'Assistance dogs' training probe amid legislation calls

By Jenny Johnson
BBC News

Media caption,
Helyn Sims, from Pontypridd, bought a dog for her 10-year-old son, Jenson

A trainer is being investigated over claims he supplied "assistance dogs" to help children with autism, disabilities and other conditions but had not trained the animals properly.

Andre Matos ran Autism Support Dogs UK from Tredegar and then Merthyr Tydfil.

The 42-year-old, originally from Portugal, denies 11 complaints made against him.

He left the UK last July and an arrest warrant has been issued at the request of trading standards.

BBC Wales has tried to contact Mr Matos.

An assistance dog can help comfort an autistic child or adult suffering a "meltdown", provide company and reassurance, prevent a child running away, help reduce anxiety levels or assist with everyday tasks.

Demand for assistance dogs is growing and charities that provide them for free often have long waiting lists.

Experts say regulation is needed to prevent desperate families falling prey to rogue trainers.

Peter Gorbing, chairman of voluntary umbrella body Assistance Dogs UK, described the current system as "a free for all."

"There is certainly abuse of the system going on," he said.

"It's not necessarily widespread and there are some very genuine people training their own dogs to a very high standard.

"But the problem is there's no way at the moment of separating out those who have been well trained and those who haven't been trained."

In Mr Matos' case, Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen trading standards officers are investigating the complaints from clients as far afield as Scotland.

Some clients had paid as much as £5,000 for their dogs - some through fundraising - plus thousands of pounds more for travel and expenses.

Behavioural experts who assessed some of the dogs on behalf of trading standards and customers said they were not suitably trained.

'Criminal offences'

In some instances it is alleged they had shown aggressive and uncontrollable behaviour and had to be re-homed.

Mr Matos voluntarily attended an interview with trading standards officers in March 2016 in connection with fraud and consumer protection allegations.

He denied the allegations and disputed claims he had not trained the dogs to the required standard.

Steve Osborne, team manager for Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen trading standards, said: "We were investigating criminal offences and the potential for criminal proceedings was there.

"There's potential for him to come back and start trading again and we would very much like to speak to Mr Matos in this case."

Assistance dog charities are in talks with the UK government and commercial providers about the need for legislation surrounding the supply and training of dogs.

A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokeswoman said: "The DWP is working with the assistance dog sector to help them review standards and supply issues, with the aim of creating a UK standard."