Service dog left in car dies from heatstroke

Jun. 25, 2013 @ 03:59 PM

UPDATE: The Carrboro Police Department, which is investigating allegations of animal cruelty involving the death of Worthy, has not yet completed its investigation. The Herald-Sun is checking regularly with the police department on the status of the investigation and will publish a follow-up story when the investigation has been completed.


A golden retriever named Worthy, who was being trained as a service dog at Eyes Ears Nose and Paws, died of heatstroke last week after a director left him in a car for two hours.

Carrboro police are investigating the dog’s death as a result of a complaint filed by the woman who bred Worthy and donated him to Eyes Ears Nose and Paws (EENP).

Eyes Ears Nose and Paws is located on Lloyd Street in Carrboro and is a non-profit organization that trains and places service and medical alert dogs.

The incident happened on June 10 when program director Deb Cunningham put Worthy in her vehicle just before noon and left him there for two hours with the windows rolled up while she worked inside the office.

Maria Ikenberry, executive director of EENP, said Worthy was among a group of dogs to be placed with clients this past week. Normally, about a month before placement, dogs are removed from their foster families to prepare them for a new owner, she said.

Worthy was experiencing severe separation anxiety, and on that Monday, some of the volunteers were bringing and exchanging dogs with each other for the week. Worthy’s foster mother, Charlene Hayes, was to arrive about noon, and Cunningham didn’t want Worthy to see Hayes at the office since that could upset him, so she put him in her car before Hayes arrived, Ikenberry said.

“The car was cool when Worthy was put in it,” Ikenberry said.

The weather on June 10 was stormy, according to unofficial weather data gathered at Horace Williams Airport located a mile north of the center. At noon, the airport reported it was 73 degrees and a light thunderstorm was passing over, said Terry Click, an employee at the National Weather Service in Raleigh. It reached 80 degrees before 2 p.m. and dropped to 79 degrees and was raining at 2 p.m., Click said.

If the temperature outside of a car is 80 degrees, and a vehicle is parked in a shady area on a day with high humidity, the temperature inside a vehicle can increase to 109 degrees within 20 minutes and reach 123 degrees within 60 minutes, according to the National Weather Service.

After Hayes arrived, she met with Cunningham inside the office. Hayes remembers looking out the window around 12:30 p.m. as an intern worked with another dog in the parking lot. It was bright and sunny then, Hayes said.

Hayes left the center around 12:45 p.m., not realizing that Worthy had been in a car all that time and was still in a car, she said

After Cunningham finished some work in the office, she went to get Worthy out of the car and found him unconscious and panting, Ikenberry said. They rushed him to The Animal Hospital, a veterinary clinic several blocks away.

Ikenberry insisted the car was not hot when Cunningham found the dog.

According to a medical report from the hospital, the dog’s temperature was 109 and his eyes were fixed and dilated. The normal temperature for a dog is about 101.

Veterinarians brought his temperature down to 101 within 30 minutes, and the dog regained consciousness but he vomited fluid and blood. That evening, Worthy was transferred to Triangle Veterinary Referral Hospital in Durham, which provides 24-hour emergency care.

The intake form at Triangle Veterinary states that the presenting complaint was “heat stroke, left in car for 2 hours in shade/cool area, he’s high stress so [owner] thinks he ran circles in vehicle + overheated.”

The two-year-old dog continued to vomit blood and had severe bloody diarrhea that night, the report said. At 7:30 the next morning, Worthy went into cardiac arrest and died.

Hayes and the woman who donated Worthy were both heartbroken and angry that Cunningham left the dog in a car.

“Please, please be vigilant,” Hayes said through tears. “I’m just devastated that this has happened. I want to make sure that people think about it.”

Ikenberry said she believes the dog died from an anxiety attack, not from the heat inside the car, but said putting the dog in the car without considering his mental, emotional and physical well-being was “a horrible mistake.”

“I feel like we let Worthy down,” she said.

“It’s a horrible tragedy, and we are so sorry about it,” Ikenberry said. “He was a wonderful dog.”
Mary Justice, chairman of the Board of Directors of EENP, said the board has held two meetings to discuss the situation and to review safety procedures and consider possible disciplinary measures. However, if the board does decide to discipline Cunningham, it would not be announced publicly, she said.

Clients of EENP pay $20,000 for a trained dog.

Lt. Chris Atack of the Carrboro Police Department said the case is being investigated. Atack wouldn’t discuss the investigation but said if allegations of animal cruelty are substantiated, charges could be filed.

“Once the investigation is completed, if there are any charges, they would become public record,” he said.