Every Dog Has His Day -- In Court: $500,000 Bequest Spurs Legal Dogfight

underdog.jpg
Never fear, a probate judge is here
Not quite a year after it abruptly curtailed its 29-year-old hearing dog program and all but frog-marched several workers out of the building, the San Francisco SPCA is now claiming that, no, the hearing dog program never really ended -- and the SPCA should get a $500,000 bequest earmarked for the program.

That's the basis of a literal legal dogfight scheduled for Tuesday in San Mateo County Probate Court when the SPCA does battle over that half-million dollars with the Hearing Dog Program, the non-profit formed by the laid-off former SPCA Hearing Dog workers. Complicating matters, Santa Rosa's Canine Companions for Independence -- which took referrals after the SPCA curtailed its hearing dog program and put its 13 training dogs into the general adoption pool -- has also thrown its paw into the ring.

Dogs -- As much as people love 'em, they just don't share.

While other media outlets have reported upon the looming legal battle, this tidbit has so far gone unreported: The $500,000 bequest from the Eugene and Gloria Family Trust was actually a five-part donation of half a million dollars to five different dog-related organizations: Guide Dogs for the Blind in Marin, Dogs for the Deaf in Oregon, Pets in Need in the Peninsula, the SPCA and the Hearing Dog Program of the SPCA. This means that, in addition to funds specifically earmarked for the SPCA, the organization is also making an attempt to take the money intended for a program it liquidated.

When asked if the SPCA still had a hearing dog program, Development Director Tina Ahn told SF Weekly, "We support our graduates. We do have a hearing dog program. It's to support our graduates." Ahn confirmed that the SPCA is not training nor selecting dogs nor taking applicants for the program. In aiding hearing program graduates, Ahn stated the SPCA is "seeing a small number of folks" -- but wouldn't elaborate how many people (and dogs) that entailed.

Tom Oliver, the program coordinator of the Hearing Dog Program, accused the SPCA of being disingenuous: "The SPCA has said they closed the hearing dog program and also rejected assistance to some past graduates. Now, in light of seeing more money coming toward them, they're coming out with a different public statement. They're claiming they never really gave up the hearing dog program. They have no staff. They have no dogs. They have no kennel. They are not taking any applicants."
SF Weekly readers may recall former staffer John Geluardi's retelling of the abrupt closure of the SPCA hearing dog program in his June 2008 cover story "A Time to Kill":

Hearing dog trainer Martha Hoffman, who worked for 20 years at the SF/SPCA, was standing among the protesters with Gotcha, her personal hearing dog. She is a kindly woman whose easy manner is complemented by a warm smile and a soft speaking voice.

In early April, Hoffman says she was alarmed by deep budget cuts to the Hearing Dog Program, but had been told it was safe -- after all, the program had been prominently featured at the SF/SPCA's 140th anniversary celebration on April 18. The hearing dogs had demonstrated their skills beautifully, alerting their hearing-impaired owners to ringing phones, fire alarms, and dropped items. The demonstration was a big draw among the supporters and major donors who attended the celebration. So when Hoffman was called in by management for a meeting the next day, she was not concerned.

But when Hoffman arrived in the training room, she knew something was amiss. [SPCA President Jan] McHugh-Smith, vice president Dori Villalon, and human resources director Alice Jordan were already there. McHugh-Smith told Hoffman and two other Hearing Dog employees that the program cost $400,000 more than it raised in contributions. Jordan gave the three employees a letter stating that the program was finished and that their jobs were eliminated. They were to gather their belongings quickly and leave the building immediately. Villalon escorted Hoffman to her desk and stood over her while she collected her things.

"What was I going to steal?" says the 54-year-old Hoffman, who is widely respected for her work as a dog trainer and author. "All I could do was laugh it off, but really I was humiliated." Worse, she says, is that the 13 dogs currently in the program were put up for adoption. "I couldn't understand that," she says. "Why would they do that when we had a waiting list of 65 people who needed those dogs?"

The SPCA's Anh confirmed that, should her organization be awarded the $500,000, it could only be used on hearing dog-related expenditures. A judge's decision is due on Tuesday. Should the organizations competing with the SPCA for the funds be determined more worthy, further hearings divvying up the money could take more time.

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