Sheltie breeder investigated by CAPS has been charged with cruelty and forced to relinquish all of his dogs
BooBear didn’t always get to nap on the couch or bark excitedly to let his family know that it was play time. He didn’t always get treats for doing nothing more than being cute. No, BooBear spent the first six years of his life in a puppy mill, living outdoors in a dirt pen. When it rained, the dirt became mud. When it snowed, the mud turned to slush. BooBear’s only shelter was a small plastic doghouse without a door, giving him no escape from the bitter cold of the long Iowa winters.
Despite all of this, BooBear is a kind and patient dog. Even when he’s terrified, he won’t bite people, not even strangers. He just goes limp in their arms. BooBear was so clearly born to be loved. But for the first six years of his life, when he was owned by Tom Grove, BooBear didn’t even know that love existed. He was neglected and, quite frankly, repeatedly abused.
Tom Grove was a breeder of Shetland Sheepdogs, commonly known as Shelties, on his rural property in South English, Iowa. It’s the kind of small town you never hear about, that you don’t even know you’re in as you pass through it. The kind of place where puppy mills proliferate.
When Grove retired from his job, he took up dog breeding, selling Shelties online through PuppyFind.com (now called puppies.com) and then on Hoobly. He preferred cash payments in person but would ship puppies anywhere if necessary. He avoided getting a USDA or state license. No one in his town reported him for the inhumane conditions at his puppy mill or for breeding dogs illegally. As Grove explained to me, he was an active member of his local church. A man of God couldn’t possibly be abusing his animals, right? Well, unfortunately, they can. CAPS has seen this time and time again with Amish, Mennonite, and Born Again Christian breeders and brokers.
In the past, Grove had supposedly been known to shoot puppies that he couldn’t sell. And some of the puppies he sold were reportedly full of worms, infested with fleas, and they were terrified of anyone who got near them. A civilian investigator in another state got word of Grove’s puppy mill and purchased two dogs to be sent to a local rescue. The dogs, Leo and Sheldon, saw a veterinarian who found worms. Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue took in the two terrified dogs to be rehabilitated and fostered. The investigator contacted CAPS to ask if we could help. The stories of Grove were concerning, so CAPS sent me to investigate his breeding facility.
Most of the time, when I get a cruelty complaint, the reality on the ground doesn’t match the complaint. Sometimes the situation is better, sometimes worse, and sometimes it’s just completely different. But every now and then it’s exactly as I had been told. This was one of those times.
I met Grove on a cold November day in 2022 at his home. The temperature was just above freezing. Grove was amiable and eager to show me his kennel. One of his breeding dogs, who had dirty mats on her face and chest, was loose on the property. She kept her distance from us as we walked on icy snow to the dog pens.
Grove first took me into a dilapidated wooden barn. It had open doorways that did nothing to keep out the cold. He showed me four puppies that ran around a dirt pen but kept their distance from us. Grove bragged about how he had sold puppies for years but had also shot puppies that he couldn’t sell. He said it casually, like this was normal. Then he took me to see his breeding dogs.
The dog pens were little more than wire fences, enclosing small areas of mud and feces. Six dogs, either paired or alone, lived in snow and filth. Their doghouses had no windbreaks, and muck covered the floors. The dogs hid from us behind dog houses or dying brush. When Grove entered the pens, the dogs ran from him.
Grove had two dogs he was selling for cheap (they would later be named Miles and BooBear). Miles was the brother of Leo, whom the out-of-state investigator had already rescued. Grove tried to grab Miles to show him to me, but the dog ran circles around the pen, hugging the ground and eventually lying in the mud where he shivered, afraid, wet and cold. Miles was “on sale” because he was already 18 months old. Grove said that if I purchased Miles, I could also have six-year-old BooBear for free, since he was no longer an active stud dog. BooBear had thick, matted fur, and when Grove looked at him he either hid behind his doghouse or ran away in a panic.
Grove normally sold his puppies for $700 each, but I agreed to pay $400 for Miles and to take BooBear. I asked Grove if the dogs knew how to walk on a leash, and he said that he’d “had all of them out on a leash.” He added, “I’m one of these guys that: I’m not gonna’ mess around. I use a choke chain to start with. And when they got drug about fifty feet, they decided it was time to follow me.”
The next day, Grove changed his mind and decided to charge me $50 for BooBear. I feared that BooBear might be shot for being of little use to him, so I agreed. CAPS doesn’t normally pay breeders for dogs, since doing so merely helps keep puppy mills in business. However, I felt that such a cheap price would let me not only rescue two dogs from the hell they were in but also save BooBear from possibly being killed. It would also allow me to get the dogs examined by a vet for signs of neglect in order to get evidence that might prompt a prosecutor to go after Grove.
When I returned for the dogs, it was below freezing. The dogs’ water dishes had turned to ice. Grove happily took my money and tried to collect the dogs, who ran from him and had to be cornered. Grove grabbed the shivering Miles by his neck and crated him. BooBear, however, was dragged by Grove, thrashing on a leash in the mud, until I intervened and caried him.
With the dogs on fresh towels in dog crates, I drove them directly to Rush Animal Care in Des Moines. Miles was so terrified of being picked up and put onto an exam table that he peed on himself. The veterinarian said that he was ten percent underweight and infested with whipworms and roundworms. BooBear also had many health problems and would eventually need to get six teeth removed and have surgery to remove a testicular tumor and to repair an umbilical hernia.
After their exams, I took both dogs to the Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue, which had already taken in Leo and Sheldon, the dogs purchased online from Grove by the out-of-state investigator. The rescue is run by Director Natalie Whalen and Assistant Director Mike Potter. Despite all of the lives they have saved, they approach dog rescue with matter-of-fact and humble attitudes.
Natalie and Mike calmly opened Miles’s and BooBear’s crates, letting them take in their surroundings and see the other Shelties also being rehabilitated from neglect and abuse. One of the dogs, who approached with a shy walk, was Miles’s brother, Leo. Soon, the dogs were sniffing each other and wagging their tails. When they were briefly let outside, they even barked playfully at another dog behind a fence.
Our work, however, was not over. There were still nine animals at Grove’s property, and only law enforcement could get them out. I reached out to the Animal Rescue League of Iowa (ARLI), whose shelter in Des Moines does more than just adoption and rescue work. They also help law enforcement with cruelty cases, and they had worked in the past with Chief Deputy Adam Pence of the Keokuk County Sheriff’s Department. Keokuk County is where Tom Grove lives.
ARLI put me in touch with Pence, and they offered to help with additional rescues. After reviewing our evidence, Pence agreed that charges should be pressed on Grove for neglect. But Pence also knew that the county attorney would need to make sure that the case would stick in court. In the past, others had been prosecuted in Iowa for leaving dogs outside in below-freezing temperatures. But Grove might try to argue that since his dogs hadn’t yet died in the cold, they weren’t actually suffering. If a judge accepted this argument, Grove could get off. So, Chief Deputy Pence made a plan to get more evidence. On December 22, when the weather was a shocking -11°F, he went to Grove’s property and saw that all of the dogs were still outside, freezing. Pence urged the prosecutor to take action.
Pence also put a plan in motion to save the remaining dogs. Working with ARLI, Pence met with Grove and convinced him to give all of his dogs to the rescue, that way the dogs would be safe in case the prosecution was unsuccessful. (Grove agreed to the surrendering of his dogs in hopes that it would eventually help him look better before the judge.) The dogs went to Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue for rehabilitation, vet care, and fostering.
On March 9, 2023, the Keokuk County Attorney filed eight criminal neglect charges against Tom Grove. Meanwhile, the dogs he had previously left outside in the cold, shivering amongst their own waste, were being adopted out into loving forever homes. Grove’s dogs, which I had seen flee from him in fear, were soon playing with toys, running with other dogs, and cuddling in the laps of adopters.
On the face of it, this appears to be a happy story in which justice was served. However, it’s an exception to the rule. Most of the time, in cruelty cases, the awful conditions at puppy mills are actually legal and no charges are filed. The dogs might spend their entire lives confined to cages, pacing in exasperated boredom, but the law sees nothing wrong with this. Even if breeding dogs are lucky enough to be rescued at the end of their lives, they often fear human contact and cannot adjust to household life. They require patience, love, and much rehabilitation.
Moreover, the vast majority of the time that CAPS contacts law enforcement about blatant, actually illegal cruelty, our complaints are ignored. CAPS supporters will remember the outrageous response of law enforcement to the Vesterberg livestock neglect case in Kansas. If Keokuk County Chief Deputy Pence had handled that case, I believe it would have had a very different outcome.
The lesson here is that, by and large, the system does not work to protect dogs. Pet shops and groups like AKC lead us to believe that breeders let their dogs sleep on couches and run through grassy yards. But the truth is, most breeding dogs are kept in puppy mills. Technically, Grove was a small-time home breeder. Yet his kennel was so bad that it violated state law, and no reasonable person would ever think that it was a healthy environment for dogs. Yet, he’d been operating for years. This is typical. The photos we see on many breeders’ websites, and the videos and photos that are presented to customers in pet shops, are almost always misleading—if not blatantly false.
However, there is an easy solution to this problem. Adoption.
When you adopt from rescues like Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue, which is foster-based, you have a much better chance of getting a dog that matches your needs. Rescues often know which of their dogs are good with children, cats, or other dogs. They also know their dogs’ individual personalities. Rescues will have puppies, but their full-grown dogs are already vaccinated and have fully developed immune systems. A good rescue or shelter can help you find the right companion for you and your family. And you will save hundreds or thousands of dollars by adopting instead of going to a breeder or pet shop. More importantly, you won’t be helping to keep abusive breeders like Tom Grove in business. When adding a dog to your family, please remember to adopt, not shop.