For thousands of years, dogs have been at our sides.

They help us hunt, herd our livestock, and guard our homes. They keep our feet warm at night, make us laugh, and give us comfort when we need a friend. Dogs have also stepped into the invaluable role of helping us live independent and active lives when we need physical or psychological support.

Have you ever wondered how an ordinary dog becomes a Service Animal? “Ordinary” probably isn’t the correct term; it takes a very special canine to become officially recognized by ADA-approved organizations, and a considerable investment in training her.

What Is a Service Dog?

There’s a lot of confusion and debate about the legitimacy of Service or Support dogs, but there’s a difference in the eyes of the law.

According to the Americans with Disability Act, “A service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.  The task(s) performed by the dog must be directly related to the person’s disability.”

The following are examples of the traditional Service Dog descriptions:

  • A dog that alerts its hearing-impaired owner when the doorbell or phone rings
  • A dog that guides its vision-impaired owner around obstacles and safely across roadways
  • A person with epilepsy or diabetes might rely on their trained dog’s heightened senses and awareness to alert them when their blood sugars are outside their normal range, or when a seizure is imminent
  • A dog trained to pick up dropped items, open doors, and turn off light switches for a mobility-impaired person.
  • A dog trained to respond to an anxiety or panic attack as it occurs, and perform a specific function to reduce the impact of the attack.

According to the ADA, a dog is considered an emotional support dog if it simply provides ongoing emotional comfort to its owner. Therapy animals, those brought to schools, hospitals, and convalescent homes to cheer up patients and stressed students, are also exempt from Service Dog recognition. Even dogs that are in the process of being trained for ADA-compliance aren’t allowed the same legal protections.

Individual states, however, are permitted to be more lenient than ADA standards. (You can find out your own state laws by contacting your State Attorney’s office or website.)

While most civilians with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder aren’t qualified to have a dog that’s ADA-approved, the Veterans Administration is (begrudgingly) working Assistance Dogs International (ADI), the most-respected resource organization for Service Dogs, to study the benefits of Service Dogs for military personnel suffering combat-related PTSD.

Training a Service Dog

Whether you’re born with an impairment or you lose certain abilities from a serious illness or injury, a well-trained Service Dog can help you regain your independence. Even though the ADA doesn’t require you to have your dog professionally trained, and doesn’t specify eligible dog breeds, it’s important to select a dog with the right temperament, size, and intelligence to assist you at home and in public.

Some things should be a given, in spite of legislation:

  • Don’t leave the seat up
  • Eat your vegetables
  • Make sure your Service Dog is trained with professional supervision

Assistance Dogs International members include trainers and organizations whose methods meet ADI’s standards. ADI accreditation is recommended by ADA and the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Many organizations raise dogs from puppyhood, often allowing volunteers to socialize them, take them through the AKC Canine Good Citizen program, and acclimate them to distracting situations such as traffic, crowds, and even gunshots and fireworks. Once the dogs reach a certain age, they’re evaluated for candidacy to enter the more rigorous training programs specific to their future “job” as a Service Dog.

Organizations have very high standards, and not all dogs pass the final requirements to be placed with an owner. The dropout rate for organization-trained service dogs can be as high as 50 to 70 percent.— AKC

Some of the best-known and most reputable service dog organizations include:

ADI also accredits independent Service Dog trainers who can work with owners who want to raise their own dogs and share in the training responsibilities.

How Can I Get a Trained Service Dog?

It can cost as much as $25,000 to raise and train a competent Service Dog, whether you are the primary trainer or you obtain her from an organization. Many of the latter offer scholarship programs, and with some, your dog and training are completely donation-funded.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re free and clear of expenses. Most Service Dog organizations require that their person/dog “teams” to go through a final training process, in which the person learns the dog’s commands, how to properly care for their dog, and to be sure the team is a good match.

You might spend a lot of money out-of-pocket for travel expenses to and from your training, and if the organization doesn’t pay for the dog’s vet care and food (some do) throughout the dog’s life, you’ll be responsible for as much as $1,200 per year in maintaining your dog’s health… not to mention ongoing training and consultations.

You may also miss work, and need to arrange for childcare and house-sitting while you’re away for training.

You might “get” a Service Dog, but organizations often retain ownership of the animal. This allows them to determine which vet you use, and the quality of food your dog eats. There’s an upside, however; if you and your dog don’t make a good team, or the dog turns out to fail in her duties, you’ll get paired up with a new animal.

When the dog is “retired”, you might apply to adopt the animal as a family pet, and get a new working partner to replace her.

How Do I Finance My Service Dog?

If your choice of organization doesn’t cover all the expenses involved in getting a Service Dog, you’ll have to make up the difference. In March 2018, the Washington Post reported that The VA is still officially opposed to legislation requiring it to pay for Service Dogs for military veterans, but there are several nonprofits working hard to help combat vets get their canine partners.

Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC) raises funds and pursues grants to help individuals afford their participation in ADI-accredited Service Dog matching and training programs.

If you have supplemental insurance, your cash payouts will likely cover all the costs of training and caring for your dog, as well as any out-of-pocket expenses. These types of insurance products may include:

If you don’t have supplemental insurance or ADUC support doesn’t cover all your expenses, you can also offset your Service Dog costs through community and civic organizations, or online donation sites such as GoFundMe.

For those who can’t put a price tag on their independence, a Service Dog is an investment that provides invaluable rewards, allowing physically and psychologically challenged people the ability to socialize, work, and pursue their hobbies and passions without the need to rely on family and friends. Service Dogs enjoy having a purpose, as well, and they truly live up to the title of “Man’s Best Friend”.