Puppy Death at PetCo – Who is Training the Puppy Trainers?

by Mary Haight on June 13, 2013

puppy death at PetcoA February puppy death at Petco on Long Island during a training session was in the news and I was shocked all over again. The update centered around policy — the dog’s family want Petco to change their training policies, providing more than the current 16 weeks of education, adding CPR training.

Petco has not made any changes to policy according to the CBS television report, though there is no trainer currently available at this store. I wondered how many people had heard about this, the circumstances surrounding the incident and what effect this might have on people’s process of choosing a trainer. Here’s what happened:

A six-month-old bulldog puppy, Sophia Belle, was in the ring with a Petco trainer who, according to the owner, pulled back hard enough on the leash to lift the puppy’s two front feet off the floor “and choking her,” pet parent Michael DiMaggio said. There was no mention of a choke chain, but what happened next, according to a vet quoted in the article, was Sophia Belle’s trachea collapsed and she died. What a nightmare for any pet parent to witness.

In an attempt to know what they don’t know, people need to wrap their heads around a significant number of choices — which vet, what food, where’s a good groomer that won’t hurt my dog, what does “good trainer” mean, how can I spot them?

While knowing how to make all these choices is second nature to many experienced with dogs, the important conformation and health particulars of a breed can be left undiscovered by the less experienced pet parent and insufficiently trained “trainer”. It is not up to the pet parent to know everything. It is incumbent on those offering their services as professional trainers to actually be a professional with expertise. Expertise is gathered over time.

Petco offered another dog and payment for the vet bill, but that is not all they can do. Petco can change their training time policy and have trainers certified in CPR as the pet parents requested, even take it a step further. Petco noted that their training is reward based. Perhaps forming a contractual relationship with a body of professionals such as the Association of Pet Dog Trainers for education might be part of a smart solution. Petco employees could have hands-on training and refresher courses throughout the year from a certified dog trainer employing humane methods, proper handling and equipment use.

We don’t know who is teaching what to whom in those 16 weeks and information on that point has not been forthcoming — does anyone fail or does everyone who attends classes get the title of “trainer”? Regardless of how many thousands have made it through their classes with no incident, any puppy death at Petco is one too many. Petco reported they had outside experts look at the video and nothing inappropriate occurred. The description given by the pet parents would not lead to that assessment.

What I do know is this: Lifting a puppy up by the leash so paws come off the ground is not training — no matter how many times you’ve seen it on TV.


*Update: From Eric Goebelbecker’s FB page, trainer Leah Roberts offers this link to the Pet Professional Guild, an association of force-free trainers.

(Photo:public domain bulldog example)



Wow - freak accident or not, what a tragedy!  I can't even imagine seeing my pup die before my eyes.  I am one of those people that freaks out as soon as my dog starts getting a little piece of food stuck in her throat.  I see visions of me initiating doggy cpr and wailing at passersby to "do something!"  I throw away bones as soon as they get even close to too small - all the while, my husband is rolling his eyes and I know what he's thinking...that I'm overprotective or maybe becoming a crazy dog lady.  But I don't care.  All I know is that I never want to be left feeling like I did something that caused pain to my helpless little four legged friend.   I think your readers have posted some very thoughtful comments and I doubt there's much more I could add but I gotta be honest, I don't think I'd trust PetCo with my dog.  In fact, I'm not sure I'd trust anyone with my dog.  I think that's why I prefer the training places who allow you full control of the situation.  That way, if something happens, it's (sadly) YOUR fault.  My dog and I are taking a training class now and the instructor is  very hands off.  He only takes the leash so that I can get ready for the next trick.  Training is all about building trust between the dog and handler/owner.  No one should get in the way of that.  But anyway, I digress.  Thanks for initiating the discussion...very interesting.

MaryEHaight moderator

 @debordel0809 Thanks for rounding off the conversation here - I have the same issue with trust and think it's much better to train the pet parent first, then have the pet parent train the dog through proper instruction. Thanks for stopping by!


You have to be careful with baby dogs, (or any dog) and who you choose to help train them. This is a horrible story. In a puppy class, it should never happen that a dog is yanked like that, it should be about  repeating the task and praise. I'm not a trainer, but have been in classes with good ones, and also with people who think just they are good. I'd never let anyone abuse the animal in the name of training. Nobody in their right mind trains a dog by choking and lifting their front paws off the ground. I'm so very sorry for this puppy. 


Like @LorieHuston , I would like more facts but on the surface, I'm appalled by many parts of this story. I'm appalled that anyone would pull hard enough on any dog's leash (puppy or adult) to raise them off their front feet. I am appalled that the pet parents were offered another dog, as if... a dog is a product, a thing, a possession and replacing one with another is the 'solution.'


What I'm saying is that this 'solution' demeans the life of the puppy that died. It demeans the pet family's grief. It demeans the treasure we hold true in the life of our pets. Perhaps it's a small attempt to make amends, but... the solution is to change training tactics, and find another way to give the pet family closure.


The value of our pets' lives is more than the value you give a lamp. Break a lamp, and you replace it. Accidently cause the death of a pet, and you do much, much more than 'replace' it. At some point, a puppy in honor of the one lost is a consideration, but before that... serious change needs to happen.

Eric Goebelbecker
Eric Goebelbecker

Wow. To echo Lorie, I don't how pulling/jerking a leash hard enough to collapse a trachea qualifies as reward-based. Honestly, I don't know how jerking a leash at all qualifies as training, but I digress.


16 weeks is about long enough to learn enough to be dangerous. Unfortunately this problem isn't unique to Petco. Another, ahem, large chain forced all of their trainers to either go exclusive to teaching with them or quit, which made a lot of their experienced trainers leave the company.


I can't speak for the APDT, but they don't certify trainers. They do provide plenty of education though. 


Certification is a big issue right now in the training industry. In my opinion one of the biggest problems is the large number of trainers that are too busy arguing tools and methods to allow any sort of standardization to emerge. (Many trainers still want to argue, and even ridicule, basic science, which is hard to believe until you hear Presidential candidates do the same thing.)


As a result the most common certification only requires that one pass a multiple choice test!


Before you sign up for a class, go observe one and make sure you feel comfortable with it. If the trainer won't let you, find another.




What this sounds like is a freak accident kind of thing. Bulldogs have pretty thick necks so either the dog was already predisposed to this problem or the trainer pulled really, really, really hard. Besides all that, pulling on a 4 month old puppy's neck so hard that the front paws lift off the ground doesn't sound like an effective training technique to me.


Wow! I'm not sure how pulling so hard on a puppy's leash that it raises her front legs off the ground and causes tracheal collapse can possibly qualify as positive reward-based training. I'm not sure whether this applies to all Petco locations or all Petco trainers but it seems to me that this partcular trainer needs some additional training in dog training techniques. I realize accidents happen and are sometimes unavoidable. In those circumstances, CPR training is useful. But CPR should really not be necessary as a result of any basic obedience training.

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