Service dogs
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Service dogs are trained to provide assistance and therapy to various people with disabilities. They can aid in navigation for people who are visually impaired, assist a child who is having a seizure, calm a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can even dial 911 in the event of an emergency. Many individuals depend on service dogs to help them live their everyday lives.

According to the ADA, service dogs are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities. Examples of such work or tasks 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 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack or performing other duties.

Tahoma Guiry, 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 his or her 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 the 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 physically disabled individuals 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. They include:

Grants

Several organizations can 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. Non-profit organizations also train and match service dogs with people in need. For a full list of resources, see below.

Fundraising

Some organizations provide partial financial assistance for the cost of their service dog 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.

Programs that provide complete or partial financial assistance

It’s important to research the best organization from 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.

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.

America’s VetDogs  – the Veteran’s K-9 Corps, Inc.: The service dog programs of America’s VetDogs® were created to provide enhanced mobility and renewed independence to veterans, active-duty service members and first responders with disabilities.

Brigadoon Service Dogs: Brigadoon Service Dogs provides trained service dogs for veterans, children, adults with physical, developmental, and behavioral health disabilities to promote a more independent and enriched life.

Patriot Paws: This organization trains and provides service dogs at no cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to help them restore their physical and emotional independence.

K9s for Warriors: K9s for Warriors provides service canines to veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma as a result of military service post 9/11. K9s for Warriors works to return veterans to civilian life with dignity and independence.

NEADS: Service dogs for veterans programs match highly skilled service dogs with United States veterans from any conflict who have a permanent physical disability, are deaf or who have profound hearing loss, or have MS or other progressive conditions. (These disabilities do not need to be combat-related.)

Retrieving Freedom, Inc.: Retrieving Freedom is an ADI accredited 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to training service dogs to serve the needs of veterans and children with autism.

Autism

Service dogs may employ any number of combinations to work with autistic individuals, 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.

Can Do Canines: Can Do Canines provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, free of charge. Fully-trained dogs, sometimes adopted from local animal shelters, are provided to clients with mobility challenges, hearing loss or deafness, seizure disorders, diabetes complicated by hypoglycemia unawareness or children with autism.

Dogs for Better Lives: Certified professional staff train and place assistance dogs with individuals who are deaf or who have hearing loss and with children who are on the autism spectrum. Professionals also use our dogs in their work with special needs students and others who benefit from the dogs’ calming presence.

Canine Companions for Independence: Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities (including individuals with autism) by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.

Paws With A Cause: Paws With A Cause® enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities nationally through custom-trained assistance dogs. PAWS® also works especially with deaf/hearing impaired individuals, individuals with seizure disorders, children with autism and people with physical disabilities.

NEADS: Service dogs through the NEADS Social Dog Program are trained in a variety of tasks that can address a range of issues facing a child with autism and his or her family.

Retrieving Freedom, Inc.: Retrieving Freedom is an ADI accredited 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to training service dogs to serve the needs of veterans and children with autism.

People with physical disabilities

Physical disabilities could include those with mobility issues, including MS, muscular dystrophy, spinal injury, amputation, arthritis, cerebral palsy, or it could include visually impaired or hearing impaired individuals.  

Mobility issues

Brigadoon Service Dogs: Brigadoon Service Dogs provides trained service dogs for veterans, children, adults with physical, developmental, and behavioral health disabilities to promote a more independent and enriched life.

Canine Partners of the Rockies: CaPR specializes in training mobility assistance dogs. These dogs assist people with mobility limiting disabilities by retrieving objects, pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors, turning light switches off and on, barking to indicate that help is needed, etc.  

The Service Dog Project (SDP): The SDP has donated over 150 Great Dane service dogs to assist mobility-impaired individuals to achieve greater independence. Preference is given to veterans and their families as well as residents of the New England area. The Service Dog Project is a registered 501(c)(3) and is fully accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI).

Paws With a Cause: Paws With A Cause® enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities nationally through custom-trained assistance dogs. PAWS® also works especially with deaf/hearing impaired individuals, individuals with seizure disorders, children with autism and people with physical disabilities.

Canine Companions for Independence: Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit organization that enhances the lives of people with disabilities (including individuals with autism) by providing highly trained assistance dogs and ongoing support to ensure quality partnerships.

Service Dogs, Inc.: Service Dogs, Inc. builds better lives for Texans overcoming challenges through partnerships with custom trained assistance dogs provided free of charge, and helps individuals in particular who have severe hearing loss or loss of mobility.

Canine Partners for Life: CPL increases the independence and quality of life of individuals with physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities or who are in other situations of need. CPL provides and sustains professionally-trained service and companion dogs.

Can Do Canines: Can Do Canines provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, free of charge. Fully-trained dogs, sometimes adopted from local animal shelters, are provided to clients with mobility challenges, hearing loss or deafness, seizure disorders, diabetes complicated by hypoglycemia unawareness or children with autism.

Visual impairment

The Seeing Eye: The Seeing Eye is a philanthropic organization intended to enhance the independence, dignity and self-confidence of blind people through the use of Seeing Eye® dogs.

Guide Dogs for the Blind: Exceptional client services and a robust network of instructors, puppy raisers, donors and volunteers prepare highly qualified guide dogs to empower individuals who are blind or have low vision from throughout the United States and Canada.

Guiding Eyes for the Blind: Guiding Eyes for the Blind has a simple mission: to create meaningful connections between exceptional guide dogs and people with vision loss at no cost so that they can experience all of life’s adventures.

Guide Dogs of America: Guide Dogs of America empowers people who are blind and visually impaired to live with increased independence, confidence and mobility by providing expertly matched guide dog partners. Services are provided free of charge and available to people within the U.S. and Canada.

Guide Dogs of the Desert: Guide Dogs of the Desert has made a difference in the lives of individuals who are blind or visually impaired over the past 45 years. More than 1,400 client/guide dog teams from around the country have graduated from Guide Dogs of the Desert – enjoying richer, fuller lives.

Health

Paws With a Cause: Paws With A Cause® enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities nationally through custom-trained assistance dogs. PAWS® also works especially with deaf/hearing impaired individuals, individuals with seizure disorders, children with autism and people with physical disabilities.

Eyes Ears Nose and Paws: Eyes Ears Nose and Paws is a nonprofit organization located in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, North Carolina. The organization trains and place mobility assistance and medical alert dogs and provides ongoing support to working assistance dog teams that have graduated through its programs.

Canine Partners for Life: CPL increases the independence and quality of life of individuals with physical, developmental and cognitive disabilities or who are in other situations of need, including dogs who can detect low or high blood sugar levels (hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia) in the early stages.

Can Do Canines: Can Do Canines provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, free of charge. Fully-trained dogs, sometimes adopted from local animal shelters, are provided to clients with mobility challenges, hearing loss or deafness, seizure disorders, diabetes complicated by hypoglycemia unawareness or children with autism.

Children

Brigadoon Service Dogs: Brigadoon Service Dogs provides trained service dogs for veterans, children, adults with physical, developmental, and behavioral health disabilities to promote a more independent and enriched life.

Canine Partners of the Rockies: CaPR specializes in training mobility assistance dogs. These dogs assist people with mobility limiting disabilities by retrieving objects, pulling wheelchairs, opening and closing doors, turning light switches off and on, barking to indicate that help is needed, etc.

Can Do Canines: Can Do Canines provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, free of charge. Fully-trained dogs, sometimes adopted from local animal shelters, are provided to clients with mobility challenges, hearing loss or deafness, seizure disorders, diabetes complicated by hypoglycemia unawareness or children with autism.

Paws With a Cause: Paws With A Cause® enhances the independence and quality of life for people with disabilities nationally through custom-trained assistance dogs. PAWS® also works especially with deaf/hearing impaired individuals, individuals with seizure disorders, children with autism and people with physical disabilities.

NEADS: Service dogs through the NEADS Social Dog Program are trained in a variety of tasks that can address a range of issues facing a child with autism and his or her family.

Retrieving Freedom, Inc.: Retrieving Freedom is an ADI accredited 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to training service dogs to serve the needs of veterans and children with autism.

The importance of accreditation

“We are proud to say that we’re accredited by Assistance Dogs International (ADI),” says Sarah Mathers, development assistant at Patriot PAWS Service Dogs, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which trains and provides service dogs at no cost to disabled American veterans and others with mobile disabilities and PTSD to help them restore their physical and emotional independence. “ADI Standards are the benchmarks for excellence in the assistance dog industry and we strongly encourage anyone who is looking for a service dog organization to start with those organizations listed on the ADI website.”

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 a dog, training and medical needs.

  • 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, so to protect your pricey service dog investment, consider getting pet insurance.
  • Certain dog food companies offer discounted rates for service dogs. Here’s an example of a discount with Darwin’s Natural Pet Products.
  • 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 really expensive apartment complexes will allow service dogs.

Bottom line

Mathers said that there are countless stories of transformation. Patriot PAWS’ own veteran coordinator, Aaron Mixell, an Army veteran 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 said.

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.”

Mathers says, “It takes about 18-24 months and costs $35,000 to fully train and certify a Patriot PAWS service dog. We rely completely on private donations and grants to fund our training programs and do not charge our veterans a penny. The veterans we serve have already paid the ultimate price and this is the least we can do in return.”

Service dogs can be expensive for some. However, there are avenues you can take to afford one. If you need help in the form of a furry companion, don’t automatically assume it’ll be too expensive to get a service dog of your own.