Local couple Shawn and Sophia Vrooman are terribly afraid that by trying to do the right thing for their beloved mastiff Echo, they have done something terribly wrong.
The four-year-old canine named Echo, with what Sophia Vrooman calls “sweetest eyes and dignified but goofy disposition”, is now caught in a limbo that according to Ark-Valley Humane Society Executive Director Amber Van Leuken will end in his euthanization next Tuesday, or perhaps before.
When they made the difficult decision to find him a new home due to their schedule (they own a year-old tree business called Tree Cycle that has them working long hours) the couple was assured by staff with whom they met that if Ark-Valley Humane Society couldn’t find Echo a new home that they could have him back rather than see him put down.
“We were very clear– we did not want Echo put down. We told them that we wanted him back if no other home could be found,” said Sophia. “We love him. We were just trying to do the right thing for him.”
“It was we two and two staffers in that meeting,” said Shawn Vrooman. “They assured us that they understood that we wanted him back if they weren’t successful in finding him a good new home.”
When told of Van Leuken’s decision to euthanize Echo, they dropped everything and rushed from Salida to the Humane Society. Not only were their pleas ignored, but Van Leuken called the Chaffee County Sheriff to have them removed.
Shawn (whose two cousins are in law enforcement and he’s done more than one ride-along with them) said they purposely waited, assuming that they would at least be able to present their case to the Sheriff. When the deputy showed up, Vrooman says he did not listen to them at all. Instead, he ordered them off the premises. When they tried to explain what was going on, they were told “leave or I put you in handcuffs.”
A Decision based on the Human Society’s “Kindness” Pledge
The couple said making the decision to see if the Humane Society could find Echo a new home was wrenching; and basely solely on the fact that they had sold their house to fund the new business, which had them away for long hours. They didn’t want Echo to be alone so much. They were also careful to select Ark-Valley Humane Society, which advertised itself as a no-kill shelter that “helps keep pets with the families they love.”
“First, we spoke on the phone. Then we went and talked with them in person,” said Shawn. “The executive director and operations manager weren’t there but we talked with two staffers – we thought they did represent the values of the organization.”
The Vroomans say they signed the Humane Society document with that understanding; that Echo could be returned to them if a home wasn’t found.
The day last week when they brought Echo to the Humane Society, they spent time getting him used to the staff. “He was good, we and the staff were all playing with him.”
They explained to them not to put a choke hold leash on him, to keep on his collar harness (as a big dog of 170 pounds, the harness is better to slow him down). But after they left, that direction apparently wasn’t followed, and Echo did a warning nip.
They were told the staff tried again to switch out the leash, and the dog bit toward the staffer’s arm, drawing blood.
This ended with Echo being put in bite quarantine for 14 days. It occurred when Van Leuken was not at the facility.
After being told Ark-Valley Humane Society determined he wasn’t adoptable because of the incident, the Vroomans discussed Echo’s return with staff, explaining they would do whatever was necessary to get more training for the 170-pound mastiff, who like so many giant dogs appears to think he is a little dog.
They spoke three times with Operations Manager Johny Sandoval. Vrooman says he assured them that as long as Van Leuken, gave the green light, “You guys can take him back on Monday, Feb. 13 after his bite quarantine and can do some training.”
“Ark-Valley Outreach Manager Emy Luebbering said our application for four training sessions of behavior training was approved and sent us training vouchers to get him more training. I’ve got her email, said Sophia Vrooman, who showed the message to Ark Valley Voice. “We agreed to do anything we need to to get him back. We are committed that we want Echo better behaved and safe for society.”
They began calling to get training set up for Echo to begin as soon as they got him back. But then came the call from Van Leuken.
“We thought we were doing the right thing to let him have a family where people had more time for him than we do with the new business, but we realize that although our work keeps us so busy, that Echo is better with those he considers his people,” said Sophia. “We’re his people.”
According to the couple, Echo is under extreme stress. He’s a very large (145-pound) dog in a small cage (This reminded me of basketball star Brittney Griner, the tall U.S. basketball star who was imprisoned in Russia in a cell where she could barely stand up). They can’t see him because he’s in quarantine, but the Vroomans say ” He’s alone, he’s terrified, he’s not getting exercise, He’s a very emotional dog who needs attention.”
Mastiff’s are emotionally-attached and protective of “their people”
According to the American Kennel Club: “Mastiffs are patient, lovable companions and guardians who take best to gentle training. Eternally loyal Mastiffs are protective of family, and a natural wariness of strangers makes early training and socialization essential.”
This dog breed is among the largest of all dog breeds and many, including Echo, weigh more than most humans. Shawn Vrooman adopted Echo as a puppy from a breeder in Howard. When he met and married Sophia, who is from Berlin, Germany, Echo took to her immediately.
Those who know dogs, know that mastiffs are not Golden Retrievers (who many laughingly say would lead a burglar to the family valuables). Mastiffs are sensitive to human emotions. They tend to be one-family dogs. Historically they are dignified, loyal, good with children, and bred as working dogs.
The couple and Echo weathered a tough spot in 2020, when they had to leave Echo with friends. “When COVID hit, Sophia was visiting her family in Germany and couldn’t get back,” said Shawn. “We spent four months long distance on video chats– and Echo could hear her voice, but would look all over the house for her. Finally, I had to go over to help get her Green Card cleared up.
“We planned for Echo to fly over with Shawn. We got all his shots, got him neutered, but then they didn’t have a crate big enough to ship him in, so Shawn couldn’t bring him,” said Sophia. So they left Echo with friends in Salida. “He was great with them; they had a teenager, a young child, and two small dogs.”
“It was after we got back after that long absence that he got more sensitive,” said Shawn. “He reads people’s emotions. He needs a lot of attention – and he reacts differently to different people. He doesn’t like high-energy dogs; a kind friendly person or calm dog, he’s fine.”
There was an incident two years ago, right after they got back from Germany during COVID, when a coworker of Shawn’s showed up unannounced at their house on J Street. He came through their back gate and Echo pinned him back to the fence. “He was defending me,” said Sophia, who said she wasn’t expecting the coworker who surprised her and the dog. “He was protecting the space – he is bred for protecting the house.”
“He doesn’t have a record, nothing in any legal files about being aggressive prior to this,” said Shawn. “It took a while, but he got calmer, and we started to introduce him to more people.”
“In hindsight, we should have had him in more training,” said Shawn. ” We’re committed to doing more training, have him wear a muzzle, we’ll sign a liability waiver — whatever we need to do to get him back.”
So, who’s making the decision to put Echo down?
What happened between Monday afternoon when the Vroomans talked with Sandoval, and Tuesday morning when Van Leuken called to announce Echo was being put down isn’t known.
Van Leuken told the Vroomans that “I’ve talked to some other authorities about this case and we all agree that he can’t be released back into society, he’s a danger, and we’re going to put him down next Tuesday.”
But who exactly are “some other authorities”?
Ark-Valley Humane Society is the official animal control facility in Chaffee County; supported by public funding that flows through Chaffee County government, but the county doesn’t run it. The Pet Animal Care Facilities Act (PACFA) Program is a licensing and inspection program dedicated to protecting the health and well-being of pet animals in facilities throughout Colorado. Facilities are supposed to meet PACFA standards for licensing.
PACFA says that a decision like this, at a facility that promotes itself as a no-kill (or rare-kill) facility, would be made with the county sheriff’s office.
But Sheriff John Spezze said he was unaware that he has that legal authority.
So who are these other authorities and who has decided to put Echo down?
It’s hard to tell because, on Thursday, the Ark-Valley Humane Society stopped answering their phone. An in-person visit at 12:00 noon on Friday revealed that Amber Van Leuken wasn’t there and won’t be working until Monday, February 13. Querying a staffer at the reception desk about who the authorities are who would make a decision about euthanizing a pet in their care, she responded that this was confidential information. No one was available to talk with me.
“It feels like we’ve been tricked – we thought we were giving Echo a better future, and now this led to him being locked up and now put down,” said Sophia, choking up. “She claims that her staff would never have told us we could have Echo back if he wasn’t placed with a family, but that’s not true. They used what we disclosed against us … if he was a little dog, he’d walk out of here with us.”
“Signing the release form doesn’t mean that we didn’t want him – we wanted the best for him and we didn’t want him to be alone all day,” said Shawn. “We’re checking on good training, we’re willing to sign anything to release them from liability to put him back into our family. But they aren’t giving him any option except death.”
The image of a giant dog in a small cage gives new meaning to the phrase “a caged animal.”
The Humane Society needs to do the morale thing and release the dog. I have a German Shepherd. Before she was trained by Alpha and Omega Dog Training, she used to nip out of fear. Post training, she listens perfectly and at once. Dogs lose their fear once they are trained. My Shepherd only protects by my command now.
Release Echo and let the dog be trained for the love of Pete.
So did they KILL him? Please update so folks can act accordingly…however they see this sad, sad story.
The dog has a chance of being retrained with a professional trainer who handles reactive dogs that become aggressive. Please release him and give him a chance!
I have now read all of these comments, as well has had direct communication with AVHS staff. I have many years of experience volunteering in a number of shelters on the Front Range for close to 30 yrs, and it isn’t all giggles and thrills. Shelters do not turn away animals, they get what they get. As Ritchie Mongold indicated in his comments, when an owner relinquishes an animal FOR WHATEVER REASON to a shelter, their rights to the animal are terminated; this is common across the board with no exceptions. If you know AVHS staff, these are absolutely not individuals who want to euthanize an animal for any reason, even finding it hard to do when it is the kindest action they can take. But what I most wanted to say is this: I do not believe there are bad dogs, only bad owners. I think the Vroomans had good intentions, but did not follow through with the appropriate, necessary training for a dog of this size and this breed. Unfortunately, the animal often pays the price for poor owners. It is common knowledge that dogs live 8 to 15 yrs. So why does a young couple get a puppy and then within 3 yrs, now needs to re-home the animal? No breed is bad. But daily I am in contact with out-of-control dogs on leashes, aggressive barking, etc. This is not the dog’s fault. In my experience in shelters, “a well exercised dog is a good dog.” Along with firm training, which clearly was done done for Echo. Finally, the Vroomans stated they had been trying to re-home Echo for more than a year, unsuccessfully because of his behavior. AVHS could be held liable if they adopted Echo out, and something terrible occurred. That’s the society we live in. I think blaming AVHS staff because they “inherited” a dog with issues is inappropriate and wrong at all levels. The vicious comments in this thread — particularly when there is a formal response from AVHS that is available to anyone who asks but most commenters here have not looked at — are not appropriate. My hope is that April Kintgen is able to come up with an agreement with LEGAL PROTECTIONS FOR AVHS, that will also enable Echo to be released to her, the breeder, for the necessary training that is absolutely required now for Echo.
In reading this one sided story I see the major problem is the owners. They voluntarily decided to have a dog that obviously had special needs mainly in size. Then they shuck him off to the Humane Society to find him a new home because they have chosen a career that does not give them enough time to spend with their dog. Since when is it okay to just give your dog to the Humane Society because he just doesn’t fit into your lifestyle anymore? They also withheld information from the Humane Society with his past history of biting humans as well as other dogs. Now they want to act like victims? One has to wonder if it had been a child that intruded in their left style how they would have treated that situation.
A job is not a lifestsyle, Mary. It is a living. This was a feature story about the owners and the dog — do please go to http://www.arkvalleyvoice.com and read the two stories that followed it — first the one where the AVHS finally responded, not to talk with us, but with press releases. They are a publically-supported facility and they therefore they owe all of us a response that is more than a crafted press release. They are accountable to us about their processes and decisions.
I am the breeder of Echo, and many other Daniffs across the US, and here in our small community. I have been getting backlash from some people, calling me irresponsible and a backyard breeder, among other things. My animals are my beloved pets, with couch privileges, genetic testing, vet care, health guarantee an, and my undying devotion, not only to them, but every one of their babies. As any reputable breeder knows, you don’t do this for money, it is for the love of the breed. As soon as I was made aware of this horrible situation, 2 days ago,my heart broke. I am doing everything in my power to rectify this situation, and not only save Echo but also to bring this to a peaceful conclusion. Along with our lawyer, we have all worked together to secure proper training, foster homes, and dozens of my other puppy families have written in support of not only Daniffs, but Echo in particular. Many of them have multiples of my pups, and were willing to foster Echo immediately. Does Echo need training, yes. This is not acceptable behavior, and not common with our gentle giants. I will continue to fight for Echo, and hopefully I have the support of the community in getting Echo out, and trained to be the wonderful dog I know he can be.
April Kintgen Pleasant Valley Daniffs
So AVV is dedicated to Fact-based news and published that the Vroomans claim so much about being promised to receive their dog back, yet the relinquishment form on AVHS’s website literally has the following written in the contract that they would have had to sign in order to leave him at the shelter. You can go to the Surrender your Pet page to find this info if you don’t believe me!!
“By signing your name below, you give up all rights to the animal and surrender him/her to Ark-Valley Humane Society. Ark-Valley Humane Society is a minimal euthanasia facility, however we do euthanize animals when they do not fit our criteria for adoption. Our policies on euthanasia are aimed at protecting our staff, volunteers, potential owners, animals at the shelter, this animal, and the community at large. If you have specific questions about our policy, please ask an Ark-Valley Humane Society employee. Ark-Valley Humane Society is not obligated to disclose if an animal is euthanized, adopted, or transferred. ”
I have now read AVV’s article and both statements released by AVHS and anything the Vroomans said is out the window for me. They relinquished a dog to an animal shelter that we know pinned a friend of the Vroomans against the fence and bit them, bit a child, has a history of escape issues, has attacked dogs before, and has a history of being super protective, yet they still chose to take the risk of leaving him there. With a history like that, are you surprised he bit again? And with a history like that, do you REALLY think the Vroomans are capable of managing him better in the future? I’d say probably not or why else would they have given him up? What is sad about this situation is I know if the dog was a pitbull, only a fraction of people would be rallying support towards this. It is sad that Echo reached this point in his life, but after having read through all the info, he’s the equivalent of a loaded gun being handed over to anyone. Good on Ark-Valley Humane for keeping OUR community SAFE!
Echo is only 4 years old… has been abandoned, caged, muzzled and isolated. This reduced animal is of course exhibiting anxiety, stress and aggression. I’m writing to the Chaffee County Courts to please consider delaying the scheduled euthanasia of Echo until all options for his life can be reviewed one more time. Animals should not be disposable. Echo is the innocent. I am asking the Courts to please consider making euthanasia the last option, not the only option.
Why don’t we talk about the people that raised and trained, or should we say didn’t train, him from when he was a puppy? They should be blamed for his behavior – he is a victim here. Unfortunately, based on the Humane Societies statement, it is too late for him to be retrained. If that is the case, he should be put down before he bites and seriously injures a human.
Some people are not fit to own animals.
As a past owner of a mastiff, I think they did this poor animal 1 disservice after another. Please return him to the only home he has known.
I have been disappointed with AVHS for some time and have been frequent monetary supporter but realize that money is better spent elsewhere.
Ark Valley Humane Society’s experience of this dog and its future is very different from what the owners and Wondra report here. Please get more information and read Ark Valley Humane Society response. This article did not attempt to represent more than one side.
AVHS has posted a statement appearing on Ark Valley Voice and shared on Heart of the Rockies News. https://www.ark-valley.org/news-avhs-response-to-recent-dog-relinquishment/?fbclid=IwAR0JpPkBBXipylgrt-iQK8fLVjV_R7gmvfGO6EEv2ytOlE_p9OKA2YMTGRs
If you actually read the whole article, this article DID attempt to get more than one side, and went in person to the shelter, but the humane society chose not to respond. The statement didn’t appear until Saturday afternoon and there are some elements of it which are unsubstantiated. The AVHS director still has not responded directly so we can ask questions.
Euthanasia is not acceptable. AVHS is advertised as a no-kill shelter. Some resourceful ideas and plans need to be explored and attempted before a helpless animal is destroyed. AVHS’s reputation is on the line. Someone please start working with this dog and his family.
Please read Ark Valley Humane Societies response to this. They don’t take these decisions lightly and they have a strict protocol they follow to keep the public safe from dangerous animals. There are two sides to every story.
Ark Valley Humane Society does a great job for our valley. They don’t take these decisions lightly and there is a strict protocol that they follow to protect the public from dangerous animals. Please read Ark Valley’s response to this article as there are always two sides to every story.
Give him back to his family. Heartbreaking
I, too, will not be donating. This lady can provide the agencies she talked to. If they are public employees they have no expectation of privacy/confidentiality. My guess, the dog was scared being in a new, loud, chaotic, environment and the worker got aggressive and tried to show authority. Most training involving animals the human needs just as much training.
We thought you were better than this, Ark-Valley! These people WANT their dog. Do the right thing and give them their dog back. They had him for 4 years…you’ve decided his fate in less than a week! You should have MUZZLED him and YOUR inexperience wouldn’t have allowed him to nip you OR set his fate. It’s YOUR FAULT HE BIT. I left you a phone message…but to say it again…if you kill Echo we will never give you another dime.
I forgot to mention that we shouldn’t be hating on the Sheriff and his deputies regarding the trespassing order.
When someone calls the cops to have you trespassed, you’re going to get trespassed when the police arrive. It is not the job of the Sheriff or police officer to try to figure out who is in the right – if someone has the authority to say that they want you off of their property, the police are going to make sure that you leave the property, because that is their job.
All that being said, calling the police to have someone removed from your office, because you don’t like what they’re saying, is typically the last resort of liars and cowards.
It is not a good look for the AVHS. Seems like they’re trying to hide from the public for as long as they can, and using the police to help them hide from accountability for their lies.
Another example of an unaccountable bureaucracy run amok.
You people at the AVHS should be ashamed of yourselves, and I am looking forward to the day when the public learns the names of the AVHS staffers that lied to this couple.
And, just like everyone else has said, that is the end of donations to the shelter from me. Furthermore, I intend to look into who these local HS people answer to in their organization, because clearly, they need a staff house cleaning at the AVHS.
We thought we’d be doing a good thing by donating to the humane society…. But no thank you and we won’t be donating every again. This dog has a home waiting for him and people willing to invest in his care and training. You are crazy not to take advantage of it.
This is a horrible injustice. Why can’t this be worked out as adults instead of a power struggle. I have been a shelter myself in my dog officer days back east and I just can’t figure this out except power. Do the right thing for the dog. Give him back
Give ECHO back. Please give Echo back to his previous owners!
Give the dog back to his family! This action is unthinkable! I won’t be donating again!
Agree – Their attitude may cost them, financially….Let the kids have their dog!
I will be speaking to my dad about this horrible decision, which I’m sure will lead to the end of his very hefty yearly donation! Shame on you Ark Valley Humane Society!! Someone else should take over the directorship because, obviously, Amber doesn’t care enough to even be there to oversee operations.
If this is how the Humane Society acts in reality to what they advocate, my yearly donation stops today! This facility appears to be a threat to animals they profess to protect. Someone higher up in HUMANE SOCIETY management needs to show up and address this. KILLING ANIMALS IS NOT WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING! You need donors and you are going to lose many over this. TRUST IS EVERYTHING! If these folks want their friend back, GIVE HIM BACK! Stop playing GOD. Shame on the INHUMANE SOCIETY!
This is heartbreaking . We need to hear Van Leukens explanation for her decision. In the meantime Sheriff Speeze could step in and put a stop to the euthanasia.
If the owners are committed to helping this poor dog with his behavior why is giving him back even a question? Obviously the dog was stressed and scared being in a strange place with strangers and in a cage no less. Van Leuken, please step back and reconsider.
Give the dog back to his owner! They truly loved this dog! Agree will never donate again to avhs
Here is the response from Ark-Valley Humane Society (link below), including actual facts pertaining to the situation that your managing editor neglected to glean OR disclose, and still has not done so days later. Shame on you. This dreck from AVV is not journalism, it’s muckraking. You owe the community, and the Ark Valley Humane Society an apoplgy for publishing this obvious attempt to obfuscate the truth.
Everyone else, please read the statement in the link below.
Laura, The original story was a feature story, but this has now become a developing story. As the article says, I was AT the AVHS facility on Friday. Amber was not there and was told there was no one else available to talk with me. This press release came out Saturday afternoon when I was in Denver. Amber has my phone number and has chosen not to talk with me. Instead she has chosen to send press releases, which avoid answering media questions, and Saturday afternoon I had to be in Denver. Ark Valley Voice is committed to fact-based news coverage and while it might make you feel better to criticize AVV, we actually publish free to readers and even we need a day off every weekend.
Please return echo! This is not ok!
Shame on all of the staff who lied to this family! I hope guilt crushes you!
To The Ark Valley Humane Society – You have lost myself and my husband as a donor! Give the damn dog back to his family!
Wow this is so sad I would adopt him right away for this not to happen talk about having no heart. I’m very sorry this is happening or not happening something can be done what can I do to help. The Humane society should be ashamed you should know more than any of us how different breeds act an how would you act if that was you who was sent away from your family with a bunch of strangers who seem to care less about animals. lopen your eyes don’t be so heartless and evil your ridiculous. Give the dog back to his loved ones why don’t you prove that you do this for the animals. Let’s protest FREE ECHO!!