News / Canada

Family warns against 'guardian homes' after teen's therapy dog taken back by breeder

So-called "guardian homes" include a contract where a dog can be taken back at any time to breed a certain amount of litters before becoming a family's pet.

Devon Wagner is pictured in downtown Vancouver, B.C. Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Since Devon Wagner's dog was taken away, he says he feels like there's a

The Canadian Press

Devon Wagner is pictured in downtown Vancouver, B.C. Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Since Devon Wagner's dog was taken away, he says he feels like there's a "hole" inside of him.

VANCOUVER — Since Devon Wagner's dog was taken away, he says he feels like there's a "hole" inside of him.

The 18-year-old suffered a life-changing concussion playing hockey six years ago. It caused blinding headaches and sensitivity to light and sound, forcing him to drop out of sports and delay school.

His mother, Carolyn Hopkinson, got him a Labradoodle as a therapy dog in 2013 under an arrangement with a breeder known as a "guardian home." But this February, the breeder abruptly took the dog back, citing breach of contract.

"She completely changed my life," Wagner said of his dog, Savana, his voice breaking. "When I'm really down, she's no longer there for me because she was taken away. I really just want her back."

The gentle black dog is now at the centre of an anguished legal dispute between Wagner's mother and the breeder. The British Columbia family's case, observers say, reveals the pitfalls of becoming a so-called guardian home.

Hopkinson had never heard of guardian homes before she saw an ad for $600 Labradoodles three years ago. The single mom was thrilled to see the crossbreed, known for its sweet nature and low-shedding coat, advertised for a fraction of its typical $2,500 price.

As she learned, the practice involves paying a breeder a deposit. The dog moves into one's home, but is returned to the breeder periodically to breed. After the dog provides a certain number of litters, the breeder refunds half the deposit and it becomes one's family pet.

Hopkinson said she told Karen Firus of Dreamland Doodles she was concerned about the "one-sided" contract. The guardian home takes responsibility for a long list of care requirements, but the dog remains the breeder's property until the contract is fulfilled.

"She told me she would never take a dog out of a happy home," Hopkinson said.

Instead, Hopkinson alleges in a small-claims lawsuit filed in B.C. provincial court that Firus seized Savana without notice in February. Hopkinson alleges Firus was motivated by the prospect of a "breeding windfall," as the dog had sought-after light-coloured puppies.

Firus alleges in a counter-suit that Hopkinson breached the contract by not advising when Savana was in heat, not following the schedule for vaccinations, flea prevention and deworming, not following medical care for an ear infection that turned chronic and not keeping her properly groomed.

The breeder from Surrey, B.C., said in an email there is no factual basis to support the allegation that she was motivated by future profit. The contract requirements are not extraordinary and are in line with veterinary recommendations, she said.

"If the guardian home follows the contract and the dog is well cared for, then there is no reason to remove the dog," said Firus.

Hopkinson said there were periodic shortcomings in her ability to uphold the contract due to her son's health, including on one occasion when she forgot to tell Firus that Savana was in heat.

Her veterinarian wrote in a letter provided by Hopkinson to The Canadian Press that vaccinations slipped through the cracks when she moved from Richmond to Salt Spring Island and changed veterinarians. There was a plan in place to cure Savana's ear issues, and one time she had a matted coat, but this was common for dogs on the island, she wrote.

Firus said Savana was now with a different breeder.

Rebeka Breder, an animal-rights lawyer, said she does not support buying dogs from breeders, but it's not necessarily a bad thing for breeders to be able to seize the dog if it's not being cared for according to their standards. But she said often people don't read contracts carefully and don't understand the dog can be taken away.

Canadian Kennel Club members have similar arrangements called "foster homes" for breeding dogs, but the club has oversight powers that allow it to mediate disputes and discipline breeders, said board member Richard Paquette.

The club does not represent Labradoodle breeders as the dogs are not purebred.

"It's a real buyer beware of getting involved in any of these designer breeds," said Paquette.

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.