Families are now speaking out about a local man claiming to be a dog trainer that works with special needs children to train their service dogs. They're claiming instead of training their dogs-- the animals are left hungry and abused.
[WEB EXTRAS: Resources on dog trainers and how to look up certified trainers: Central Florida Force-Free Trainers | Association of Professional Dog Trainers | National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors | How To Choose a Good Trainers | AKC: Therapy Dog Organizations | International Association of Assistance Dog Partners ]
News 6 investigator Mike DeForest found not only is this man not who he says he is-- he's actually a career criminal.
It's clear Abby Walton adores her Doberman Pinscher puppy, which she named "Caterina" or "Cat."
The 9-year-old --- who has Down syndrome and is in remission for leukemia --- needed a trained service animal.
"She tends to run away a lot," said Sherri Walton, Abby's mother. "The Down syndrome part of her, she has no safety awareness whatsoever. So we've had a couple times where she's gotten out of the house and it's taken us awhile to find her, so we've been discussing getting a service dog for her for a couple of years. We decided now was the time to do it."
So after getting funding from donors on GoFundMe, Abby's family purchased the puppy from a breeder. They then brought Cat to Kids K-9 Rescue & Training, an organization that advertises itself as a dog training school run by Ryan Thompson.
"We decided we liked talking to Ryan, the information he provided us and we had a comfort level with him and that's how we ended up picking him over a couple of different places we were talking to," said Walton. "He said all the right things and did all the right stuff. He looked (Abby) in the eye and said, 'We're going to have a great partnership, we're going to work together, and we're going to get Cat so that she's ready for you.'"
But before training could start, Abby got sick. She ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, on a ventilator. That's when Thompson offered to pick Cat up near the hospital and start the $3,000 training sessions early, so the family wouldn't have to worry about her while Abby was in the hospital.
That's the last time the Waltons saw Cat for two months.
Before the dog went with Thompson, Walton said Cat was a happy, healthy puppy.
But two months later, that's no longer the case. The family got a call out of the blue from an associate of Thompson's. Initially, the associate said Thompson was in the hospital, and all the dogs he was training needed to be returned to their owners. But, Walton said, the associate brought a different dog to the Waltons. When they asked for their dog, they said they got the run around, before finally Cat was brought home,
"My husband and I were just in tears when she was given back to us in her condition," said Walton, tearfully. "She was so underweight you could see all the bones, all her ribs, her hip bones, everything. She was locked in a cage for two months, barely fed, barely watered. Her feet were so bloody and she had open sores on them. They had to carry her into my house and she laid on the couch and her feet were bloody, like there was blood on my couch by the time she was done laying there. But she was so hungry she didn't even care, she got off the couch, fell down and got up and crawled her way into the kitchen so she could eat."
They said they brought Cat to a vet immediately, where she had to stay for four days for treatment.
"The vet said it looked like someone tied a rubber band to her tail, so her tail is completely useless at this point and it's going to have to be amputated," said Walton. "He said her paws looked like road rash, that someone had her tied to a motorcycle or ATV or something like that and had her run to try to keep up."
The Waltons are now convinced their dog was abused while in Thompson's care.
"That's abuse. Whether it's an animal or a person, that's abuse," said Walton. "He snowed both of us and that never happens. We need this to get out there because he just can't do this to somebody else."
Walton said the chilling part is, from what Thompson's associate told her, he doesn't have remorse.
"He told her over the phone, 'Take my dog, leave it on the side of the road somewhere'. He said, 'If that doesn't work, take her to the Humane Society and have her put down. They don't need their dog back, bring them another dog.' She tried to tell him, 'Ryan, 'They're going to shut your business down,' and apparently, he told her, 'I can do this anywhere, I can restart my kennel club and my dog training business anywhere.'"
Walton said she's happy they got Cat back when they did. They're hoping because she's still so young, she still may turn out to be the service dog Abby needs, with real training. She said one of the worst parts now, is having to go back to all the people who donated to them and explain what happened.
"I feel like a complete jerk now, I have to go back to all these donors now and tell them this is what happened. I feel awful, I took your money, you trusted us, we trusted him and now we have to go back to square one," Walton said.
On his website --- Thompson claims to be a certified dog trainer.
But when News 6 checked with each of these organizations listed, they all said they have no record of Thompson.
When News 6 drove to the address listed on the Kids K-9 Rescue & Training Facebook page, it turned out to be the home of the Lake Brantley Rowing Club, not a dog training facility.
News 6 has learned Ryan Thompson is actually Robert Ryan Friedler, a convicted felon with more than a dozen arrests since 1996.
Although he's never been charged with animal abuse, Friedler has served prison time for abusing a child and his girlfriend.
According to the police report, Friedler "strangled her and kicked her until she was almost unconscious."
News 6 has found Friedler is currently in custody in the Lee County Jail for violating probation. A source told News 6 it is because he contacted the ex-girlfriend he was accused of beating.
"I feel terrible, if I had known those things, I never would have sent Chop there," said Amity Cronhardt, referring to her German shepherd, Chop, after hearing about Thompson's past.
Cronhardt said she paid more than $500 to send Chop to one of Thompson's training courses. She said Chop is afraid of strangers and can be aggressive, so she wanted to get him training so he didn't bite anyone. She said she chose Thompson, because he was the only trainer that seemed comfortable training Chop.
First, she said she paid Thompson $275 for one week of training at Thompson's house. He came to pick Chop up, and took him away.
Cronhardt said the first red flag was when she called Thompson at the end of the first week.
"He told me he wanted to keep my dog," said Cronhardt. "'Well, Chop's not making the improvements I want', and I know that Chop is stubborn, he's not going to do what he doesn't want to do, so that's what I thought."
She agreed to a second week of training and paid an additional $250.
But when Thompson finally brought Chop home, the dog acted differently-- but not for the better.
"He was skinny, he had the scratches all over him, he had patches of fur coming out," said Cronhardt.
So she asked Thompson what happened.
"Once I asked him how these scratches got here, the whole atmosphere of the house changed at that point, he kind of shut down, backed up, and you could tell he didn't want to tell me what happened," said Cronhardt.
After he left, she noticed how bad the scratches really were-- and there was a noticeable change in his behavior.
"The scratches weren't straight scratch marks, they were like jagged crossing each other," said Cronhardt. "It did look like he was scratched a few times, but it did look like there were a few deeper like puncture marks, I don't know. He could have escaped from the kennel but the only reason why he would escape from the kennel, was if he truly didn't want to be in that kennel. He used to love being in his crate, he would sleep in there, he would go in there all the time, he would go lay down in there for no reason. Now I tell him to go in the crate, he runs away.
Obviously, now he has a bad association with it. Ever since he came home, all he does now is whine excessively. He will just walk around the house, jump in the window, bark and do crazy things."
Cronhardt said after she found out about Thompson aka Friedler's past, she was devastated wondering what really happened to Chop.
"It disgusted me when I saw his mug shot," said Cronhardt. "You hid everything from me, you took my money, I don't know what happened to my dog. You said you were a trainer and you weren't, everything was a lie basically, and I've never been so foolish in my life to believe something like that."
Jessica Lumm said when she was trying to find a trainer to help her find and train a service dog for her 15-year-old son Tyler, who suffers from severe anxiety, Thompson fooled her much the way he did the others.
"When I started researching his company, it sounded really good," said Lumm. "I mean, he really did put up a good front. I even looked up reviews for him and everything else and some of the other places that were bigger corporations didn't have as good reviews as he did."
The Lumms were hoping a service dog would help Tyler better cope, after years of therapy did little to help improve his condition. Lumm said when she called Thompson, he said he just rescued the perfect dog for them. So they met Rocky, a German shepherd.
"Our agreement was that I would give him a retainer and he would hold Rocky for us," said Lumm. "He would keep Rocky at his house for intensive training so he would make sure Rocky could do everything a service dog needed to do. It would be 24 hours with him and he would make sure that he was everything that Tyler needed."
In January, Lumm handed over $2,500 of the $7,500 Thompson said the intensive six month training would cost.
In February, Lumm also got a phone call from an associate of Thompson's, saying Rocky needed to come live with them immediately because Thompson had been hospitalized.
Abruptly, the next morning, he was dropped off.
"He was a mess," said Lumm. "Rocky was whining, they didn't leave a collar with him, they didn't leave a leash with him, they couldn't tell me what kind of food he ate, they didn't have any sort of medical information on him, and when the lady went to leave, rocky went to leave with her and it was all very upsetting and distressing for Rocky. The first day that we had him he escaped twice, because he was just trying to get back to the front yard where he knew he was dropped off. He would just go to the same spot like, 'Where are my people?' It was heartbreaking. It seemed like there was something not right with the situation."
When Lumm called the associate back and said Rocky wasn't trained as a service dog at all, she said the associate told her Thompson was actually in jail and she had no choice but to keep the dog.
"She's told us about other families and other dogs. She said that the dogs were living in horrible conditions, some of them were living in crates covered in feces, they were underweight, they were abused. She came forward and said he was not training the dogs at all, he was basically collecting money off of them," said Lumm.
The Lumms have had Rocky for about two weeks and said they are trying to make it work, but the problem is, Lumm said Tyler needs a calm service dog like they were expecting, and although Rocky could be a wonderful pet, his separation anxiety and anxious personality is making things worse for her son.
"One of the first nights he was here, Tyler was trying to soothe himself by humming, and then Rocky would whimper, so Tyler would start humming louder and then Rocky would start whimpering louder, and then finally, I was like, 'Can you please stop humming? I understand what you are trying to do but it's not helping anybody,'" said Lumm. "Rocky is an amazing dog and we really love him but for what we need, he's not right for us. And that's sad because you don't want to get attached to him, but you don't want to not, either, because he's in our home. Unfortunately Rocky is caught up in all of this, it's not his fault."
Lumm had a professional trainer evaluate Rocky while News 6 was there in order to see if he had the correct temperament to be a service dog.
"I think he has a little too much excitement for being a service dog," said Paul Pipitone, of Dog's Best Friend of Central Florida. "Service dogs usually need to be more calm and relaxed, that's the whole purpose. He's trainable yes, but it would take awhile and would he ever have the correct demeanor for being a service dog? I don't think so. I think he would make a great pet, though. He's very smart, he's very lovable, he's friendly. He'd make a really good pet for somebody."
Now, the Lumms said they're trying to the right thing by Rocky-- and start back at square one with finding a service dog for Tyler.
"Best case scenario is we start over again and Rocky finds a wonderful home with people that can love him, and Ryan pays for what he did," said Lumm. "All the other people that were involved, hopefully, can come forward and get some sort of help for their animals because I don't think it's right for him to walk away without any repercussions."