Lifestyle & Human Interest

Four Former PetSmart Employees Facing Charges After Dog Was Allegedly Strangled During Grooming Visit


When NFL sideline reporter A.J. Ross took her 11-year-old toy poodle to PetSmart in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a nail trim last November, it should have been a brief, painless exchange.

“When I brought him in, I asked if I could stay, because he was just the type of dog that he liked to see where I was at all times,” she told People. “They told me because of COVID I couldn’t stay in the grooming area.”

That rule was Kobe the poodle’s undoing. Complying with the store’s guidelines, Ross spent the next few minutes browsing at a nearby store before returning to collect her pup.

But when she returned, Kobe was lying on the grooming table, motionless.

“He looked lifeless,” Ross recalled. “He didn’t even look like he was breathing.”

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The employees said that the dog had fainted, but Ross rushed him to a veterinarian. Fifteen minutes of resuscitation efforts later, Kobe was confirmed deceased.

“I thought it would be a quick in and out,” Ross told “The last thing on my mind was this would be a death sentence.”

What in the world had gone wrong? Sure that “he fainted” couldn’t have been the real answer, Ross pressed for more information, requesting surveillance footage from the store.

A few weeks later, she was able to get a hold of the footage — and it was damning.

“They used two separate leashes,” she said. “One is directly above the grooming table at a vertical angle, and the other leash was horizontal. So he’s tethered in two different directions.

“They begin to clip his nails, and there’s two of them and they’re lifting him up in a way that he can’t put his paws down on the table at all.”

The video showed her poor dog struggling, suspended in the air as the groomers seemed unaware of his distress.

“He has no stability so he’s hanging by his neck and he starts to writhe and twist in pain because he can’t get any air, and they’re not paying him any attention,” Ross added.

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“They just keep on going … It’s horrific to watch and [after a minute] he goes limp. They never put his feet down until after he goes limp.”

Dr. Arielle Samson with the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh looked into the case after Ross contacted the rescue. Samson suggested, based on the video, that the dog’s airway had been crushed.

“Dr. Samson stated that the hyperextension of the neck as well as the lack of contact between Kobe’s paws and the grooming table led to Kobe’s airways being crushed which resulted in his death,” the criminal complaint against PetSmart states, according to People.

Interestingly enough, the necropsy did not find definitive evidence for strangulation, with the report stating that “strangulation cannot be completely ruled out in this case, however the lack of neck bruising makes it less likely.”

On May 5, four people — Julie Miller, Shaphan Stonge, Elizabeth Doty and Heather Rowe — were charged in the dog’s death. The charges include felony animal cruelty.

“We are heartbroken and truly sorry for the loss of Kobe,” PetSmart said in a statement. “After this terrible accident, we launched an internal investigation and found unintended failure to adhere to our pet safety processes.”

“Additionally, we cooperated with an external investigation, terminated the responsible associates and facilitated an autopsy to help provide answers.”

The preliminary hearings will take place in October. For now, Ross is doing her part to make other pet owners aware of the heartbreaking possibility that became her reality.

“I don’t often share personal things but I felt the need to share my story in hopes it never happens to anyone else,” Ross posted on her Facebook page on Tuesday. “If you’re a pet owner or lover please read this!”

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