An Ontario woman is blaming the death of her daughter with mental illness on an American man who she says failed to provide a trained service dog, leaving her 19-year-old devastated. He is now the subject of an investigation involving at least 41 families.

Nancy Evans’s daughter Katie died by suicide on Jan. 2, just a few weeks after they were forced to give their dog Bailey to a rescue organization because it wasn’t properly trained to be a service animal.

The dog was a soft-haired Briard, a French shepherding breed, which Evans purchased for US$14,500 in April from a company registered as a non-profit organization called Ry-Con Service Dogs located in Raleigh, N.C.

The family had difficulty finding an affordable service dog trainer in Canada and Evans said they had no choice but to look for a company in the U.S.

The business the Evans found was owned and operated by Mark Mathis, who claimed on the company’s website to be a “N.C. state-approved certified service dog trainer with a specialty in autism.”

Dozens of families, primarily in the U.S., have complained of receiving untrained dogs with aggressive personalities from Ry-Con.

When some of the families tried to return the dogs to the trainer, they said they weren’t refunded and Mathis accused them of mistreating the animals and lying.

A spokesperson for North Carolina’s Attorney General’s Office confirmed to that it is investigating Ry-Con. The department said it’s currently reviewing 41 complaints from residents in the state who have contacted their office.

The investigation was launched soon after Mathis abruptly closed his service dog training facility in November.

Allegations of improper training

According to multiple families who spoke to, Mathis sent a mass email to his clients in early November to tell them he was shutting down the company. He also said they would have to pick up their dogs from his kennel by the end of the month if they didn’t already have them.

This is why Evans said she and her daughter rushed to North Carolina in mid-November to collect Bailey and bring her home, even though it was apparent the dog had not been fully trained.

“Oh my gosh. It was just terrible,” she told during a telephone interview from her home in Mississauga, Ont. “She knew no service dog tasks whatsoever.”

Katie Evans received a service dog from Ry-Con in November 2018. (Source: Nancy Evans)

The Evans weren’t the only ones who came to this unfortunate discovery when they brought their dog home.

Rachel Cummings and Shannon Poirier said both of their families have launched lawsuits against Ry-Con over the training of the service dogs they bought.

Cummings said the first night they brought home their dog from Ry-Con in May 2018, it immediately attacked their two other older dogs who were lying in the hallway and traumatized their daughter who has autism.

The family returned the dog to Mathis three days later, but they never received a refund from him. They filed a lawsuit against Ry-Con in October 2018.

Rachel Cummings said her daughter Sobie fell into a deep depression after they had to return the dog. (Source: Rachel Cummings)

Poirier had a similar story to share. She said the dog they purchased from Ry-Con bit their young son who has autism in the leg in November 2017. Following repeated attempts to obtain a refund after they returned the dog, the family sued the business in a small claims court in August 2018.

The court ruled in Poiriers’ favour ordering Mathis to pay them 70 per cent of the damages they were seeking. However, thanks to an appeal, the case is still pending.

In November, Mathis closed his dog training business and filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. There are more than 70 families listed on his bankruptcy claim, according to Cummings.

Mathis said he had “no comment at this time” when contacted by about the families’ accusations against him.

More than just ‘a cute pet’

For Katie and the other children with disorders who were impacted by Ry-Con, the service dogs they were supposed to receive were going to be more than just a cuddly pet to keep them company.

Evans said her daughter spent most of her short life struggling in school and socializing with other children. Katie was diagnosed with ADHD and a learning disorder when she was six years old. When she was 11 years old, Evans said Katie was physically assaulted and injured by her male Grade Six teacher.

Following the incident, Evans said her teenaged daughter developed extreme anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and a debilitating fear of male figures of authority.

When she was 16-years-old, Evans said Katie came up with the idea that she needed a service dog. The family hoped that a dog would help the socially awkward teenager make friends, feel safe going out on her own, relieve her anxiety, and increase her confidence.

“This dog was going to be an icebreaker for her. She would take the dog with her everywhere and the dog would make people come up to her because the dog was so beautiful and want to talk to her,” Evans explained.

After they finally found the dog Bailey, Evans said her daughter obsessed about it for more than nine months.

“She just lived for talking about Bailey, for getting pictures about Bailey from the company, updates about Bailey. For my daughter, everything in her life was going to change and going to be better as soon as Bailey was her service dog,” she said.

When the family finally brought Bailey home in November, it was terrified of Evans’ 24-year-old son who also lived in the apartment. The dog barked, growled and lunged at the young man who was unable to even leave his room. Bailey also wasn’t housebroken and couldn’t be around other dogs or people in public.

The family eventually gave the poorly trained dog to a rescue organization in Florida in December so it could be rehabilitated. Evans said she bought her daughter a hamster and made an initial payment on another prospective service dog for Katie that would take 18 months to train.

"I really believe if we had gotten what we paid for and what we were promised by Mark Mathis at Ry-Con, my daughter would still be alive today," Evans said.

A fundraiser has been organized for Katie Evans’s funeral.

Dozens of complaints

Rachel Cummings, who launched a lawsuit against Ry-Con Service Dogs in October, said her now 11-year-old daughter, was devastated when they had to return their aggressive dog to Mathis three days after they brought it to their home in Waxhaw, N.C. last spring.

Cummings said her daughter Sobie, who was 10 years old when they had the dog, fell into a deep depression after they gave the animal back to Ry-Con.

“She went into a very deep depression, and tons of anxiety, and actually developed PTSD as a result,” she said.

Since then, Cummings said her once happy, active child has become reclusive and won’t leave her bedroom.

“She lost the light in her. She became very, very angry, and all hope was gone,” Cummings explained.

Jerry Morris, from Shelby, N.C., can also relate. He said he feels more sad than angry after he paid nearly US$9,000 for a service dog for his nonverbal nine-year-old son who has a rare condition called Moyamoya, which caused him to be severely delayed.

Morris said he had a verbal agreement with Mathis that would allow him to pay the second half of the cost of the dog a year after he made the first payment in July 2017.

Months later, he said Mathis started demanding monthly payments for the dog’s training. When Morris couldn’t keep up with them, he said Mathis sold the dog to another family and refused to refund his money.

“I was beside myself with how I could have let this happen,” he said.

Rebecca Peluso, who is from the St. Johns area in Florida, said she sold many of her belongings, including her own bed, to be able to afford one of Ry-Con’s service dogs for her six-year-old daughter with autism.

In November, Peluso said she drove to Mathis’ kennel to pick up her dog before he closed down the business. She said the dog was “thin, dirty, and skittish” when she found it.

Rebecca Peluso's daughter Ella, 6, was too scared to be near the service dog they received from Ry-Con Service Dogs. (Source: Rebecca Peluso)

When they reached her home, Peluso said the service dog immediately chased after some neighbourhood cats and attacked her corgi. She said her daughter and her other children are scared of the dog.

“She tries to stay away from it,” Peluso said. “If she runs and plays in the backyard, the dog will nip her.”

Sounding the alarm

The families who spoke with said they were sharing their experiences with Ry-Con Service Dogs to warn others about potential scams.

Cummings said she wants Mathis to be held accountable for his actions.

“We need to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else. He has closed down - great. We need to make sure he can’t do this again and open up shop somewhere else or here again,” she said.

Peluso said she hopes their stories will lead to more oversight in the dog training industry. In North Carolina, service dog trainers don’t need to acquire any type of accreditation to operate a business.

Evans, on the other hand, said she wanted to speak out on behalf of her daughter.

“My daughter was very interested that this story be told. She wanted it out there. She wanted everyone to know about the poor special needs families and how we were scammed,” she said.

None of the allegations against Mark Mathis have been tested in court.