My Nonprofit Reviews
Review for Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc., Bethesda, MD, USA
TL;DR: I do NOT recommend SSDI due to unprofessional behavior and lack of cognizance regarding how their actions can negatively affect clients.
I was a client of Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc. from May 2018 until February 2020. While initially I was thrilled with SSDI and the training I was receiving, I came to realize that I was being treated as a favorite client and was dealing with a very different SSDI than other clients. I was appalled at the way other clients were being treated and initially, believed they were exaggerating. When I began needing help with an SSDI Academy Dog in training, Sulu, I was bumped from the “nice” list to “naughty”. Suddenly, I began enduring the same negative treatment from SSDI that others had described to me.
Sulu is the most tragic aspect of my time with SSDI. When he was evaluated at the shelter in April 2019, he was in a cone due to a leg injury and likely under sedation or otherwise medicated (which was mentioned by SSDI at the time). He began public access ten days after they pulled him from the shelter, despite the fact that he was still injured and had a tapeworm infection. I fostered Sulu as an Academy Dog with the intention of placement with my husband as his service dog. We were encouraged to continue working him before recovery from his tapeworm infection had been confirmed. When we asked for help because Sulu started acting out, the CEO said that we never reached out to her for training sessions. That was untrue, as we reached out to the CEO every weekend and usually received no response. If we did receive a response, we often would be given a later time and the CEO would be a no-show. Her response when I pointed this out was, “If I don’t answer I didn’t see it. You have to actually get my attention,” yet a better way to communicate was never suggested. We were forced to cancel our own plans and leave entire weekends open for whenever the CEO would happen to be available. When Sulu’s behavior escalated to the point of causing significant anxiety in one of our animals and retired service dog, we were either ignored or had her fear minimized many times by the C-level executives. When they finally took action, their advice was to leave Sulu muzzled at all times and to have him either crated or alone in the backyard. This became a welfare issue; Sulu wouldn’t run or play muzzled. When we asked how we were to meet his exercise needs, we received no suggestions on how to help him. At no point during our struggles with Sulu did an SSDI officer offer to come out to evaluate him in person. We were never advised to bring him to a veterinarian to evaluate if any of his behaviors were due to potential medical issues. SSDI’s website stated as of February 2020, “We also commit to ensuring the welfare of all dogs that enter into our training program for the entirety of their lives”. Due to the lack of guidance we received, we requested that SSDI find a foster that would be better suited for Sulu, and that did not endanger the wellbeing of any of our own dogs. Instead of searching for alternate housing or reaching out to his previous fosters, SSDI’s solution was for me to relinquish Sulu to the local shelter. When I informed them that other SSDI clients had offered to help transport him to any fitting home or trainer, I was scolded for involving others in trying to save him. Because I was a foster and did not own Sulu, I was not able to search for a home for him myself. It wasn’t until AFTER Sulu was relinquished to the shelter that the CEO asked if I knew anyone who could take him. Sulu was euthanized by the shelter. Sulu was not the first Academy Dog to have concerning behavior issues. Katehi, Hodor, and several Great Pyrenees puppies were Academy Dogs that all developed behavior issues that meant they were not able to work. They were all placed in homes rather than returned to shelters. Sulu was the only Academy Dog not granted that opportunity.
The C-level executives frequently exhibited unprofessional behavior. Whenever an SSDI trainer was nearby, plans were made for me to meet with them in person. Only one time of six did SSDI follow through on those plans. Once again, I was expected to leave entire weekends available only to never receive solid plans. My time was repeatedly viewed as valueless to SSDI. I was later told that having friends over for a holiday counted as my 6 month check-in, despite the friend never informing me of an evaluation. No thorough evaluation of my and my service dog’s skills was ever completed while I was a client.
SSDI officers discussed private information of other clients with me in an extremely unprofessional manner. The COO would regularly rudely talk about a specific client, blaming that client for all issues the dog placed with them was having, despite the dog having displayed that behavior in other homes. The CEO asked me in several group chats if I knew why a different client was upset. I felt pressured to either report what I had been told in confidence or jeopardize my relationship with SSDI. I was also threatened by the COO that entanglement in certain messages would call into question my “fitness to work”, which is a corrective contract SSDI uses as punishment to threaten to take away dogs. Throughout my time with SSDI, I regularly heard the CEO discuss taking away clients’ dogs due to reasons such as: changing a collar to a different one of the same make but different color without permission, disagreeing with some of SSDI’s methods, and complaining to SSDI about treatment they had received. These threats were made so frequently that I have had the entire C-level staff listed as “do not admit” to our community security guards, as the CEO boasted about making surprise visits to clients’ homes to remove their dog.
SSDI is inconsistent in their training methods and had me incorrectly using a tool for over a year. When Antares was first placed with me, she used her dew claws to rip her head collar off her face. I was told that the best way to remedy this was to pull straight up on the leash, lifting her up until she stopped. This has caused permanent aversion to her head collar and a permanent mark on her nose from where the nose band would sit. Photos of this are attached. The CEO, the COO, and I discussed multiple times Antares alerting to my pain in late 2018. They are the ones that helped pinpoint that her natural behavior was an alert that could be shaped. In my last few months with SSDI, they became suspect that pain could be something a dog could alert to, despite over a year of accurate alerting from Antares.
The grading of all phases are extremely subjective depending on your trainer. I attended a street fair, which is one of the requirements for graduating, yet was told that it did not count, as the COO believed it was more like a county fair. The distinction is not addressed ahead of time. Repeatedly, one dog would pass a requirement while one would not; what constituted a pass was extremely different for each dog. Sulu could not have ANY treats to pass out of phases. Chekov could be given treats regularly after he performed requested behaviors in early phases. Antares could be lured in early phases. When we asked the COO why this was the case, I was told “they are different dogs,” and she would not provide any further explanation. I was also required to get a video of Antares wearing a warming coat, despite her being a husky mix living in Southern California, showing a lack of cognizance for what her day-to-day life would entail.
The final straw that caused me to sever ties with SSDI was receiving the 2020 contracts. Based on my former career in contract negotiarion, I recognized the extreme risk that the 2020 contracts pose to both SSDI and clients. The Veterinary and Wellness form specifies that they can take ANY dog that isn’t being cared for to SSDI standards (including insurance). This means that a pet that isn’t an SSDI dog is at risk of being taken. The CEO said to me that she was considering taking dogs from clients that had not even been part of SSDI’s program. The Responsibility and Indemnification form dictates that SSDI will “provide long-term support” for their clients and dogs. They do not define if this support is in reference to training. “Support” is usually defined as monetary support. This puts SSDI at significant risk, as a client could sue for monetary compensation. When I pointed out these and other contract issues to the C-level executives of SSDI, the CSO stated that they were not making any changes to any of their contracts. Suspiciously, they would also not clarify any of my questions regarding their contracts in writing and only wanted to discuss them via phone. They also suddenly enforced a $200/month fee that I had never agreed to pay. I was billed and told that my only options were to pay or no longer remain a client.
In short, if you are seeking an academy dog or help with owner training your service dog, please do not consider Starfleet Service Dogs, Inc. as an option. They have shown a disrespect for their disabled clients and a lack of cognizance for the wellbeing of dogs in their program.