When Paul Marinsky had his ears cleaned with his dog Tootsie last fall, he couldn’t have imagined that he would see her the last time. But when he got back the vet told him a Maryland company representative had shown up to take the dog and he had to let her go.
Tootsie was a service dog for Paul’s wife, Brittani, and had been with her family for about a year and a half. He told the News4 I-Team Brittani was the love of his life and losing her to cancer last August was hard enough.
“I miss her terribly. It’s just hard not to have her here, ”Paul said.
In those darkest days, he says, he found solace in the shaggy, spunky lard, and Tootsie mourned too.
“That was her mom and she lost her, and dogs already know,” said Paul.
The Kansas City couple got Tootsie through a Maryland company called Starfleet Service Dogs Incorporated. Paul says Brittani worked as her caregiver for months, training her to turn lights on and off, open and close doors, pick things up from the floor, and monitor Brittani’s cortisol levels, markers of her chronic illness.
“She just loved that dog and Tootsie loved her and I think about it and it just hits me,” Paul said.
Photos: Man fights for custody of the deceased woman’s service dog
He says when Brittani got terminal cancer last summer, he promised her that he would continue to take care of Tootsie after she was gone. But about a week and a half after losing his wife, he said Starfleet started texting about the dog’s repossession.
“Obviously, I was upset after just getting this message and asking its CEO, ‘What do I have to do to keep Tootsie?'” Paul said, adding that he offered the company $ 6,000 to pay.
The couple had already paid for all of Tootsie’s daily grooming, plus $ 141 a month to Starfleet for a veterinary wellness plan.
Paul says CEO, Jennifer Barnhard, wrote condolences but added that she “can’t make promises” and that Tootsie “should be a service dog”.
He told her that he was hiring a lawyer.
Six weeks later, Paul says Tootsie helped him start healing when he took her to the vet to have her ears cleaned.
“And the vet met me and pulled me into an adjoining room and said someone from Starfleet was here to pick you up,” Paul said.
The wellness plan the couple paid Starfleet for meant Starfleet’s name was on the account, so the vet had to hand Tootsie over.
“It’s like giving away a child. It’s very traumatic,” said Sean Day, Paul’s lawyer in Maryland.
Day admits that it was Starfleet that Tootsie originally bought for $ 800 through an online ad, but says the dog completed the training program with Brittani, which she trained for 18 months.
“They completed all of this while Tootsie was in their care. It’s not like they have a dog that has already been trained for anything,” Day told the I-Team, adding that Tootsie doesn’t even have the basic commands knew when the Marinskys got you.
He says this is important because, according to the company’s literature, there are two types of dogs: academy-trained dogs that live with a Starfleet trainer during their training, and owner-trained dogs that are used during training with the client and living the “client” owns his dog. “
A Montgomery County District Court judge will decide who Tootsie is. In April, he held a virtual hearing to determine who should have custody while awaiting trial.
“The contract should be better written in my opinion. There is probably some ambiguity,” said Judge John Moffett during the hearing.
The judge listened as the company’s attorney Tara Keller argued that Tootsie was an “academy trained” dog who, according to a court record, was “forever in the possession of Starfleet.”
Keller also cited several pages of Brittani’s social media posts about Tootsie that had the hashtag “Academy Dog” in them.
“Each of these sites shows that they recognize that they have an academy dog,” Keller told the judge during the hearing.
But Day said Brittani always thought Tootsie was her dog and dismissed the judge on a provision in the contract that Starfleet “is ready to take responsibility for graduate service dogs” in the event of a graduate’s death.
This prompted Moffett to ask, “If this dog is always owned by Starfleet, why the paragraph that they are ready to take the dog back?”
“Your Honor, this wording comes from Assistance Dogs International and is required by my client,” Keller told the court.
Assistance Dogs Internationally accredits and sets standards for service dog organizations. Executive Director Chris Diefenthaler says Starfleet is not a member.
“We had some correspondence, inquiries about our organization, but they didn’t fill out an application,” Diefenthaler told the I-Team.
Diefenthaler said the service dog industry has not established guidelines for dealing with such situations, but believes these are rare and underscores the importance of a clearly detailed contract.
“It is up to them to put these standards in a guideline with their language,” said Diefenthaler, adding that ADI does not provide the wording for contracts.
The Starfleet attorney declined the I-Team’s request for an interview or answer any questions about the case.
In court, the company didn’t say where Tootsie now lives. The judge ruled Starfleet could keep Tootsie pending trial.
“I can’t just go away and leave things as they are without trying to do what’s right for me, my late wife, and Tootsie,” Paul said.
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, directed by Steve Jones and edited by Jeff Piper.
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