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Life-changing companions: How to afford a service dog

Service dogs
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Service dogs are specifically trained to help individuals living with physical, psychiatric, intellectual or sensory disabilities.

Service dogs can help with physical needs like guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair and alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure. Dogs can also help with mental illness by reminding someone to take medications or calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack. Many individuals depend on service dogs to help them live their everyday lives.

Before you or a family member get a service dog, check your local laws about eligibility requirements and plan how you will be able to afford one.

Service dogs vs. emotional support dogs

Service dogs differ from emotional support dogs in that a service dog is trained to perform a job that their owner cannot. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act, Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access (ACA) Act.

An emotional support dog is a comfort animal that provides therapeutic benefits. Support animals do not have to be specifically trained. Emotional support dogs are protected under the Fair Housing Act and ACA Act but are not protected under the ADA Act.

Costs of getting and owning a service dog

Naturally, service dogs require extensive training. That training, in addition to veterinary care, staff and dog trainers, registration and more, can cost more than $25,000. Every situation is different, and it is good to assume that you will have additional expenses over the course of caring for your dog.

If you already have a dog and would like to have them trained to be a service dog, you can hire a professional dog trainer at rates ranging from around $150 to $250 an hour. However, this method can cost thousands of dollars, and it is not guaranteed that your dog will be able to adapt to being a service dog.

For many individuals who need a service dog, these costs might be out of budget. However, several organizations provide free or partial financial assistance to veterans, individuals who are visually impaired and individuals with physical disabilities. These organizations may also provide alternative methods of financing a service dog, even if you don’t meet the requirements to receive full financial assistance.

How to get a service dog

If you’re ready to find your new companion, start with these steps:

  1. Determine your eligibility. While exceptions exist, typically you must meet a threshold for certain medical conditions and the severity of those conditions in order to qualify for a service dog. Your condition may also determine the breed of dog you should look for. If you have questions, speak with your doctor.
  2. Find a program. There are many programs that match people with service dogs, and most specialize in certain medical conditions or needs. The programs listed on this page are a good place to start; it’s always best to compare a few different providers. You may also choose to put your own dog through training, but this may be more time-consuming and expensive.
  3. Gather supplies. Before your service dog comes home, you’ll want to prepare your living space with dog food, toys and other pet supplies. You may also wish to get service dog certification. This certificate is optional, but you may choose to carry it in public and show it to inquirers instead of explaining your condition.

Financing options

The initial costs and subsequent upkeep of a service dog can be overwhelming, but you may be eligible for financing help.

Grants

Several organizations provide grant assistance for individuals who need a service dog. Organizations that can help include the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which provides service dog benefits and matches vets with accredited organizations. Nonprofit organizations also train and match service dogs with people in need. For a full list of resources, see the list below.

Fundraising

Some organizations provide partial financial assistance for the cost of service dogs and encourage families to fundraise the remaining amount in their community through various channels.

FSA accounts

You can use a flexible spending account (FSA) attached to your insurance policy to buy a service dog if you get a letter of medical necessity (LMN) from your doctor.

Personal loans

If you don’t meet specific requirements for financial assistance from an organization and are unable to fundraise, personal loans can be another option for financing your service dog. Unlike grants or fundraisers, personal loans must be repaid, but you may be able to find loan amounts high enough to cover the costs of adoption, training and vet visits, even if you have bad credit.

However, taking out a personal loan for a service dog could be financially risky. A dog is a long-term investment and will require food, vet visits and other costs. Taking on an investment like that by putting yourself into debt is not a good idea unless you feel certain you will be able to pay the loan off on time and afford your dog’s needs in the future.

Programs that provide complete or partial financial assistance

It’s important to find the best organization for your specific area and needs. Below is a list of fully accredited organizations, programs and grants that can help. For a geographical search of all accredited service dog organizations, visit Assistance Dogs International and enter your exact geographical location.

Programs for veterans

The VA provides service dog benefits and refers people to accredited agencies. Many of these organizations do not charge for the dog or the dog’s training.

Programs for people with autism

Service dogs may employ any number of strategies to work with individuals with autism, including behavior disruption, tethering and search and rescue tracking.

Programs for people with physical disabilities

Physical disabilities could include mobility issues, including MS, muscular dystrophy, spinal injury, amputation, arthritis or cerebral palsy, or visual and hearing impairment.

Mobility issues

Visual impairment

General health concerns

Programs for children

Service dogs can provide companionship and physical assistance to children with disabilities or other needs.

The importance of accreditation

Sarah Mathers, the former development assistant at Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, strongly encourages any individual to look at service dog organizations that are accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI), which sets industry and worldwide standards for individuals who train dogs.

“ADI Standards are the benchmarks for excellence in the assistance dog industry,” says Mathers.

ADI accreditation requires service animal programs to meet administrative and facility standards, like operating as a nonprofit organization, and demonstrating financial transparency and hygienic kennels and training facilities. The ADI also sets standards for respectful communication with disabled clients and ethical and humane handling of dogs under their care.

Although you’re not required to go through an ADI-accredited program to get a service dog, doing so ensures that the service dog received the care and comprehensive training needed to successfully serve your needs. It also helps ensure a good match between a service dog and their handler.

Other financial options to consider

Here are a few things to consider as you search for a service dog:

  • If you don’t qualify for full financial assistance, it’s possible to adopt your own dog and utilize a certified independent trainer to offset some of the larger costs associated with using one organization for adopting, training and caring for a dog. Note that there is no guarantee that your dog may be trainable. You may want to speak to an expect before choosing a breed.
  • If you need to travel with your dog, service dogs are protected by the ACA Act and can travel with you on any airline, free of charge.
  • If you need pet financial aid, several organizations and resources offer assistance for pet owners who need help with vet bills and other expenses. Check out the Humane Society website for more information.
  • The IRS allows you to claim service dogs on your taxes, including dog purchase, maintenance (food, veterinary care and grooming) and training costs.
  • Pet insurance covers dental, illness, accidents and similar expenses.
  • Certain dog food companies, such as Darwin’s Natural Pet Products, offer discounted rates for service dogs.
  • Veterinarians often offer discounts to individuals with service dogs. Ask your veterinarian for more information.
  • Landlords are required as part of the Fair Housing Act to make reasonable accommodations to service dogs, so don’t assume that only expensive apartment complexes will allow service dogs.

The bottom line

While service dogs can be an investment, they have the power to change lives. Patriot PAWS’ own veteran coordinator, Aaron Mixell, is an Army veteran who was seriously injured by an IED blast that left him with traumatic brain injury and debilitating post-traumatic stress. “As a result of his PTSD, Aaron was literally living in his closet,” Mathers says.

“Mixell and his service dog, Chief, have been a team for about four years now, and Aaron is a completely different person,” says Mathers. “He would tell you that Chief saved his life.”

If you are planning to adopt a service dog, make sure that you are financially prepared to add a new family member to your home. While grants and programs are available to make service dogs more affordable for those in need, owning a dog is a financial responsibility in its own right and will come with long-term expenses you’ll ultimately cover yourself.

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Written by
Rashawn Mitchner
Associate loans editor
Rashawn Mitchner is a former associate editor at Bankrate.
Edited by
Loans Editor