Families remember lost pets amid renewed calls for regulation of dog training industry

WATSONVILLE, Calif. (KGO) -- Two-and-a-half years ago, the families of Thor and Huckleberry sent their dogs to the care of Benjamin Friedenberg of Soquel. The families haven't seen their dogs since, and Friendenberg isn't saying what happened to them. It's the latest in a long line of troubling stories concerning the unregulated dog training industry.

Friedenberg is currently serving a prison sentence of six years for four counts of grand theft and two other charges related to this and other cases involving consumer fraud. There are currently no minimum requirements for anyone to call themselves a dog trainer. Assemblyperson Rebecca Bauer-Kahan had pledged to reintroduce legislation that would change that, but so far the legislator, who represents much of the Tri-Valley, says she hasn't made a final decision.

Watching video of her German Shepherd Thor still brings a smile to the face of Lauren Myers of Watsonville.

She sent the puppy you see here to Benjamin Friedenberg for training.

Thor was a ball of energy. Myers had hopes Friedenberg could help calm Thor down. "In a month he would come back to us. He would have all the basic obedience skills," Myers said.

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She also hoped Thor would serve as a therapy dog for one of her children who has special needs.

Unfortunately, prosecutors say Friendenberg never returned Thor to the family.

He told them Thor would need extra training and he was not progressing.

Friendenberg sent the family periodic videos of Thor's training. He told the family he had taken Thor to Oregon to train with other dogs.

The one month planned training extended to three months. Myers said Friedenberg called her as he was driving Thor back from Oregon. Then the calls suddenly stopped.

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Myers's family became suspicious and asked police to check on Thor's welfare.

In the course of their investigation, deputies say they learned that Friedenberg also took this Cataloula Leopard dog named Huckleberry into his care and also did not return him.

"So in several cases, he is essentially accused of fraud, embezzlement, and theft of an animal," said Ashley Keehn of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department.

Friedenberg is also accused in other consumer fraud cases that didn't involve animals.

"So, he was a scam artist," said Keehn.

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Friedenberg pleaded no contest to six of the charges.

Animal rights activist Judie Mancuso of Social Compassion in Legislation says we need legislation now to have some oversight of the dog training industry.

"They should be licensed. There should be some bar set for who these people are. Are they trained properly or not?" said Mancuso.

7 On Your Side brought this to the attention of Tri-Valley Assemblywoman Rebecca Bauer-Kahan in 2020. She introduced legislation right before the pandemic that would have mandated oversight by animal control officers of dog trainers.

This is what she said then: "I want to thank Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side for bringing this issue to us. It's a critical issue for the protection of animals in California."

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She said the bill had to be pulled due to the COVID emergency. She has until Friday to submit it again to the legislative counsel for review.

She has yet to make a final decision.

Meanwhile the families of Huckleberry and Thor are left not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

We asked Meyers how hopeful she felt about ever seeing Thor again.

"Well. It's ah, sorry, I think they're pretty minimal. I don't really know if we'll ever get him back. I can hope," she said.

If you have any information about Thor or Huckleberry, share it with us and we'll get the information to the families and authorities. We'll stay on top of this and let you know if Bauer-Kahan decides to introduce her reform bill.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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