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Police investigation brings tidings of great joy

| Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Christmas came early for an Ohio-based service dog company.

Christmas is actually a $20,000 golden retriever trained as a Mobility Assistance Dog to help a 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. She was placed with a foster owner who failed to return her to 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit near Dayton that trains puppies to become service dogs.

The foster owner, Elizabeth Ann Flaherty, 24, of Ben Avon, who originally told 4 Paws officials that Christmas ran away, was arrested Friday on charges of theft and receiving stolen property.

Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Kathy Degler said Flaherty's attorney came to the police station on Tuesday morning in Squirrel Hill and turned Christmas over to officers. The dog was to be returned today to 4 Paws.

"I'm so glad she finally gave her up,"said Karen Shirk, the founder and executive director of 4 Paws for Ability. "We were all so excited. Everybody at 4 Paws was shouting when we got the call."

Flaherty brought Christmas to an East End veterinarian for an exam in June. The vet checked Christmas' microchip and saw that Christmas had been reported missing, Degler said. He confronted Flaherty who grabbed the dog and ran.

The vet called police, who found Flaherty. However, they did not find Christmas, Degler said.

Flaherty is free on her own recognizance. She has a preliminary hearing scheduled Monday in Pittsburgh Municipal Court.

"We've probably had 200 people who have fostered dogs," Shirk said. "Most people get attached to them and cry when they return them, but we never had someone keep a dog before."

Shirk said Christmas' future appears bright.

"Police said Christmas was acting outgoing, friendly and happy, so it sounds like she'll still be able to be a service dog," Shirk said

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