Over the years, service dogs and working dogs in general, have shown the many ways they can assist those in need by offering autonomy along with a sense of security and comfort. Although I think highly of guide dogs for the blind and all working dogs, for this article, I will be focusing more specifically on service dogs who assist with a variety of disabilities from mobility challenges, autism or epileptic seizures, to more recently PTSD and diabetes. There are so many accounts of how these dogs have contributed to a person’s life, that their value is unquestionable. But once we’ve decided that we could benefit from a service dog, the journey towards acquiring such a unique animal can often be long and expensive. For most organizations, every single dog that is placed costs $25-40,000 to produce. Some nonprofit organizations have enough funds from donations and grants to cover that cost in full or in parts, while others are more limited and the clients will have to fund the dog themselves. But why are they so expensive? Does the cost really reflect the true value of such dogs?
Service dogs are usually required to accompany their human everywhere they go: to the mall, the supermarket, the movie theaters, the doctor’s office, to work or to school, to concerts and sporting events. Whether in a crowd, exposed to loud and sudden noises or when food is all over the floor, when people are clapping or when quiet and calm is required, no matter where they are and what is going on, service dogs have to be able to perform and respond to the person they’re assisting.
Training a dog to the point where he’ll stay silent and discreet under a restaurant table, even with waiters coming and going, food all over the floor and children trying to pet him, requires hours of controlled repetition and exposure. For that seemingly simple task alone, the trainer will be spending months of work. The dog needs to be reliable enough to work with an untrained handler; especially when that person has physical limitations. Service dogs typically know between 20 and 60 different behaviors, depending on their particular specialty. Those behaviors can be classified into two main groups: 1/ the behaviors required for public access, like leash walking, sit, down and other basic skills and 2/ the specialized skills, like retrieving objects from the floor, turning on and off light switches, opening doors, helping a person get up from the ground, assisting in the transition of the person from a wheelchair to a bed, alerting to a change of blood glucose levels, an upcoming seizure, or getting help. Each one of the behaviors, whether necessary to ensure appropriate behavior out in public or to specialize the dog to specific tasks, will require hours of methodic repetition with the trainer. To make things even more difficult, in order to reach the level of reliability required, each one of the behaviors also has to be practiced in a wide variety of settings and with different levels of distractions.
What we sometimes fail to recognize, is that many dogs simply don’t have the temperament to stay calm and responsive under such a wide variety of settings, so just selecting the right dogs to perform the job requires expertise. Even with careful breeding or selection from shelters or independent breeders, almost 50% of dogs recruited, don’t make it as service animals and will be put up for adoption as well behaved pets. As dogs go through adolescence, many develop fears and reactivity that would disqualify them from working out in public. In the process, organizations still have invested training time and resources to feed and care for those animal and these costs have to be covered in the ones that they do sell as service dogs. When all goes well, and the dogs complete the program, a large part of the price is due to the cost of keeping them during the many months to a couple of years it takes to get them ready for placement. The training itself typically takes 4-8 months on average, but since service dogs shouldn’t be placed until they are 1.5 to 2 years old when breeding, the dogs might be in the care of the organization for 2 years. Until they are ready for placement, the dogs require housing, food, veterinary care and professional training. It all adds up over time.
All in all, between the intense training required and the different expenses related to caring for the dog, having a dog in training is expensive for any organization. In addition to the dog alone, the companies also have overheads that can quickly bring expenses up. Some may have employees and building structures, marketing budgets and other operating expenses that will also influence the overall price of the dog.
When we’re in need of a service dog, there are a few ways to overcome the cost factor, so money alone shouldn’t stop you from getting the needed assistance:
Working with a not for profit organization. A few service dog organizations operate under a 501(c)3 format and some can place dogs at little to no cost to the recipient. How do they do that? Although the dogs still cost the same to produce, a large part of their activity is to do the fundraising themselves, so the cost of the dog is already covered by grants and donations. The downside to those organizations is that their waiting lists are typically saturated and getting a dog may take as long as 3-5 years. Some not for profit organizations however will require that you fundraise towards your service dog. How much you will need to fundraise will depend on the organization, but can be anywhere from $5-25,000.
Getting your own dog trained by a professional. If your dog has the right characteristics of breed, age, temperament and trainability, you may find a trainer who specializes in service dogs and can help you train your own dog. Because of the time it takes for each behavior, the trainer might need to take the dog to his or her facility, but as the dog will only be working on the behaviors that you need, the overall training time can be cut down when compared to a dog trained for all sorts of potential placements. Depending on your particular disability, you may not need a dog to go out in public and the training can then be reduced even more. You should however consider your dog’s age before choosing this option as you may not want to put thousands of dollars into training a dog that can only work for a few years.
Working with a for profit company. Such companies can also provide you with a fully trained dog in hand in a much shorter time than not for profits that are generally limited in how many dogs they can place, by how much money they can raise. Not all for-profits are equivalent in price and quality, however. Just like in any other profession, there are companies that will overcharge for their services. There are some breeders who will, for instance, place young puppies as service dogs and charge up to $25,000 even though you will have to do most of the training and may have a dog that can develop behavior problems as you go. On the other hand, there are trustworthy organizations that offer fully trained quality dogs. The best way to find out is to look for reviews and potential legal complaints.
If you still cannot afford the price of a service dog but don’t want to wait for one at reduced cost, one solution is to fundraise. Many people work with specialized organizations that will help with setting up fundraising options so that ultimately, there is no need to either break your piggy bank or take out a loan.
Getting a dog ready to assist a person overcome difficult health of physical challenges requires time, effort and money. Ultimately, the service these dogs can provide during many years is well worth it. Keep in mind though, that just like with any other purchase, looking for information, learning about your different options and watching out for those who may try to take advantage of you is recommended. With the many organizations providing assistance dogs and the different options available to fund such animals, cost alone should not limit those who need their help.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.