San Francisco SPCA Offers to Train Deaf Woman's Dog Over the Phone

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'Sit!'
A woman who obtained her assistance dog from the San Francisco SPCA several years ago has told SF Weekly that she was shocked that an SPCA trainer e-mailed her asking if her scheduled in-person refresher training session could instead be conducted over the phone. While dog-training over the phone is a novel concept, the kicker here is that Patricia Frieze is deaf -- and the animal in question, Cragmont, is her hearing assistance dog.

"It was suggested ... that I deal with her and Cragmont's issues via telephone," Frieze told SF Weekly. "It is so impractical."

The incident calls into question just what kind of services the SPCA is offering the graduates of its hearing dog program. Despite ostensibly shutting down the program in 2008, the SPCA prevailed in a court battle over a $500,000 behest by convincing a San Mateo judge that it still offered "Dog trainings and refresher sessions provided by a professional hearing dog trainer..." in the words of SPCA spokeswoman Tina Ahn. 

The San Francisco Hearing Dog Program is the nonprofit established by departed SPCA employees in the wake of the 2008 disbandment. It was the organization that sued the SPCA over that $500,000, and it has appealed the judge's ruling. Hearing Dog Program executive director D. Glenn Martyn said this event raises red flags for him.

Martyn said that, beyond the head-scratcher of suggesting a phone training session to a deaf woman, he's confused why the trainer making the call was Helen Colombo. While he had nothing but good things to say about Colombo, a respected and veteran dog trainer, he noted that she has no specific experience working with hearing dogs.

"I'm sure she could assist people with obedience matters -- but hearing dog work is specialized," he said.

When we reached Colombo, she refused to be interviewed and instead shunted our call to the SPCA's development department -- which has not returned our message. The man originally assigned to assist Frieze, experienced hearing dog trainer Francis Metcalf, confirmed to SF Weekly that he is no longer contracting with the SPCA. Since the SPCA has not returned our calls, it is unclear if any personnel with experience training hearing dogs are on the SPCA's payroll.

In the meantime, Frieze's dog Cragmont continues to demonstrate some problematic lapses in his hearing dog duties. "Yep, it should be interesting how I will get trained over the phone," Frieze said.

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