FORT ATKINSON (WKOW) -- Within a span of about five weeks, two dogs died at the Herman's Hangout training and boarding center. The dogs' owners said Monday they want criminal charges against the facility's owner, who said she believes she did nothing wrong.
In early August, Chase Peterson said his family dropped off one-year-old Marley at Herman's Hangout for additional training while they went on vacation. Peterson said he received text messages notifying him the dog was misbehaving, then got a call that the dog had died.
Peterson said it was his understanding Marley had accidentally strangled himself.
"I don't know how a one-year-old puppy gets put in a position to hang himself," Peterson said, seated next to his two young daughters, Brinley and Avery. "Being our kids' very first dog, that was really hard to take."
The owner of the training center, Tammy Olson, said Monday she did not want to discuss details of the dogs' deaths because they were the subject of an active investigation. Olson described both deaths as freak accidents and said she believed the families were wrongly blaming her use of 'choke chains' for the incidents.
"Because I utilize and I promote the choke chain, I believe that's why we're here," Olson said. "With the choke chain, that little clicking tells the dog they're running out of their boundary."
The Humane Society of the United States recommends against the use of aversive collars, such as choke chains. It cites the potential for strangulation because there's no way to control how much the chain tightens.
"More humane collars and good obedience training should make it unnecessary to resort to this aversive collar," the page reads.
Olson said she had operated her business for nearly seven years, using choke collars, without any such serious incidents.
"The truth of the matter is I honest-to-goodness have no idea why Marley's situation ended the way it did," Olson said.
The next dog dies
Olson said after Marley's death, she was not sure whether to keep the business open. She said close friends in the veterinary world convinced her she was a responsible caretaker. Her next client was Lindsey Davidson's eight-month-old Husky mix, Cooper.
"Cooper was supposed to help me get my confidence back," Olson said.
Both Olson and Davidson told matching stories about what initially happened with Cooper: the puppy made it through four weeks of the five-week training program. After the fourth week, Cooper was supposed to go home for a weekend visit but Olson recommended against it because the dog was still having issues where he made too much noise when he got excited.
Davidson said it was during that weekend Olson called to let her know something terrible had happened.
"She told me she was training Cooper with a choke collar, taking him from one place block to another place block and she put too much pressure on him and she messed up," Davidson said. "She admitted to me on the phone that she messed up and said it several times to me."
Olson denied admitting to any kind of wrong-doing with Cooper. She said she was working with the puppy when she noticed one of his hind legs giving out. When she took him off the block, Olson said the dog's entire body went limp.
"He went from looking at me directly, ready to do the next task, to not," Olson said. "In a matter of seconds."
Davidson sought a necropsy, which Peterson said he regrets not doing with Marley. The report from the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at UW-Madison, dated September 25, found Cooper's death was 'consistent with strangulation.'
"Tammy Olson killed my dog," Davidson said. "She strangled him to death."
The report noted 'redness encircling most of the neck;' a photograph provided by Davidson's attorney, Dan Jardine, shows red ligature marks around the dog's shaved neck.
"The necropsy report is kind of speculation at this point, in my personal opinion," Olson said. "I'd just rather wait for law enforcement to decide which direction they're going to go."
Disconnect Within the Investigation
Fort Atkinson police told 27 News they completed their investigation into both deaths and turned over their findings to Jefferson County District Attorney Monica Hall.
Receptionists at the D.A.'s office said both last week and again on Monday their office did not have a file on the Herman's Hangout deaths. However, both Peterson and Davidson said the D.A.'s office told them they had received the case.
"All we've been told is it's a case in progress," Peterson said. "It could take six to eight months."
Both families have retained Jardine. Peterson and Davidson said, in both of their cases, Hall's office stopped communicating with them once they shared they had hired an attorney.
Jardine said Monday that would be a normal action for a D.A.'s office but added he was puzzled by Hall's office not responding to his messages seeking an update on the case.
In the meantime, Olson said she has taken on new clients. She said she feels terrible about the dogs' deaths but said they were 'freak accidents' and not the result of negligence or abuse.
"I know how important my dogs are to me and, obviously, the very last thing I want to do is call someone who has trusted me with their dog and give them this kind of news," she said.
Both families said they were waiting to see whether criminal charges come from the investigation. Beyond that, Jardine said the families would seek a settlement that covers their losses, including the money they paid Olson for training and boarding.
"It's just jaw-dropping that supposedly it was a freak accident," Peterson said. "But it happens twice in four weeks?"