Have you been wondering how to get a service dog? If you have a physical disability or a debilitating health condition that interferes with your everyday life, you may qualify for a service dog. Unlike pets or emotional support animals, service dogs are trained to perform specific tasks and help disabled people navigate daily life challenges.
For instance, a blind person would find it difficult to move around after everyone leaves home for work. Someone with a mental condition may suffer to death if a panic attack hits when there’s nobody home to help them get medical help quickly. It’s where a trained canine can help.
A service dog can be a game-changer in the life of a disadvantaged person. From guide dogs that help the blind navigate the streets and psychiatric dogs that help manage mental disorders to hearing dogs that alert and lead people with hearing impairment to specific sounds, the help of a trained canine is priceless.
Learn how much a service dog costs and how to get a service dog for free.
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What Do Service Dogs Do?
Service dogs are working animals, not pets. They act as companions and aides to people with health conditions or a disability that may prevent people from accomplishing vital day-to-day activities.
The service dogs are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for mobility impaired, deaf, blind, or people living with invisible health conditions like diabetes and mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, or depression.
What’s the difference between a service dog and a pet?
Service dogs shouldn’t be confused with regular pets or emotional dogs. Training is what sets the two apart. Pets are meant to provide comfort and therapeutic presence to their owners, but they aren’t trained to perform specific health-related tasks. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks meant to help a disadvantaged person accomplish necessary tasks like helping a blind person move around or bringing a person water and medication during a medical emergency.
The work of a service dog must be directly linked to a person’s disability. Common tasks performed by service dogs include:
- Helping blind people move around
- Remind a person with a mental illness to take prescribed medication
- Alerting and leading deaf people to or away from sounds
- Pulling a wheelchair
- Alerting and protecting a person who is having a seizure
- Calming a person with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) during an anxiety attack
- Bringing a phone over during a medical emergency to call your therapist or a support system
- Providing pressure against one’s chest or abdomen to create a calming effect
What are the Service Dog Qualifications?
Not all people with disabilities qualify for a service dog. For instance, about 31% of US adults experience some form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. But a large number experience only mild impairments. It means only a few end up qualifying for psychiatric service dogs.
Before you figure out how to get a service dog, you should first know whether you qualify for one. According to the ADA act 2010, “The work or task a dog has been trained to provide must be directly related to the person’s disability. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as service animals under the ADA.”
In other words, you must have a disability that limits you from performing life-important tasks on your own without assistance. Your disability could be physical, mental, or any other debilitating health condition.
For example, a blind person may qualify for a service dog trained to help them see and move around. In contrast, a diabetic person may qualify for a service dog trained to alert a person to dangerous blood sugar levels and remind them to take their prescribed medication.
The point is, the service dog you qualify for must perform one critical task for you, and your disability must be directly related to the tasks the dog performs.
Here are the criteria you must meet to be eligible for a service dog:
- You must have a physical disability or debilitating health condition.
- You should be able to participate in the dog’s training process.
- You should have a stable home environment.
- Have the ability to care for and maintain control of the service dog independently.
If you have a physical disability or a health condition that doesn’t qualify as “debilitating,” you may not qualify for a service dog. In that case, you may opt for an emotional support animal or a pet. The dogs provide comfort, unconditional love, and emotional support that affords you the therapeutic presence you may need to calm down mild health conditions.
It’s important to note that pets and emotional support animals don’t enjoy the same legal protections and privileges as service dogs. A service dog must be allowed in any public or private spaces where people are allowed. Since emotional support animals are mostly regarded as pets, they are only afforded a few privileges under the ADA act.
How Do You Get A Service Dog?
Now you know what service dogs are, what they do, and the qualification criteria for a service dog. How do you get a service dog?
Follow these steps to get a service dog:
Get a Doctor’s Recommendation
To apply for a service dog, you’ll need to prove that you have a condition that qualifies for a service animal. Have a doctor or a licensed health professional diagnose your disability. The medical professional must provide you with a prescription or recommendation letter indicating that a service dog can help manage your disability or mitigate your mental health condition.
Apply for a Service Dog From an Agency
Once you have the doctor’s paperwork, the next step is to apply for a service dog from an agency. Find organizations specializing in training service dogs to perform complicated tasks like guide dogs, psychiatric dogs, and hearing dogs.
Of course, the training isn’t free. You can be asked to pay up to $20,000 or more to obtain a service dog from a service dog agency. That can be a massive barrier to entry, especially for disadvantaged people from low-income families. It leads us to the next point below.
Plan a Fundraiser
Asking someone from a low-income family to pay $20,000 out of pocket is unreasonable. Some of these people live off SNAP food stamps. Others even rely on free appliances from the government, and charities keep their kitchens going.
Luckily, many dog training agencies provide fundraising options for disadvantaged people to obtain service dogs through platforms like GoFundMe, Fundly, Double the Donation, DonateKindly, GlobalGiving, among others.
Train One Yourself
If all else fails, you can decide to DIY a service dog. It’s the case if you only want the dog to perform simple tasks. Consider enlisting the help of a professional dog trainer, friends, or family members who are good at training dogs to help you in the process. It won’t be easy to DIY a service dog to perform complex tasks, though. But nothing is impossible for someone who’s determined.
You can take advantage of free government internet and laptops for low-income families and follow YouTube videos or online articles on how to train a service dog yourself. This tutorial by American Kennel Club will give you a good head start.
How Much Does It Cost To Register a Service Dog?
Knowing the cost of a service animal is vital when figuring out how to get a service dog. The cost of training a service dog comes down to several factors, including:
- The tasks the dog will need to perform: Do you need the dog to perform complex vs. simple tasks?
- Training time: Depends on how obedient your dog is and how fast he picks up on the training. It can take six to 24 months to train a service dog fully.
- Your location: Professional dog trainers charge differently in various parts of the world. In the US, it costs $150-$250 per hour to train a service dog.
All these factors play a role in the overall cost of training and registering a service dog. Generally, training service dogs is expensive. A service dog receives an average of 600 hours of training and costs most service dog organizations in the US between $30,000 to $40,000 to train one service dog.
To mitigate the cost, some people opt to train the dogs themselves with the help of a certified dog trainer. It can still be expensive because professional dog trainers charge between $150-$250 per hour to train a service animal. Much depends on the task the dog is being trained on and how quickly it learns. The cost can quickly skyrocket to about $25,000 to fully train a specialized service dog.
The total cost includes acquiring the dog, training cost, medical bills, and the registration fees to apply for a service dog. The cost could be lower if you need the dog trained to perform simple tasks like alerting or providing emotional support because such dogs don’t require intense training.
As you can see, it’s a costly venture to train a service animal. But can we put a price on someone’s well-being? The help of a specialized service dog is priceless if it can help a disadvantaged family member live a better life.
That said, there are charitable organizations that provide free to low-cost service dogs to those who need them but cannot afford one.
Places To Get a Service Dog Infographic
How To Get A Free Service Dog?
The cost of obtaining a service dog is above the reach of many low-income families. Luckily, there are organizations out there dedicated to partnering people with free service dogs or at a reasonably low cost.
Some organizations provide free service dogs for autism, while others offer financial grants for service dogs to people living with physical or mental health conditions.
Get A Free Service Dog For the Visually Impaired
If you are blind or visually impaired, you can get a service dog from the following organizations:
1. The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation
The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation is dedicated to “ensuring the blind enjoy increased independence to improve their lives and the world around them.” Thus, it provides German Shepherds to people who are blind or visually impaired.
To make it possible, The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation obtains donations from charitable individuals, foundations, corporations, and other organizations to train service dogs and provide them at no charge to the blind. They also make at least one free follow-up visit once per year to their service dog beneficiaries.
2. The Guide Dog Foundation
The Guide Dog Foundation has provided guide dogs to blind and partially sighted people for over 70 years. Powered by over 10,000 volunteers, the foundation obtains and trains Labradors and golden retrievers and guides the visually impaired.
Are you allergic to dogs? The Guide Dog Foundation has your back! They also provide hypoallergenic poodles to those who are blind but allergic to dogs. All at no cost!
3. Guide Dogs of America
Whether you want a free service dog for autism or a guide dog for the blind, you can get it at the Guide Dogs of America.
The Guide Dogs of America transforms lives for the visually impaired by partnering them with service dogs. They breed, raise, and train guide dogs, then provide them for free to the blind/visually impaired. The foundation also gives free service dogs to children with autism and veterans.
4. The Seeing Eye
The Seeing Eye partners with over 17,000 guide dog teams throughout North America. They breed, raise, and train puppies to become seeing-eye dogs, then train the seeing-eye dogs to guide blind people. The Seeing Eye also instructs blind people in the proper use, handling, and care of the dogs.
Getting a seeing-eye dog from The Seeing Eye isn’t entirely free, but you can get one at a reasonably low cost. Recipients get their first dog for $150 and its successor at $50. Veterans pay only $1. And the good thing is, you can pay for your seeing-eye canine in installments.
Before the dog is handed over to you, you’ll be required to attend training at their Morristown campus for 3.5 weeks.
Get A Free Service Dog For the Hearing Impaired
Hearing-impaired people need service dogs trained to meet their exact needs. Several organizations specialize in training service dogs to listen to specific sounds and alert the owner. Here the two organization where you can get a free service dog if you have a hearing impairment:
5. International Hearing Dog, Inc
The International Hearing Dog, Inc. specializes in training service dogs that respond to specific sounds like doorbells, alarm clocks, approaching cars, ringing phones, among other sounds. Once the dog notices any of these sounds, it alerts the owner. Dogs are provided to recipients free of charge.
6. Paws with a Cause
Paws with a Cause provides free hearing dogs at no cost. They specialize in breeding and custom-training service dogs, hearing dogs, seizure response dogs, and dogs for children with autism. Paws with a Cause dogs are trained to alert and lead their owners to sounds like smoke alarms, crying babies, doorbells, among other sounds. Hearing dogs can even be trained to respond to sign language for those who are non-verbal.
Get A Service Dog for Cheap
If you cannot get a service dog for free, some organizations help you get a cheap one. The cheapest ways to get a service dog include:
7. The Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC)
ADUC understands the help and cost of service dogs. It appreciates that not everyone has the financial muscle to afford one. Thus, the health and human welfare organization provides financial assistance and service dog grants to individuals who need assistance dogs but can’t raise the required funds to obtain one.
8. Paws with a Cause
Paws with a Cause relies on donor funds to provide service dogs to people with different types of disabilities. Hearing dogs, seizure response dogs, free dogs for autism, and service dogs for physically disabled people are all sorts of dogs you can get at a low cost from this non-profit organization.
They use client donations to cover the cost of obtaining service dogs through a “pay it forward” system where a person receives a service dog based on prior donations. People fundraise to help the next person receive their service dog.
Get Financial Help Getting a Service Dog
If you are thinking about how to get a service dog by enlisting some financial help, the following organization can help:
9. 4 Paws For Ability
4 Paws For Ability helps people with disabilities, especially children and veterans, receive service dogs at a fee. If other agencies have turned you away as being young or not disabled enough, you are a prime candidate at this organization. Their placements are mainly targeted at people who other agencies have rejected. You’ll be required to have a physician recommendation to prove your disability and the need for a service animal.
When figuring out how to get a service dog from 4 Paws For Ability, bear in mind that their service dogs aren’t free. You’ll be required to pay part of the training fee for the service animal. Typically, recipients pay a $17,000 non-tax-deductible fee out of the $40,000-$60,000 required to train their service animal.
The good thing is, 4 Paws For Ability has fundraising options to help recipients raise the required money.
10. The Service Dogs for America
SDA is another organization that offers financial assistance for service dogs. Know the following fees when thinking about how to get a service dog from The Service Dogs for America:
- $50 non-refundable fee: You can submit a free preliminary application, but you’ll have to pay a $50 non-refundable fee for a complete application.
- $20,000 training fee: Once you are approved to receive a service dog from the SDA, you’ll be required to pay the full $20,000 fee for training your service animal. The fee covers everything from a 3-week training, accommodation during training, recertifications, home visits, training materials, fundraising assistance, and follow-up consultations.
- You’ll get the help you need: SDA has several ways to help you raise money. For instance, they have staff dedicated to helping approved recipients figure out payment plans, save money, fundraising options, and grant applications.
See our guide on frugal living tips with a big impact on saving money.
Can I Get A Service Dog for Anxiety?
Yes, you can get a service dog for anxiety as long as you have a recommendation letter from a doctor or qualified mental health professional. The letter proves that your anxiety disorder meets the required criteria for a service animal.
Here are the criteria for getting anxiety service dogs:
- Have a physical or debilitating mental condition
- A recommendation letter from a doctor or a licensed mental health professional
- Ability to attend a handler training program
- Ability to take care of your service dog.
Otherwise, you may need to opt for an emotional support animal if you aren’t eligible for a service dog.
Does A Service Dog Need A Vest?
No, a service dog doesn’t need a vest. The American Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn’t require a service animal to wear a vest, ID tag, specific harness, or anything identifying it as a service dog.
However, a service animal must be under the control of the handler. ADA does require service animals to be harnessed, leashed, or tethered. Otherwise, the individual must maintain control of the animal through voice, signal, or other effective controls.
How To Get Your Dog Registered as a Service Dog?
To slash the cost of acquiring a service animal, you may decide to train your own service dog. It’s totally fine because the ADA gives you the right to do so. But you may wonder: how do I get my dog certified as a service dog?
First, train your dog to help you perform specific tasks for your disability and ensure that your dog is well behaved and can command his control in public places. Then registering your dog is pretty straightforward.
Visit Service Dog Certification to register your service dog and pay the fee. You’ll receive a service dog certificate, ID card, and/or vest. The documents can help alert members of the public that your dog is a trained service animal and avoid unnecessary confrontations.
The ADA doesn’t require your service dog in a training harness, vest, or ID tag to access public places if you can control your service animal with voice, signal, or any other methods.
How To Know if Your Service Dog Qualifies for Registration?
If you choose to train your own service animal, keep in mind that you should start with the basics. It’s not enough to train your dog to help you with disability tasks.
If your dog exhibits spontaneous behaviors in public places, such as barking or licking, it doesn’t qualify as a service animal. Besides assisting you with the basic tasks, your service dog must meet specific social and behavior standards as follows:
- A service dog shouldn’t show aggressive behaviors towards people or other animals.
- The dog shouldn’t urinate or defecate indoors.
- A service dog should not sniff merchandise, people or intrude into other people’s space.
- The dog shouldn’t bark or lick in public places.
- It shouldn’t solicit food or petting from other people.
- Your dog should stay focused on you and walk calmly with or without a leash.
- Pets like Chihuahuas and dogs trained to provide protection or emotional support cannot be considered service dogs.
What Are The Best Service Dogs for Autism?
The best service dogs for autism are the ones with a gentle disposition, people-oriented, intelligent, and larger in size. Thus, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Poodle, Old English Sheepdog, Beagle, and Bernese Mountain Dog are some of the best service dogs for autism.
Does Insurance Pay for Service Dogs?
Unfortunately, your health insurance doesn’t cover the cost to care for or buy a service dog. An eligible individual can use pre-tax HSA or FSA funds to help with your service animal.
Though, pet insurance costs the same for a service animal as it does for any other pet. Pet insurance only covers medical expenses, such as illness and injuries, but not the replacement of your animal.
How To Get a Service Dog For Free Summary
Service dogs can be very helpful to people with disabilities by helping them accomplish critical day-to-day activities. But the cost of obtaining a service dog can easily slip beyond the reach of many people.
Luckily, a few organizations exist to partner people with free to low-cost service dogs. If you’ve been wondering how to get a service dog, follow the links in any of the organizations discussed above and submit your application to see whether you’ll be among the lucky ones to receive a free or cheap service animal.
You can also train your own service dog and register it with the Service Dog Certifications organization. Make sure you begin with the basics so that your dog meets the accepted social and public behavior standards.
See our related guide on cheap or free vet care for low income families.