the fact that it takes guide dog instructors an average of 3 years to gain the knowledge they need to train a guide dog,
this article indicates that OccuPaws intends to issue a dog to a blind handler in spring (when the organization will be approximately a year and a half
As the above excerpt establishes, in spite of its very recent statements to the contrary, the organization was actively recruiting students, even though
it employed no qualified instructors, and had no training methodology in place.
Web Excerpt 1:
The following quotation appears as part of YAHOO!’s organic search result listings when the phrase “OccuPaws, if you are in need of guide dog assistance”
“If you are in need of guide dog assistance, please contact us
Web Excerpt 2:
A copy of the OccuPaws Student Application was also cached by Google, on May 12, 2006. It can be found by searching “OccuPaws, Student Application.”
Web Excerpt 3:
Interestingly, now that I have been threatened with the defamation of character suit, the Student Information page reads as follows.
“At this time, the OccuPaws Guide Dog Association is developing a customized training curriculum for our guide dogs and our future students. We are not
actively recruiting students at this time.”
The founder’s current “guide dog” is an in-tact male, who doubles as both a breeding stud and a personal protection dog.
Explanation and Proof:
Web Excerpt 1:
The Web site for the founder’s breeding kennel (
) contains a link to the OccuPaws Web site, announcements about Admiral’s latest litters, and photos of his progeny. The Web page (
) describes Admiral and his various titles as follows.
“Admiral vom Schenck…BH, AD, WH, FO, OB1, Guide Dog.”
Web Excerpt 2:
The description below appears on several Web sites when the phrase “UKC titles, WH” is searched with Google.
“WH” is “a working title,” which refers to “Watch Hund (watch dog in English).” It is a “Schutzhund type title, related to protection work.”
The founder of OccuPaws conducted formal harness training with a 9 month old puppy. This puppy was also kept in-tact, and was being trained in the practice
Explanation and Proof:
I expressed concern when the founder of OccuPaws placed her personal “guide dog in training. I also witnessed her bitework training sessions.
The following excerpt was taken from the Google’s organic search engine listings, and appears when “OccuPaws, Halo” is searched. This quotation was included
in my original statement of concern. At the time my original letter was written, and the quote was retrieved from the OccuPaws Web site, Halo was only
9 months old.
“Halo is currently practicing formal service / guide dog tasks and excelling with an A+. Halo will also be an asset to the OccuPaws ' breeding program.”
However, again, since I received the threat about the defamation suit, all reference to Halo has been removed from the Our Dogs in Training page of the
OccuPaws Web site.
In an attempt to keep me from asking difficult questions, and exposing undesirable practices, a family member of OccuPaws’ founder has threatened me with
Explanation and Proof:
The following excerpts were taken from emails sent to me by Patricia Schenck, on October 4, 2006.
Email Excerpt 1:
“Nicole was only practicing on Admiral and Halo. It was never her intention of using these dogs as guide dogs.”
NOTE: See the above references that outline proof to the contrary.
“I am giving you one week to remove your comments regarding OccuPaws and my daughter Nicole from the website, otherwise I will be forwarding your comments
to the District Attorney's office and my lawyer for defamation of character, etc.”
NOTE: The Web site being referred to is the list serve archive for the National Association of Guide Dog Users’.
“You have 10 days to have this information removed or I will be taking additional steps to hold you and the search engines liable for defamation of character
and accusations of fraud.”
NOTE: The word “fraud” appears nowhere in my NAGDU message.
Miscellaneous Excerpts of Concern:
The following excerpts were taken from the same series of emails, which were sent by Patricia Schenck, on October 4, 2006.
Email Excerpt 1:
“OccuPaws will only require two experienced dog guide trainers, no facility, and no administrators.”
NOTE: A guide dog school with no administrators and no facility? And, where will these 2 “experienced dog guide trainers” come from? Especially in time
for the advertised spring 2007 graduation.
Email Excerpt 2:
“OccuPaws dogs will have more one on one training with the guide dog trainer than the dogs receive at guide dog schools. The trainers at the schools handle
15 dogs and are limited to the number of hours they can work with a dog each day. Nicole will have one fully trained Labrador guide dog that has gone
through the complete process by a certified guide dog trainer.”
NOTE: Again, which certified guide dog trainer? And, it seems unbelievable to me that it has been implied that the dogs produced by OccuPaws will somehow
be superior to ones issued by well-established schools, who have strict quality and safety measures in place.