Life-changing companions: How to afford a service dog

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Service dogs are trained to provide assistance and therapy to people with disabilities. This can include guiding people who are blind, alerting people who are deaf, pulling a wheelchair, alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure, reminding a person with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack or performing other duties. Many individuals depend on service dogs to help them live their everyday lives.

Tahoma Guiry, former chief marketing officer for K9s for Warriors, says that what a service dog can do for veterans specifically is nothing short of astounding. “Some veterans will come in and will not have been to a store in a few years, have insomnia, panic attacks, depression, and when they come into our facility, you can see a transformation. They get more and more confident.”

Service dogs differ from emotional support dogs in that a service dog is trained to perform a job that their owner cannot. On the other hand, an emotional support dog is a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefits. Support animals do not have to be specifically trained. Service dogs are protected by the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act, Fair Housing Act and Air Carrier Access (ACA) Act.

Costs of getting and owning a service dog

Naturally, service dogs require extensive training. That training, in addition to veterinary costs, staff and dog trainers, registration and more, runs the average cost of a service dog between $20,000 and $60,000. For many individuals who need a service dog, these costs can be way out of their budget. However, there are several options to make a service dog more affordable, and many organizations provide service dogs free of charge to qualified veterans.

Every situation is different, but it is important to keep in mind additional costs to upkeep your dog. These costs can include the following:

There are several organizations that provide free or partial financial assistance to veterans, those who are visually impaired, and individuals with physical disabilities in need. They also provide alternative methods of financing a service dog, even if you don’t meet the specific requirements to receive full financial assistance.

Financing options

The initial costs and subsequent upkeep of a service dog can be overwhelming, but there are other financing options available.

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.

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 to distract and disrupt repetitive behaviors or meltdowns, tethering to prevent and protect a child from wandering and search and rescue tracking if a child does wander.

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

Before selecting an organization for your service dog, make sure to do your research. “ADI Standards are the benchmarks for excellence in the assistance dog industry,” says Sarah Mathers, former development assistant at Patriot PAWS Service Dogs.

Mathers says that she strongly encourages any individual to look at service dog organizations that are accredited by ADI, which set industry and worldwide standards for individuals who train dogs.

Other financial considerations

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. Here are a few things to consider:

  • 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, there are several organizations and resources 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 more.
  • 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.”

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