Monday, July 23, 2018
News Roundup

Hernando commissioner battles service dog organization over custody of aging companion

SPRING HILL

When the thunderstorm arrived a couple of weeks ago, Diane Rowden slipped Livy, an 11-year-old black standard poodle, into her ThunderShirt, a form-fitting garment designed for frightened dogs. Its gentle, constant pressure calms the dog.

Rowden doesn't mind the extra task, nor does she mind doing her own poodle-grooming so Livy doesn't have to stand at the groomer's for hours, which cripples her because of her arthritis.

Livy is part of Rowden's family, along with her standard white poodle, Keribo, Livy's constant companion; her rat terrier, Boss; and her husband, Jay.

But soon the family will be ripped apart, and Rowden, best known as a strong-willed Hernando County commissioner, cannot hold back tears when she talks about Livy being taken from the home, where Rowden says the dog was meant to live out her retirement years.

Livy was a service dog, and Rowden befriended her owner, Bruce Hicks, several years ago.

Now Canine Partners for Life, the organization that placed Livy with Hicks in 2007, has sued his estate and demanded that Livy be returned to the organization in Pennsylvania, even though Hicks left Livy to Rowden in his will and even though a Canine Partners representative told him that he could.

As a commissioner, Rowden is often out at public events, and she had seen Hicks around. She first approached him because he had a poodle as she did.

A wheelchair-bound paraplegic for more than 37 years, Hicks needed Livy to do basic chores, such as picking things up, turning on lights and being a constant companion. Rowden recalls Hicks telling her how Livy gave him a reason to live when he had none.

In July 2013, Hicks broke his leg and asked Rowden to take Livy into her home. She did, bringing the dog to see Hicks in the hospital. She took the dog to medical facilities — and finally to hospice — multiple times as Hicks grew sicker.

Hicks voiced concerns that Canine Partners would try to take Livy because he had seen the organization try to reclaim other dogs. On one of Rowden's visits, Hicks asked her if she would take Livy if something happened to him, and she agreed.

"I made a promise to this man on his deathbed that I would take care of his girl,'' Rowden said. "He didn't think of her as a dog. She was his child, his companion, who was full of unconditional love for him.''

Near the end, Canine Partners officials were working to catch up on required paperwork with Hicks, sending him a pointed email to remind him to keep current. Hicks wrote back that he was sorry he was late, but he was in hospice and was dying.

On Oct. 8, 2013, program director Megan Esherick responded.

"I'm sorry to hear that you have entered hospice. This was not something that we had any way of knowing. How is Livy doing? Do you have assistance with her care?'' she asked.

"I'm not sure that we have updated information in your file regarding your wishes for Livy in the event of your death. If there is someone you would like her to be placed with, please provide us with their name and contact information.

"If you would prefer, Livy can always return to CPL and we will find her a good home.''

Several hours later, Hicks sent Rowden's name and contact information to Canine Partners.

Livy was with Hicks the day before he died.

"I put her up in the chair beside him,'' Rowden said. "He said, 'I love you baby, and I'll miss you.' ''

The day after Hicks died, Rowden took Livy back to his house.

"When Livy came into the house, she jumped on Bruce's bed and started crying. She knew her dad was gone,'' Rowden recalled. "This was so sad."

• • •

After Hicks' death in November 2013, Canine Partners demanded that the estate turn Livy back over to the organization. When that didn't happen, the organization filed suit against Hicks' cousin, Cheryl Jersey-Lecourt, executor of the estate, and Rowden.

Darlene Sullivan, executive director of Canine Partners, would not talk directly about Livy's case. She said she would not break the confidentiality agreement made with clients. She did say the agreement signed by those receiving dog service is clear: Upon their deaths, Canine Partners decides where the dogs should go. As for leaving the dogs to someone in a will, "they're not permitted to do that,'' Sullivan said.

Since it was founded in 1989, Canine Partners for Life has placed more than 600 service dogs with disabled people. Each dog is trained to help the person with individual needs, according to the complaint filed against Hicks' estate. The complaint states that it costs $29,000 per dog for training and followup.

Hicks signed an agreement to take Livy on Nov. 3, 2007.

The agreement states that "the Service Dog shall be returned to CPL promptly following the death of recipient, unless otherwise agreed in writing at that time by CPL."

The complaint notes that "the return of a dog following the death of an owner is requested because such a service dog has continuing value to Canine Partners to be used in training and related purposes.''

The complaint states that Rowden "has unlawfully taken possession of Livy without right, consent, or authorization and has continued to do so despite repeated demands by Canine Partners for the return of Livy.''

Rowden has agreed to turn Livy over to settle the lawsuit, but she wants Canine Partners to reconsider.

Sullivan said Canine Partners will evaluate Livy and determine her future. But when asked whether there was some chance Livy could return to live with the Rowdens, she said she could see no reason why the organization would return the dog to Rowden.

Social media regarding Livy and Rowden's situation have prompted emails to Canine Partners, urging reconsideration.

"Please tell them to have a heart. Let Livy live with her 'furever' home in Florida. She is loved. She is happy. And she has a family. Help us make her last years happy ones,'' is the plea on the Save Livy website at savelivy.weebly.com.

Joanne Schoch, former director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, wrote to Canine Partners, saying that removing Livy from Rowden's home was not in the dog's best interest. She urged: "Stop the heartless confiscation of Livy.''

Rowden said the thought of giving Livy to someone who doesn't understand her special needs is heartbreaking. Sending an 11-year-old dog with an anxiety disorder, arthritis and the start of cataracts to strangers is not a compassionate act, she said.

"She doesn't deserve this,'' Rowden said. "She's a wonderful dog, and she deserves the best.''

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Published: 07/23/18