PHOENIX — Sydney Abel was preparing to graduate from ASU with four degrees, becoming one of the youngest people to be accepted into its Ph.D. program.
She also was looking forward to a service dog she had won about a year ago – but that excitement quickly faded
"I was sobbing because I knew my life, my independence was going to get better," she said.
Abel had just won a service dog from Golden Healer Service Dogs. The contest was part of the Love Loud Festival, a nationwide charity event.
"So it was amazing to know that finally there was going to be a step in the right direction with my health," she said.
Several years ago, Abel was diagnosed with a cardiac and autonomic nerve disorder that causes her to pass out multiple times a day. So winning a service dog, which can cost between $25,000-$50,000, was going to be life-changing.
"They can do fainting response so when I pass out they make sure I don't hit my head," she said. "They can alert a family member or someone in public if I passed out and not waking up, They can retrieve water bottles and medication."
However, soon, she said there were red flags.
"After the festival an ex-employee of Golden Healer reached out to me," she said. "And she let me know that Mike Carlson, the guy who is the founder of Golden Healer Service Dogs, that both of his trainers had just quit because of unethical practices at the business."
Abel said she then spoke with Carlson who assured her the dog would be properly trained.
"It was such a big thing in my life I couldn't just throw it away," she said.
However, when she went to pick up the dog a few weeks ago, Abel said nothing about it seemed right.
"He was completely unfocused, could not walk on a leash," she said. "This dog doesn't respond to verbal commands and he can't sit, he can't stay and can't lay down. I know a service dog trainer who's trained service dogs for seven years and I called her up, I was literally crying because this was my chance, my opportunity to get a service dog. I asked 'was there any shot that I could train this dog,' and she did a virtual assessment and she said absolutely not."
Golden Healer Service Dogs sent a statement to 12News about the situation:
"In response to the recent news of Sydney Abel’s experience with our service dog program, Golden Healer Service Dogs wishes to address the situation and clarify our side of the story. Sydney Abel, the contest winner, sought a service dog to assist with her medical conditions, including POTS, which caused her to experience frequent fainting spells. As part of our program, she was offered the opportunity to receive one of our service dogs, specially trained to aid individuals with various disabilities. After winning the contest in May of last year, Ms. Abel expressed her excitement and appreciation for the lifechanging opportunity. We understood the importance of providing her with a well-trained service dog, and that remained our primary goal throughout the process. However, it is essential to provide a comprehensive perspective on the events that unfolded. Shortly after announcing Sydney as the winner, a former, terminated, employee contacted Sydney with false allegations, which raised concerns about the ethics within our organization. Although the allegations made were false, Golden Healer Service Dogs takes all feedback seriously and constantly strives to maintain the highest standards of professionalism. Once our founder and CEO, Mike Carlson, was made aware of the allegations, he immediately addressed the situation. Steps were taken to ensure that the well-being of both our dogs and clients remained a top priority. In March of 2023, we informed Ms. Abel that her service dog, Hero, would soon be ready for placement and scheduled their week-long training and graduation for July 2023. Ms. Abel came to Salt Lake City on July 10 to start her week-long training with Hero. It is crucial to note that Hero had undergone rigorous training to become a service dog, and every effort was made to ensure his readiness for his new role. Throughout the process, we maintained open communication with Ms. Abel, and in addition provided her with the opportunity to receive a week-long training session to acquaint herself with Hero and learn how to work with him effectively. The first day of training seemed to be going very well and Ms. Abel seemed happy, smiling and kept expressing how well-behaved Hero was. However, an hour after she left training and took Hero back to her hotel, her husband called Mr. Carlson and asked him to pick up the dog. When Mr. Carlson arrived, Ms. Abel’s husband met him outside the hotel with Hero and seemed very upset. He said they didn’t think Hero was the right fit and Ms. Abel did not want to continue with the rest of training week. She chose to end the training after only spending a short four hours on the first day, expressing doubts about Hero's suitability as a service dog. We understand that a successful service dog partnership relies on compatibility and trust between the handler and the dog. Recognizing Ms. Abel's concerns, we met with her the next morning and encouraged her to spend the week with Hero before making her final decision. We also offered her the opportunity if she was willing, to wait for another service dog. We explained we have younger dogs in our program that could be considered for her and specifically trained to suit her needs. Ms. Abel declined these options and decided to part ways with Hero and our organization. Although we may not agree, we respect her decision, and we hold no ill will toward her for choosing what she believed was best for her well-being. Regarding the training process for service dogs, it is essential to understand that training a service dog is a time-consuming and intricate process. Our dogs undergo an extensive two-year training program from the time they are newborn puppies, to ensure they are proficient in assisting individuals with disabilities effectively. We deeply empathize with Ms. Abel's desire for independence and the challenges she faces due to her medical condition. Our mission has always been to provide well-trained service dogs to those in need, and we continue to work diligently to uphold our commitment to our clients. At Golden Healer Service Dogs, we value transparency and accountability. We appreciate Ms. Abel's courage in sharing her experience, as it highlights the significance of researching reputable service dog programs to ensure a successful and fulfilling partnership. Our team remains dedicated to providing exceptional service dogs and will continue to evolve and improve our processes to meet the needs of our clients. For individuals seeking service dogs, we encourage thorough research and open communication with service dog organizations to foster successful matches and positive outcomes."
"Finally something good was happening with my disability and it was just torn away in that moment," she said.
Abel said walking away wasn't easy, but feels it was the right thing. She's now doing what she can to try and look ahead.
"It's just really sad because this was such a good thing, and it was such a thing that would change my life. Service dogs aren't easy to get so it's hard to look forward and see how I'm going to get that level of independence," she said.
Abel has since set up a GoFundMe to try and raise funds herself to get a service dog from a well-known service company in Florida. If you'd like to help, you can go here.
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