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How to Get a Service Dog: The Ultimutt Guide
By Adam Lee-Smith
Published: 06/18/2020, edited: 09/09/2022
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If you have a mental or physical disability, you might be wondering if you're eligible for a service dog. Service dogs are close companions to people with disabilities, helping them perform a wide range of essential tasks. Here's everything you need to know about getting a service dog and finding out if you qualify for a furry little helper.
What is a service dog?
As mentioned, a service dog is specially trained to assist people who have disabilities. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) states that any action performed by a service dog must be directly related to the individual's disability. For example, a guide dog for someone who's blind will help their handler navigate their surroundings.
With that definition in mind, are service dogs and emotional support animals the same thing? No, service dogs are separate from emotional support animals (ESAs). Service dogs are trained to help people with disabilities perform specific tasks, while emotional support dogs only offer companionship and usually have no specialized training.
Service dogs also have different legal protections than emotional support dogs. You can take your service almost anywhere you go, and most places can't legally deny access to your helpful pup. Meanwhile, the legal protection offered to emotional support dogs only covers living arrangements and air travel.
Common service dog breeds
Different breeds are better suited to specific tasks, so if you're buying a new furry friend for service training, you should check which breed fits your needs.
If you're unsure what pup is best for you, the most common service dog breeds include:
These breeds are caring, quick learners that can master a variety of tasks.
Registration and certification
You might be surprised to learn that your pooch doesn't need to be registered or certified to be considered a service dog. If you have a service dog, you may find it worthwhile to register your woofer with an organization like the United States Service Dog Registry as additional proof your pooch is properly trained.
To register your dog with one of these organizations, you'll need a doctor's certificate stating your disability and need for a service dog. Some people try to pass off their household pet as a service animal, causing issues for those who actually require help.
By registering your animal, you'll have a much easier time traveling and entering public places. One "pawticularly" great way of helping others identify that your pooch is a service dog is by getting them a fluorescent vest stating their helper status.
Training a service dog
The cost of training is one of the biggest challenges of getting a service dog. For basic tasks, service dog training can take anywhere from 4 to 6 months. If your pooch needs more complex training for disabilities like blindness, the training process can take over 2 years.
Most dog trainers who specialize in training services dogs charge between $150 and $250 an hour. Expenses can rack up fast, and depending on the required training, it could cost you anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.
If you can't afford the cost of training, you can always have a go at training your four-legged friend yourself. First, you'll need to make sure your pup has the right temperament and doesn't get easily distracted or flustered. They should also be solely focused on their handler and able to recall and retain information on different objects and situations.
If you're unsure whether your canine compadre is a good service dog candidate, use the AKC Canine Good Citizen training course as a guide.
Buying a service dog
In case you're short on time, or your current dog isn't a suitable candidate for training, you can also buy a service dog. Unfortunately, buying a service dog isn't any cheaper than training one. Purchasing a service dog is usually more expensive and can cost anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000 depending on your needs. In general, you can expect to pay around $25,000 for a service dog without any financial support.
These dogs are more expensive because they have to go through extensive training from puppyhood. Plus, these pooches tend to be more rigorously trained and are in high demand.
Financial support for a service dog
Most people can't afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a service dog. Thankfully, there are a few initiatives to help reduce this financial strain. Some nonprofit organizations, like Assistance Dogs International and Service Dogs of America, provide people with grants to help pay for purchasing or training a dog.
Occasionally, non-profits will even provide a service animal free of charge. Some states, like California, offer assistance through programs like the Assistance Dog Special Allowance, which gives people with disabilities $50 a month to help keep costs down.
If you're not eligible for a grant and it's available to you, you may want to consider taking out a credit card or loan to relieve some of the financial burden in the short term.
Service dog programs
Finding a suitable service dog can be challenging. Training for service dogs needs to be rigorous, and a dog needs to have the right temperament to be an effective service dog. Professional trainers of service dogs have very high standards, with 50% to 70% of trainee service dogs not making the cut.
In order to find a service dog with the best health, training, and temperament, it's best to get your service dog through a recognized breeding program. Getting a service dog through a breeding program ensures your service
dog will be able to stay focused in public, perform complicated tasks,
and provide emotional support.
Canine Companions, officially Canine Companions for Independence, Inc. (CCI), is one of the most famous service dog programs. CCI has been breeding Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers for 45 years for adults, children, and veterans with disabilities.
One of the oldest breeding programs is the Guide Dog Foundation, which for 75 years has been providing service dogs free of charge to people who are blind or visually impaired.
NEADS World Class Service Dogs is another service dog breeding program whose puppies are donated from recognized breeders. The organization also adopts dogs from shelters to be trained as service dogs for people with auditory disabilities. NEADS trains mostly Labrador Retrievers to support people with physical disabilities, autism, visual impairment, and PTSD.
Organizations and charities that provide support for service dogs
Several charities, programs, and organizations across the US support people with disabilities looking to get a service dog. From financial support to training programs, these charities aim to ease the financial burden of getting a service dog while making the process easier for individuals.
Both national and local charities across the US help support people with disabilities looking to get a service dog. The largest non-profit which provides service dogs to people with disabilities is Canine Companions.
Mental and physical disabilities
For-profit and non-profit organizations that may be able to provide some support for people with mental and physical disabilities include:
- Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC)
- Paws With A Cause
- PETCO Foundation
- Planet Dog Foundation
- Puppies Behind Bars
- Service Dogs Inc.
- Service Dogs for America
- Lions Club International
- Duo Dogs
- Assistance Dogs International
Blindness, visual impairment, and hard of hearing
For-profit and non-profit organizations that may be able to provide support for people with blindness, visual disabilities, and auditory disabilities include:
- The Seeing Eye
- Guiding Eyes for the Blind
- International Hearing Dog, Inc.
- Dogs for Better Lives
- Doggie Does Good
- NEADS World Class Service Dogs
- Guide Dog Foundation
Several organizations advocate for financial support for veterans with combat-related injuries and PTSD who require a service dog. These for-profit and non-profit organizations include: