They say that dogs are man’s best friend, and this could not be a more fitting sentiment when it comes to service dogs. For vulnerable people all across the USA, these amazing animals serve as emotional and physical support.
A service dog can not only improve someone’s quality of life, but it can also allow those living with a disability or medical condition to lead a more independent and rewarding life. If you are thinking about getting a service dog, but unsure about the whole process, this article will guide you through the steps.
What is a Service Dog?
According to the CDC, there are more than 61 million Americans living with a disability. Yet for many of these, there is not the necessary support from a friend or family member 24 hours a day. However, by using a service dog, the lives of millions of people are being improved.
But not just any dog can qualify to be called a service dog. These are animals that have been specifically trained for the purpose of providing support to a person with a disability. They are also trained to perform tasks for the person and these can vary vastly. Most service dogs will be trained to remind their owners to take medication, will provide alerts for those who are hard of hearing or have a visual impairment and will be able to provide assistance in an emergency medical situation.
Moreover, a service dog is able to provide emotional support for owners who struggle with mental disabilities. These dogs are able to provide effective emotional support for people who suffer with things like anxiety and PTSD and calm them during an anxious time.
What Medical Conditions are Service Dogs Suitable for?
When a service dog is trained, it will normally be trained with the specific needs of the owner in mind and the unique needs of their condition.
What is amazing is that trainers are able to adapt the way that the dog behaves according to the condition that they will be supporting. Since each condition has varied and often complex needs, it is important to ensure your service dog is able to respond to these needs appropriately.
Different disabilities and medical conditions that a service dog can cater for and assist the patient with include:
- Picking up items
- Opening and closing of doors
- Helping the owner with dressing and undressing
- Putting laundry into the washing machine and taking it out again
- Operating push buttons
- Raising the alarm in an emergency
- These dogs are suitable for a range of conditions including cerebral palsy, arthritis, spinal injuries, brain injuries, and muscular dystrophy
- Provide comfort and security for the owner
- Alert family members if the owner if injured or harming themselves
- Deep pressure for calming
- Assist with mobility and balance
- Help the owner to get up in the morning
- Help with social situations
- Retrieve items
- Respond to alarms
- Raise the alarm to alert others by barking when the person is having a seizure
- Provide comfort and protection by lying next to the person during a seizure
- Activating an emergency alert button to call for assistance
- Stopping the person from wandering off and injuring themselves by blocking their path
- Retrieve a phone or medication when requested by the person
Guide Dogs for the Blind
- Helping owners around obstructions
- Help in crossing roads
- Finding doors and entrances
- The ability to judge height and width so that the owner does not bump their head or shoulders
- When a noise is heard, such as a crying baby, a doorbell, or an alarm, the dog will touch the human and look towards the source of the sound
- They can alert owners to a phone call or text message
- Provide emotional support
- Alert owners to chemical changes in the blood through their sense of smell
- Raise the alarm to obtain assistance from family or friends within the home
- There are some service dogs that are able to use a special k9 phone to alert emergency services
Psychiatric Service Dogs
- Provide a feeling of safety
- Making a barrier between the owner and other people for reassurance and security
- Provide a way to get outside and exercise where the owner may not otherwise have the confidence to do this
- Sense changes in their owners mood and anxiety level and react accordingly
Common Service Dog Breeds
While most dogs can be trained to do party tricks, it takes a special kind of animal to undergo training to be an effective service dog. These dogs must be intelligent and willing to learn as well as incredibly obedient.
Moreover, a good service dog must have a calm attitude and be able to keep their composure in public. They should be friendly and not uncomfortable around new people or in new places. But more importantly, you need a service dog with whom you can form a strong and reliable bond.
Most people are familiar with dogs like labradors and golden retrievers working as service dogs and these are among the most common breeds. They are very intelligent and aim to please their owners as well as being excellent with children. However, there are many other types of service dogs which can include:
- German shepherds are incredibly loyal and will protect their owners to their own fault.
- Poodles are often used as service dogs due to their friendly disposition and how easy they are to train.
- Boxers are hardworking dogs that form loyal bonds with their owners.
- Great danes make a good choice for a mobility dog and are very gentle.
- Border collies are energetic and friendly.
- Bernese mountain dogs are often used as a service dog because they are loyal and just want to please their owners.
- Pomeranians make excellent service dogs because they are eager to learn and easy to train.
How Much Does it Cost to Train a Service Dog?
There are a variety of different programs that run around the United States which are specifically designed for people who require a service dog. However, these don’t come without their costs and so before you opt to take on a service dog, you must be prepared to pay for the training as well as the ongoing care of the dog.
You can expect to pay in the region of $5000 for a service dog but this cost can skyrocket to upwards of $20,000 if you need a dog that has been trained to meet very specific needs. It is possible to buy a fully trained service dog and in some cases, the cost of this can be as high as $50,000. Of course, how much you pay will depend on the breed of the dog and whether it has specialized in a particular area of training.
This can be a challenging amount of money to raise, especially for a vulnerable person but there are schemes that operate where certain individuals may be eligible for a grant.
As well as providing the cost of training, you will also be expected to provide full care for your dog. This will include things like food, veterinary care, pet insurance, and entertainment.
Can You Train Your Dog to Be a Service Dog?
If you already have a dog, you may be interested in having it undergo the necessary training to become a service dog. This is great if you have a strong bond with your animal and don’t want to risk losing that by bringing another animal into the home.
While it is possible to train your own dog to be a service dog, this will require a trainer with extensive knowledge and experience. There are resources that allow you to locate a suitable trainer and we would highly recommend doing this to ensure that the person has the correct experience.
It is also worth keeping in mind that training a service dog is not something that can be done overnight. These dogs will need to take as many as 120 hours of training on top of 30 hours practice in public before they are ready to serve. All in all, this can take as long as six months.
How to Qualify for a Service Dog?
There are a lot of complications that make it difficult to determine off the bat whether a person is eligible for a service dog. While the ADA defines a disability in a legal sense as opposed to a medical sense, federal laws see things in a different light.
If you have been thinking about getting a service dog and believe that you would benefit from one then it is important that you check the following eligibility criteria:
Aside from being eligible to adopt a service dog, there are things that you should consider about where you get your dog. There are various organizations that work with disabled people who require a service dog and each one has a slightly different approach. But whether they are offering puppies, a ready-trained service dog, or make you part of the training, you must ensure you are working with a reputable organization.
Outdated and even cruel training methods are sometimes used including shock collars but this is not something that is beneficial to the welfare of the dog. Reputable organizations will use effective and safe training methods to ensure that your dog is well-cared for and can do the job it needs to. While it can be difficult finding a good organization, since there are so many, checking online reviews and speaking to other people who have used the service often yields the best results.
How to Pay for a Service Dog?
There is no getting away from the fact that a service dog doesn’t come cheap. Unfortunately, for many people with disabilities, being out of work is common and this can make it very difficult to find the funds to get a service dog that is so vital to being independent.
Fortunately, there are several ways that you can get around the high cost and make getting a service dog a more realistic opportunity.
There are some organizations out there that offer grants to people who are in need of a service dog. One of the most notable is the United States Department of Veteran Affairs. They match veterans with service dogs organizations making it easier to access the right support. Alternatively, there are some non-profit organizations that offer service dogs for free. However, in this case, you would need to meet the threshold criteria and this is something that will differ from place to place. Moreover, you will need to find an organization that specializes in your condition such as those geared towards people with autism, veterans, and many others.
In most cases, an organization will need written confirmation from your doctor regarding your medical issue or disability. Moreover, they will likely pay a visit to your home and spend time interviewing you. Even after this, you may have to wait several months or years to be matched with the correct dog, but this depends on the organization you are using.
Further on in this guide, we will be providing details on some of the US service dog organizations that you can contact for further assistance.
FSA (Flexible Spending Accounts)
Typically speaking, a flexible spending account is not designed to be used to provide for a pet. However, in the case of a service or support dog, you are allowed to use funds from an FSA to provide for the animal or pay for its training.
That said, you cannot just take any dog and claim it as being a service animal. You must provide the correct documentation and proof from a doctor in the form of a letter of medical necessity to qualify.
If you are struggling to find a viable way of funding your service dog then there are many ways you can raise the money yourself. For example, you might create a Go Fund Me page or raise the money through other channels like this.
Crowdfunding has become an extremely popular way to raise money for worthy causes and you will find that most people are very open to donating when someone is genuinely in need.
Many people opt to take out a personal loan but if you decide to go down this avenue, it is essential that you are able to afford the repayments and that you won’t fall into a financial struggle. Another way to manage the costs by yourself would be to use a flexible spending account but this will need to be linked to your insurance policy.
U.S. Service Dog Organizations
The access to organizations for service dogs in the USA is vast and we are fortunate enough to have a variety of programs aimed at various needs. If you are considering getting a service dog, then one of the following organizations will likely be able to assist you.
NEADS is one of the most diverse service dog organizations and offers a variety of dogs for people with autism, visual impairments, mobility issues, and PTSD. Children over the age of 12 with a physical disability and those over 15 who suffer with hearing loss will qualify for the program.
While the cost of training a service dog costs NEADS $45,000, they only ask for an $8000 contribution from qualifying participants. Moreover, you can access this service from almost every US state.
The Seeing Eye
The Seeing Eye is an organization dedicated to providing support through service dogs to those who are blind. There is a link on the website to create a Just Giving page if you would struggle to meet the costs. However, The Seeing Eye is one of the most affordable options and you are asked to only make a small donation of $150 on your first visit to see the dog as well as $50 for each visit thereafter. If you are a veteran, this fee is lowered to just $1.
Paws with a Cause
Paws with a Cause aims to provide service dogs for people whose physical disability affects one or more of the limbs. They may also assist those with autism and hearing impairment and one of the greatest things about Paws with a Cause is that they do not charge their clients for the service dog and are funded by donations. The organization serves most of the western states as well as Arizona.
Little Angels Service Dogs
Little Angels provides a variety of service dogs including psychiatric support dogs, diabetes alert, hearing loss, seizure response, mobility assistance, and dogs for autism. The service operates on both the east and west coast and while the cost of training is close to $40,000, you will only be asked to provide $9500 of this cost.
Canine Companions aims to provide assistance in the form of service dogs to adults who have a physical disability. They also provide service dogs to children over five with a physical or cognitive impairment and veterans. They have locations across the country although they are not in every state. Dogs from this organization come at no cost to the client.
Doggie Does Good
Doggie Does Good trains a wide variety of service dogs and will tailor the training to the needs of the client. The organization is located in California and since it is a non-profit service, you will not be expected to foot any of the costs of training the dog.
Paw4People is a non-profit organization that has been operating since the 90s. It operates across 22 states but will consider placing dogs in all locations around the US. This program aims to bring service dogs to children and teens with a disability but there are also sister programs running for veterans suffering with PTSD and other related conditions.
Assistance Dogs International
Assistance Dogs International is not a direct supplier or trainer of service dogs but a global non-profit organization that accredits service dog organizations. In order to qualify for the accreditation, service dog trainers must meet the strict standards of ADI. This is a great resource to put you in touch with reputable service dog providers.
Paws for Ability
Paws for Ability is a non-profit organization that provides service dogs to veterans and children with disabilities. For children who are unable to handle a dog, parents can enter to make a three unit team meaning the child can still benefit from having a service dog. The cost of training one of these dogs can be up to $60,000, but Paws for Ability asks for a partial fee of $17,000 which is often gathered through fundraising. The organization is based in Ohio but places dogs around the country, there is also a base in Alaska.
America’s VetDogs specializes in service dogs for veterans and emergency responders both retired and still in service. There is no charge to the client as the costs are totally covered by fundraising and donations. However, you will need to go to the campus in New York for a two week residential training program with your dog.
Service Dogs for America
With dogs being placed around the United States, Service Dogs for America is a program that trains dogs for a variety of needs. They specialise in dogs for veterans as well as those with mobility issues, for vets, applicants must be at least 21 however for other conditions, children as young as 12 can apply. Dogs cost $25,000 but the organization will work with you to help raise the money.