Carolina Bruchilari wants her dog back.
The Palo Alto resident thought her beloved German shepherd, Scott, would only be gone for two weeks when she entrusted him to a trainer in mid-December to help him get over a few nervous habits he exhibited after emigrating from Brazil.
But instead of getting back a well-behaved Scott, Bruchilari says the trainer brought a totally different German shepherd — wearing Scott's Apple tag tracking collar.
An honest mistake? Bruchilari doesn't think so. In fact, she now claims the trainer "stole" her 7-year-old purebred, and she's worried she'll never see Scott again. Police departments in two California counties have gotten involved.
The situation had seemed promising at the start. Bruchilari and her family had brought Scott to Palo Alto from Brazil, where they previously lived, six months ago. But Scott exhibited signs of anxiety, and he pulled on his lead. So Bruchilari searched Thumbtack, an online home services app that lists professionals, for a suitable dog trainer. The one she chose had many good reviews, a 4.9 rating and was "verified" on the website, she said.
She and her husband interviewed and liked the trainer and felt she would be a good match for Scott. The trainer departed with Scott from Bruchilari's home on Dec. 18, saying she would bring him back on Jan. 2. The trainer sent updates on Scott's progress along with photographs. But on Jan. 2, the trainer called to say she had a family emergency and would bring the dog back on Jan. 4 instead.
When it came time for Scott's return, the trainer came with an imposter, Bruchilari said. Scott has rich, tan fur with some black and a somewhat comical expression. The faux Scott was mostly black and had a leaner body profile. Bruchilari was out of the country at the time.
"My two sons, ages 17 and 20, were in my house, and they called me and discussed the situation. I spoke to (the trainer) on the phone. I told her that wasn't our dog because of the photo my son had sent me … I wanted to know what was happening," she said.
The trainer — who is not being named in this article because she has not been charged with any crime — came to the house when Bruchilari returned home and promised to bring Scott in two days. As the trainer left with the dog who was not Scott, Bruchilari said, she allegedly removed the tracking collar from the faux Scott's neck and threw it in Bruchilari's yard.
Scott hasn't come back, and the mystery of what happened to him has only deepened.
Bruchilari contacted the Palo Alto police, who called the trainer. The officer learned that Scott had been left with a person in Humboldt County while the trainer was out of town.
Because of that, the trainer now is claiming no responsibility for Scott. She sent Bruchilari a text message in which she said the missing dog is a matter between Bruchilari and the third party who was dog-sitting.
What's more, the trainer said, Scott isn't ever coming back.
"There's no return to facilitate," the trainer wrote in the text message. "The dog is most definitely dead. Broke through a window screen in the middle of the night, and (the dog sitter) didn't see until the morning. It was during the big storm, he searched all over and found blood streaks and clumps of the dogs (sic) fur, as well as part of a paw/arm, so we can only imagine," the text stated.
The trainer said she had used the dog sitter before without incident.
"When I returned I was not informed of any of this and he loaded up my dogs when I went to use the restroom. He told me the details yesterday when I pressed him and told me that he panicked and is coordinating with the police," the trainer said.
The trainer hasn't given Bruchilari the third party's name nor the contact information. Police are also not providing the information since the case is under investigation, she said.
But Bruchilari is skeptical of the story.
"I think because my dog has a pedigree and is a pure German shepherd, maybe someone is trying to sell him or to use him for breeding. It costs about $5,000 for a dog with that pureness," she said.
The trainer denied in the text message to Bruchilari that she stole the dog.
In a text message to this news organization, the trainer confirmed that the dog sitter talked to the police.
"There is really nothing to tell as I wasn't there during the incident and I can't personally speak to it," she said.
Bruchilari is looking into possible legal action. She said she and her children miss the dog.
"It's like my son," she said.
Dog trainer removed from Thumbtack
Bruchilari had trusted the Thumbtack service because it had "verified" the trainer and because she had satisfactorily used the app for another situation, she said.
A spokesperson for Thumbtack said in an email that Thumbtack, which introduces customers to service providers, takes the integrity of its professionals seriously.
"We adhere to industry standards for background checks, which are processed through a nationally accredited third-party provider," the spokesperson stated. "In the rare event we receive a concerning report, we take immediate steps to address the situation.
"As soon as we were made aware of the situation, we took action against this service provider and removed her from the Thumbtack platform as a result of their violation of our terms of service," she said. "We are working with the local authorities to help them with their investigation."
The company didn't respond to a follow-up question about which violations the trainer allegedly engaged in.
Thumbtack can require professionals who use the service to participate in mediation, arbitration, or other resolution processes with customers; charge the professional's credit card to compensate the company or a customer for funds owed, damages or other payments; begin court, insurance or collection proceedings; or permanently cancel the professional's account, according to the company website.
Are dog trainers certified?
Dog trainers aren't required by states or the federal government to be certified or have a professional license, according to the Animal Humane Society. Some organizations do certify trainers, however, such as the The Association of Professional Dog Trainers and The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.
The Certification Council requires 300 hours of dog-training experience and passing an exam "to demonstrate mastery of humane, science-based dog-training practices," the organization said on its website. Trainers and behavior consultants must be periodically recertified.
The organization's certified dog trainer directory includes local and Bay Area sources. Its website also offers tips for choosing a dog trainer, including avoiding a trainer who focuses on a dominance-and-submission model or primarily punishment-based methods, the website noted.
Palo Alto police Lt. Brian Philip said the department is investigating the alleged dognapping.
"I can say that this is not a common occurrence," he said.