Trainer ordered to pay Best Friends after Katrina dogs die

February 3, 2009

Hat tip and a high five to Heather Houlahan of the Raised By Wolves blog for this one, reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Donald D. Chambers, 40, of Amherst, [Ohio], was sentenced [Jan. 30] to a year in prison, fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $62,124 in restitution to the Best Friends Animal Society in Utah.

Chambers had told the nonprofit group caring for dogs rescued after Hurricane Katrina that he would take some of them and find them homes.

He received 28 dogs from the Best Friends Animal Society and $36,720 to care for them until they were adopted.

Chambers didn’t spend the money on the dogs, and just three of them landed in homes. Most are dead.

Heather tells the backstory:

[Best Friends] cold-call emailed me and offered me a bunch of money to do something I normally do for free.

Seems that their hundreds of paid staff were not able to handle or train the herds of pit bulls they had brought back from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They said that they couldn’t house the pit bulls, that these dogs didn’t do well in a “sanctuary” environment. […]  They wanted to pay professional trainers to take these dogs off their hands, train them, and place them in homes. […]

M’Kay. And the catch is?

I had to promise to use only “positive” training techniques.

Never mind correctly defining what “positive” means. I knew what they meant. They knew what they meant. And it had nothing to do with the training needs of any real live dog.

They were sending dogs to be out of sight, out of mind. (Katrina dogs were no longer a good direct-mail pitch.) Since this charity spends money like a sailor in port — private plane, anyone? — the money was the easy way to make the pit bulls go away. Part of the pretty story for the donors about Spike going to live on the Farm was that only “positive” dog trainers were going to fix these animals that their expert in-house staff could not handle.

I wrote back, telling them to look me up when they got their heads out of their colons. Or something to that effect. I also told them that they were guaranteeing that they were going to be sending money and dogs to liars. Because anyone can lie and claim to be using nothing but cookies ‘n’ love, while the reality is quite different. Seen it. I told them that they were going to be selecting out all the truthful, ethical trainers — the ones who would refuse to lie about using balanced training methods, or would refuse to promise something that they could not guarantee would be the right thing to do.

They did not respond.

Here’s the rest. And her withering conclusion:

[N]o one could have predicted such an outcome from offering money to people in exchange for them telling you what you want to hear.

Who could have foreseen that the levies could fail?

No one. Of course.

And also: Been meaning to get to this one for a couple days.  Lancaster, Calif., is trying to jump in with a novel approach to “fighting crime”: Let’s kill some pit bulls because they won’t let us kill young dark-skinned guys who like pit bulls, play rap music and scare the white folks. 

Luisa on Lassie Get Help (and hey, Luisa, congrats on finding that rare Shenandoah Mountain Cur in the shelter), offers this:

Ingrid Newkirk of PETA and R. Rex Parris, the Mayor of Lancaster, California, both hope your dogs get bone sarcoma. Bone cancer, for crissakes! It’s the law. Move out of town, minority scum, or we’ll kill your Rottweilers and your pit bulls! Ingrid says: I love this law! Let’s kill all the pit bulls!

This just in: when you slap a mandatory spay/neuter law on a breed like the Rottweiler [and in 2009, what society hacks off body parts as punishment?], you are sentencing dogs to death by cancer. Don’t believe me? Here’s the PubMed abstract.


Seriously, people — bone cancer. One in four Rotties will suffer from it, if spayed or neutered before a year of age. [Other large breeds are also at risk.] Lancaster wants them all “fixed” before they’re four months old.

It should be glaringly obvious by now that Newkirk, the so-called “animal rights” pooh-bah, doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about dogs. She wants them gone from our lives, one breed at a time or in bunches, by lingering deaths or quick ones, by stealth or by whatever canine version of Jim Crow she can espouse.

And Mayor R. Rex Parris doesn’t give a rat’s patoot about his law-abiding fellow citizens. He’s happy as a clam to impose a death sentence on their dogs and subject families to the anguish of losing a friendly companion to confiscation or cancer. Maybe you shouldn’t have let your tattoo show when you took the dog for a walk, eh? Maybe your son shouldn’t have dressed like a normal middle-school student the last time he was in the front yard playing with your new Rott mix, eh? That’ll teach you. Lancaster doesn’t want your kind.

Gosh, Luisa, don’t be afraid to have a strong opinion, OK?

Sadly, people are still listening to PETA.  But we’re working on it.

Filed under: non-profits and charities,pets, connected — Gina Spadafori @ 3:46 pm


  1. hmmm, there’s an awful lot of “anti-positive training” going around lately…

    Comment by EmilyS — February 3, 2009 @ 6:39 pm

  2. Hmmmm … why do you think so?

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — February 3, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

  3. Let me get this straight. Ms. Houlahan is blaming positive reinforcement training for Best Friends getting taken in?

    Comment by Susan — February 3, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

  4. I am not sure I see the point in polarizing the dog training world any more than it already is. The link to the guys web sites say absolutely nothing about positive training. A liar and a cheat is a liar and cheat. He clearly said anything to get the money. What a freakin scum bag.

    Comment by nancy freedman-smith — February 3, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

  5. Indeed, this seems like a load of sour grapes, and using this tragedy as a training-techniques wedge seems more than slightly distasteful.

    Comment by James — February 3, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  6. There must be a LOTS of sour grapes floating around the dog-training world, because when people started criticizing Cesar Millan, a lot of people said THAT was sour grapes.

    Dog training can’t get much more polarized, and I don’t think a frank and honest discussion of what that’s all about should be at all off-limits for this blog.

    Regular readers know I don’t dig orthodoxy, and I see a lot of dogma and cultishness in the dog-training debate — again, on both sides.

    As a pet columnist, what I’m about is getting people good advice on caring for and living with their pets. I’m not sure people are well-served by trainers at either extreme in this debate who insist that there’s only one way to train every dog, every time.

    And just as with good breeders, a lot of experienced, effective and caring trainers who use different techniques on different dogs feel as if they’ve been muzzled and driven underground. I don’t think their contributions to helping pet-owners are insignificant, and I don’t want them left out of the debate.

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — February 3, 2009 @ 8:18 pm

  7. Susan, the blog is titled “Positive” Enough for Ya?” which reflects Heather’s viewpoint, but you should definitely read it.

    Gina: that one and don’t tell me you missed this one:

    Comment by EmilyS — February 3, 2009 @ 8:23 pm

  8. No, I saw that post. And commented on it.

    What I was thinking is that the dog-training world is allstirred up because of the season opener of “The Dog Whisper.” And I find that phenomenon kind of interesting.

    Not a fan of the show, to be honest. But I have wondered what I’m missing about Cesar Millan that explains the high-voltage star power. Whatever “it” is, it doesn’t seem to work on me.

    But there’s no denying he’s a force. Good or bad … well, you can sure get a good debate going on that, can’t you?

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — February 3, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

  9. This is starting to remind me of all the discussion when this article came out:

    Anybody remember that one? It sure stirred things up a lot back then.

    Comment by stellaluna — February 3, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

  10. I sure do … and I was having a hard time remembering if it was in The Atlantic or Harper’s. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by Gina Spadafori — February 3, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  11. At closer look I did find the word positive reinforcement on the web site once in relation to Boot Camp. Scum bag still trumps method. No question if the dogs went elsewhere, like to Heather, the dogs would be thriving today.

    Comment by nancy freedman-smith — February 4, 2009 @ 4:42 am

  12. I’m so disappointed because I’ve really be getting behind Best Friends after watching Dogtown. I was hoping that they were really different.

    P.S. about Milan’s it factor. He looks like a guy I dated when I lived in Austin. It’s his hands (watch them) and his smile; i’m telling ya. Austin-dude was a mistake though, just sayin’…

    Comment by Lori — February 4, 2009 @ 6:37 am

  13. Emily, I did read Ms. Houlahan’s entire blog posting before I commented here. That’s just doing one’s homework. Bottom line, as I see it, is that Best Friends got taken in by a scum bag. Period.

    Comment by Susan — February 4, 2009 @ 8:09 am

  14. Yes, but it seems to me that they were asking to be taken in. They are supposed to be a sanctuary for last resort. They are on acres and acres of land. Why did a)they not have the room? b)take them in if they didn’t have the room or a back up other than offering random people the dogs for some money? This type of corruption is occurring in the foster care system. Offer people money to take care of something and there are people who will take advantage of it.

    Comment by Lori — February 4, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  15. *the human foster care system

    Comment by Lori — February 4, 2009 @ 8:14 am

  16. James, the “training techniques wedge” came long before the “tragedy.”

    Much as I enjoy the role of perpetual Cassandra, it gets even more scrumptious when people claim afterwards that I never said so. In print.

    BF made it very clear that they were trolling for “trainers” who would tell them what they wanted to hear, and use the “right words,” and that there would be no actual oversight once dogs and dowry arrived. They just wanted the inconvenient pit bulls gone.

    I still don’t know how this story broke. There isn’t a word about it on BF website. The only reference to Don Chambers I could find on a site search was a comment in their forums from October 2007 — the commenter was concerned that Don sold puppies bred by someone else on his website. Someone named “Ed” — a Best Friends employee — responded with some New Age spin about “relationships” when explaining that they were going to continue theirs with Mr. Chambers.

    That’s it. Yet the news article quotes a BF spokesman as stating that Mr. Chambers had a “following” on their website. I guess they keep a pretty tight leash (or is that constant schedule of reinforcement?) on their forums. Winston Smith has been busy at work on the website.

    I’m going to contact the reporter, and if necessary the relevant law enforcement, and find out how Mr. Chambers’ treatment of these animals was discovered.

    Anyway, BF has a judgment for all their expenses, including costs of sending staff to Ohio for court. Depending on how much equity Mr. Chambers has in his real estate and other capital, BF comes away with no financial loss, an apparently “contained” PR situation, and 28 fewer pit bulls that they didn’t want to deal with in the first place.

    Had I any burning desire to amass a kennel full of homeless pit bulls for profit — which I do not — I could have told an easy lie and apparently gotten as many as I asked for. Any speculation that I’m pouting because mean ol’ BF wouldn’t let me have any of this primo dogflesh is a reflection on the fantasies of the speculator.

    BF never asked for references, a CV, video of me training — all things I had to produce (among other things) just for membership in one professional society. The question was never “Are you effective?”

    Comment by H. Houlahan — February 4, 2009 @ 8:36 am

  17. Re: Lancaster MSN for Pits and Rotts and anything that remotely looks like one:

    At the same time as the MSN ordinance, the City Council of Lancaster passed a comprehensive dangerous dog ordinance that would address the issue of dangerous or vicious dogs regardless of breed (or owner’s gang affiliation). Advice and suggestions were taken during several meetings with concerned dog owners and the ordinance, while not perfect, is not bad. If the goal was actually to stop gang members, irresponsible owners or anyone else from harassing people with their dogs, this ordinance gave them the tools.

    I get the feeling that as a personal injury attorney who handles dog bites, the Mayor is using this to fulfill a promise to a victim or victim’s family to essentially ban certain breeds of dogs by making them too difficult and too expensive to own (rumor has it that German Shepherds and Akitas are next).

    Comment by Dutch — February 4, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  18. “I’m so disappointed because I’ve really be getting behind Best Friends after watching Dogtown. I was hoping that they were really different…”
    Comment by Lori — February 4, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    Lori, I just wanted to say that while I am still not a fan of the politics of “no kill,” I do think that Best Friends does a lot of good things for animals, and I also have been impressed with much of what I’ve seen on the Dogtown program.

    I just think that as tragic as this situation is, it’s all pretty much a result of those politics — they (BF) are in a position of having put themselves on such a high pedestal, they have to keep themselves up there any way they can or risk losing all the donations they have come to depend on to keep doing the good things they are able to do.

    They were in a “Catch 22” situation as far as this situation was concerned; they knew there was no way they could manage those Katrina dogs, but they had to make it look like the dogs ended up “living happily ever after,” or risk the wrath of their donors. And when it all boils down to it, most of these people are not “dog people,” they are pet-lovers who are just trying to accomplish a goal of saving lives any way they can.

    As for the donors — well, I think they are, in a way, just as much to blame for this kind of thing. Most of them want to believe the animals all live happily ever after, and don’t want to know otherwise.

    Some people are content to have the wool pulled over their eyes; others choose to hold it there firmly with their own two hands.

    Comment by stellaluna — February 4, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  19. Thanks, stellaluna. I see what you are saying. I’ve raised an eyebrow at a few things on Dogtown. Don’t know if you saw the episode with Bruno the Chow? But I’d hate to find out that the whole thing was just another front…especially since I have a bit of a girlcrush on Michelle Besmehn

    Comment by Lori — February 4, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  20. ‘BF made it very clear that they were trolling for “trainers” who would tell them what they wanted to hear, and use the “right words,” and that there would be no actual oversight once dogs and dowry arrived. They just wanted the inconvenient pit bulls gone.’

    Comment by H. Houlahan — February 4, 2009 @ 8:36 am

    I really do think a lot of it has to do with there being so many inexperienced dog people working at Best Friends.

    I see a lot of that, working in animal welfare — so many people get into it with the best of intentions. They want to save lives, but they don’t understand what they are dealing with so much of the time. They don’t know how to “fix” problem dogs in so many instances, and don’t understand that you can’t use the same techniques on all animals.

    But they do know how to use telephones and how to ask for donations and how to make arrangements to move animals from point A to point B, so they do that and hope for the best. It’s very aggravating watching it happen and not being able to do much about it.

    When I first started working in this shelter, I was amazed at how many things went on that were just the result of ignorance — nice people trying to do a job without knowing what they were working with. I would see the same dogs adopted out, brought back, adopted out and brought back several times, with the staff not having a clue WHY the animal was not working out in the homes.

    I started telling them that when you see, for instance, a German Shorthaired Pointer come in as a stray and not be reclaimed, you are probably looking at a fence jumper, and you had better be very careful who adopts that dog, that they are able to deal with that possibility. Otherwise, they take the dog home, it jumps the fence and a) gets hit by a car, b) runs away, or c) is brought back to the shelter — sometimes all three. That doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, but when you are dealing with people who think all dogs should be happy lying on the sofa watching TV, you are dealing with a whole different set of expectations and understandings. And that seems to be what many, if not most, of the people who get involved with working with animals on this level are — just inexperienced people who are trying to do a good thing by helping save animals’ lives.

    The thing is, some of them want to learn more and do more to help on a practical level, and some just want the warm-and-fuzzy feeling that comes with saving lives, and can’t be bothered to learn more about what they are doing. So they pass the buck and let someone else do the job, while still adding those animals to their own intake figures for the year.

    Sorry, I guess I’m in a more cynical mood than usual today… I’m really not disagreeing with you, H. Sometimes I’m just trying to make some sense of what seems to be a completely nonsensical situation.

    Comment by stellaluna — February 4, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

  21. “Don’t know if you saw the episode with Bruno the Chow?”

    Oh my goodness, I couldn’t believe that one! That poor dog did not have one shred of dignity left. And the funeral they had for him… oh my. I was trying to envision them having funerals like that for every animal that died there. Where would they have time to get any work done?

    I’m one of those heretics who believes that there are FAR worse things that can happen to an animal than to be humanely euthanized (I’ve seen some of the alternatives out there, unfortunately), and this was a case where they should have let the poor old guy go long before they did. Once there is no quality of life left for an animal and it is being kept alive just because the humans can’t deal with the thought of death, it has passed into an inhumane situation, imho.

    Comment by stellaluna — February 4, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  22. Very interesting story and a number of very interesting replies here. Though for the life of me I can’t understand how someone can call himself or herself a “trainer” if they are not pro-animal 100%.

    Comment by Leo — February 6, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

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