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'Sarge's Law' could bring new rules for dog trainers in Hillsborough, entire state

Spurred by the death of Sarge, her Shih Tzu-Pekingese mix puppy, after training in 2015, Lorie Childers of Land O’Lakes is gaining support for her “Sarge’s Law” proposal, which would regulate the dog training industry.
Spurred by the death of Sarge, her Shih Tzu-Pekingese mix puppy, after training in 2015, Lorie Childers of Land O’Lakes is gaining support for her “Sarge’s Law” proposal, which would regulate the dog training industry.
Published Mar. 3, 2017

TAMPA — She was just inside the doorway of a veterinary hospital when Lorie Childers felt Sarge's heartbeat fade as he took his last breaths.

Only minutes earlier, Sarge was a happy, healthy Shih Tzu-Pekingese mix puppy that jumped up and down as she picked him up from doggy day care.

But at day care, she and Sarge took part in lessons to teach Sarge to heel. To quell the dog's excitement, a trainer clamped his hand over the dog's mouth while grabbing the 8-pound puppy's neck with his other hand.

"His eyes glazed over and his tongue was sticking out and turned stiff and white," said Childers, 52, of Land O'Lakes. "I believe he died in my arms."

Nearly two years after Sarge's death in May 2015, Childers is pushing for new oversight of the dog training industry at the local and state levels.

At Childers' urging, Hills­borough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham last month requested that county staffers research how Hillsborough can regulate dog trainers, night groomers and boarders. A proposal is expected sometime in April, and a new ordinance could be approved in May.

Higginbotham, a Republican, is wary of adding regulations to private businesses but said he was surprised at how little oversight there is, not only in Hillsborough but in the entire country.

"I've learned through process of research when this came to my attention that there are no minimum standards or proper oversight for dog trainers," he said.

Still, Higginbotham said he was unsure if the county should create a new license for trainers and rules for operation or a system to punish bad trainers.

"It's really starting from scratch and finding what language can work on the cruelty side," Childers said. "We have to start somewhere."

Childers declined to name the trainer or the facility he worked at. Complaints to Hillsborough County's Pet Resource Center about dog trainers are rare. There were just three complaints since 2014, according to county records.

Childers has hired a team of lobbyists in Tallahassee to promote "Sarge's Law" at the state level, as well.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, plans to file legislation that would make someone liable if they are grossly negligent with the care of a domesticated animal. Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, has expressed interest in a legislative approach, as well, Childers said.

As it is, animals are treated as property by the state and even an act that leads to death can cost someone only the value of the pet, Moskowitz said.

His bill would affect not only dog trainers but anyone who cares for a domesticated animal. They would be liable for punitive damages for pain and suffering if it can be proved the caretaker demonstrated a conscious disregard for the life of the animal.

"It's not just the money," Moskowitz said. "It's a deterrent. If something else was recoverable, they might treat these loved ones with more care."

Moskowitz has pushed for similar legislation in the past, but he's optimistic that Sarge's story coupled with Childers' financial backing can get it through Tallahassee.

"Having high-powered lobbyists doesn't hurt," he said. "I'll take the ammunition."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

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