Denise Swank would have done anything for her dog Gunnar.
That included paying $6,000 in cash to a Contra Costa County man who promised to board and train their beloved German shepherd.
To Swank and her husband Jeff, “Gunnar was not just a dog, he was our family member,” she said.
The Napa couple was expecting Gunnar to be returned after four or five weeks as a “perfectly trained dog” — one that would heel and sit and stay on command, among other things.
“I was excited” to start the process, said Swank.
But Gunnar never completed the training. Just 17 days later, on May 20, the Swanks’ pet was dead.
Gunnar, a pedigreed canine who was almost 4 years old, first came to the family in 2014 as a puppy.
“He was my baby,” said Swank. “We just fell in love with him and wanted him to join our family.”
Once Gunnar got older, more training was needed, said Swank.
Swank was in nursing school and knew she didn’t have the time to adequately train Gunnar herself. Other family members had successfully used other board and train facilities. So when the Swanks visited a Napa pet store and spotted an SUV nearby advertising a company called NorCal K-9 dog training, she called the Contra Costa County area code number.
The owner of the business, Garry Frank Reynolds, of Antioch, agreed to train Gunnar. The training contract with NorCal K-9 stated that Gunnar’s behavioral issues included anxiety and animal and human aggression.
Swank said she knew $6,000 was a lot of money. But “I really thought this place was legit,” she said.
On May 3, Reynolds and an assistant arrived in Napa and picked up the shepherd for boarding in Oakley.
That was the last time the Swanks saw Gunnar.
On May 20, Reynolds called Denise Swank. “He was upset,” she recalled.
Gunnar was dead, he told the couple.
She was shocked. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” said Swank. She couldn’t understand how a healthy young dog would suddenly die.
“Something’s not right,” she remembers thinking.
Reynolds insists the dog’s death was not his fault.
“I loved Gunnar,” said Reynolds during a phone interview on Thursday. “I feel for Gunnar and Gunnar’s family,” he said. But, “There was nothing I could have done.”
“No dog has ever passed away in our care,” Reynolds added.
A veterinary pathologist at UC Davis did a necropsy on Gunnar, which Swank paid $1,800 for, and concluded that Gunnar had died of heat stress or hyperthermia. That condition can be exacerbated by high temperatures or physical exertion, said the report. Hyperthermia may also be seen in dogs that are “hyperexcitable” or overanxious, the report said.
Reynolds said Gunnar showed some of these traits.
“Their dog was extremely aggressive and on edge,” the trainer said. “That’s why he was sent to me.”
Gunnar was not left in a crate alone in a hot environment, said Reynolds. “It was 70 degrees” the day Gunnar died, he noted.
Gunnar “was always stressed out,” said Reynolds, which he believes led to the dog succumbing to heat stress.
In June, the Swanks drove the Oakley address where they believed Gunnar had been trained. Denise Swank said she wanted to see where Gunnar spent his last days and collect his belongings.
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However, once they arrived, the Swanks found there was no such business at that Oakley address. She could not reach Reynolds and had no idea where he was.
Concerned, Denise Swank called the Oakley police. Later it became clear that Gunnar had been held at an address in Antioch instead.
In June, Antioch animal control officers visited the Antioch address where they found seven dogs. They included a golden retriever named Finley, a bull mastiff named Xena, a Chihuahua named Cookie, a Doberman also named either Gunnar or Gunner and three other dogs named Favor, Zeus and Rambo.
One dog was returned to its owner. The other six were taken to a local shelter. But after rehabilitation efforts failed, all had to be euthanized, according to Antioch Police Detective Ryan Geis.
On Dec. 12, Reynolds, 37, and another man, Devon Benjamin Ashby, 30, were each charged with eight felony counts of cruelty to an animal.
The criminal complaint states that Reynolds and Ashby deprived eight animals, including Gunnar of Napa, of proper food, drink or shelter and subjected the animals to needless suffering and cruelty.
According to Detective Geis, the police report said that the fur on the animals at the Antioch home was matted and dirty. They were kept in small cages. One dog had an injury to his nose from rubbing it on the cage. It was warm inside the house, said the report. There was no water in the crates or freedom to move around.
Reynolds also faces a special allegation due to two prior felony convictions dating back to 2001 and 2002. They include second degree robbery and shooting at an inhabited dwelling.
Scott Alonso, public information officer for the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office, said both Reynolds and Ashby each posted a $160,000 bond and have been assigned future court dates.
If convicted, Ashby faces as many as 92 months in county jail. Reynolds faces as many as 184 months in county jail.
Ashby could not be immediately reached this week to comment on this story.
“I did nothing wrong,” said Reynolds.
Reynolds said he’s not sure who the other seven dogs belonged to. By the time Animal Control visited, he no longer lived at the Antioch house, he said. Ashby worked with him as a dog trainer but might have been training those other dogs on the side, he said.
The Swanks have since filed a civil complaint against Reynolds in Napa County Superior Court. It alleges negligence, breach of contract and violation of California health and safety codes.
Napa Attorney Todd Wenzel filed the civil case for the Swanks.
“Ms. Swank hired NorCal K-9 to take care of her dog and train him. She entrusted Gunnar in their care but to also improve his purpose in life, to be a good companion,” he said.
The dog’s death “seems to indicate a lack of care and negligence,” he said. Such lack of care “resulted in the avoidable, painful and excruciating death of Gunnar,” wrote Wenzel.
Reynolds said charging $6,000 for Gunnar’s training was warranted. “He needed a lot of work,” – perhaps for as long as three to four months, he said.
The Swanks said they were not refunded any of the $6,000 they had paid Reynolds.
“I understand Denise is upset,” said Reynolds. He is too. “When I called Denise I was in tears and I’m a man that doesn’t cry very often.”
The dog trainer said it wasn’t fair to judge him based on his past felony convictions.
“I did something stupid when I was 19,” Reynolds said. Today, “I’m a very successful business owner who does so much for the community.”
“I don’t take this lightly,” he said. After years of success with dog training, now his name “is getting drug through the mud,” said Reynolds.
Swank said she hopes that Reynolds will be convicted and “he doesn’t ever have anything to do with dogs again. I’m trying to be the voice for my dog that didn’t have a voice.”
“I’m not afraid to go into court,” said Reynolds. “I have faith in the justice system.”
Swank said she still feels sadness and anxiety about Gunnar’s death and their decision to send him away for training. Some nights it’s hard to sleep.
“I have that guilt,” she said. “Why did I do that?”