Oh, I know; I went ‘there’. Look, service dogs are wonderful and amazing creatures. They are highly trained, four-legged badasses; clumsy floofs gone vital medical equipment. Diabetic alert dogs can alert a person with diabetes to changes in glucose. Seizure response dogs can assist a handler who may be having a seizure, and can even be trained to dial emergency services. Guide dogs have been the eyes of almost 10,000 Americans with visual impairments. Service dogs can perform a multitude of different tasks for hundreds of different disabilities; but no one ever wants to talk about the challenges that can come along with service dogs- so I’m here to change that.
According to the University of Arizona, 0.9% of persons with disabilities are partnered with service dogs. In 1990, Congress found that there were 43 million Americans with disabilities, suggesting there are approximately 387,000 service dogs across the US. Those numbers have increased exponentially since 1990, since more Americans are disabled, and the increased awareness about service dogs has prompted many more people with disabilities to seek them out as an option to improve their independence. The thing about service dogs, is that although they are amazing and can be living pieces of medical equipment, there ARE downsides.
Service Dogs Cost a LOT
The price of a service dog that comes from an organization or program that breeds, raises, and fully trains their dogs can range anywhere from $8,000 USD, to about $50,000 USD, depending on the type training and the program’s involvement. Occasionally, a program may donate their service dogs to people with disabilities, but the waiting lists are often extensive and can result in a longer wait time to be paired with your furry partner; sometimes even 5+ years longer! Often times, these are the main reasons that most handlers opt to owner train. However, there is no cheap route to obtaining a service dog. Finding a healthy puppy from a reputable breeder can cost anywhere from $600-$2,500. Most puppies and dogs require 18-24 months (if not longer) to become a service dog and be fully trained in public access skills. The training cost of working with a professional trainer at $100 an hour would be about $5,000 a year; and that’s just for 50 sessions at an hour a session. There are cheaper trainers- depending on their skill level, but the quality of training or support may not be the same as if one were to go with a professional trainer. Depending on the type of work, you may not need a trainer as often- it all depends on your skill level and comfort level with training.
No matter which route you take, there will be expenses after initially obtaining the dog. You have to factor in the costs of veterinary care, licensing, grooming, food, toys, training equipment and gear, and other random expenses that may come up over the lifetime of the dog. Yes, the lifetime of the dog.
There are certain health tests that service dogs may need such as radiographs for OFA hip and elbow testing (especially for dogs who are going to do any kind of mobility work), heartworm testing, kidney disease testing, and more. Not to mention the annual vaccines that your local law requires all dogs to have (usually rabies), routine dental care, flea and tick preventatives, and any other check-ups or preventative care costs. It is also a good idea to either have pet insurance or money saved in case of a medical emergency. Annual routine health care for service dogs costs an average of $1,500+, and medical emergencies can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
Under the ADA, a service dog must be licensed if the city, county, or state requires all dogs to be licensed. Occasionally, certain animal control agencies may offer a discounted or waived fee for service dogs. Annual licensing fees are typically between $0-$50.
As far as grooming goes, the cost depends solely on the breed of the service dog. If one were to choose a Labrador Retriever, the grooming costs would be significantly less than that of say, a Golden Retriever. Even by skipping the professional groomer, you will still need the basics- shampoo, nail trimmers or a nail dremel, combs, brushes, and fur shears/clippers. Grooming services and supplies can cost about $80-$300, depending on the breed. Service dogs are often expected to have a good appearance and proper hygiene and nail care is essential to their well being.
Food is something that comes along with every pet, but the quality of food for service dogs does matter. Whether you go for kibble or raw fed, the cost of a medium to high quality dog food for a medium sized breed can cost about $50-$150/month. This does not include the price of training treats, dental chews, or supplements the dog may need.
Contrary to popular belief, service dogs get to play too; and toys that will keep your dog happy and sharp can cost anything from $40-$200/year. This is all dependent on how many toys your dog will want (or how many you want to give them), what types of toys they may require (some dogs need interactive, puzzle-type toys to keep occupied, others may be fine with a tennis ball or a rope), and how many toys your dog will need to be replaced due to wear and tear.
Training equipment and gear are typically the only areas where a handler can be as minimal or as extravagant as they want to be. In the U.S., a service dog does not need to be vested or wear anything that identifies it as a service dog. There are some basics that all dogs should have though, such as a leash, collar, food and water bowls, a bed, etc. However, service dog gear and equipment can be far more extensive in nature.
Federal law does not require that a service dog wear a vest, patches, ID, or anything that identifies them as a service dog. Some states cover service dogs in training in their laws, and my require a service dog in training to wear specific identifying gear. Many handlers opt to use a vest for their service dogs to make them easily identifiable by choice. Other handlers require the dog to wear specific gear, depending on their job- such as a mobility dog needing a mobility harness, a diabetic alert dog wearing a vest or harness with pockets to carry blood sugar testing kits and insulin, or a guide dog using a harness fitted with a guide handle. Sometimes, a handler will buy many different styles of vests to suit the weather conditions, to have a variety of colors and patterns, different types of harnesses that help make the dog’s job easier, and may use patches (sew on, Velcro, or iron on) to make the dog easily identifiable and/or to add personal style.
Just as there are many types of vests and harnesses, there are also many types of training tools and working tools that may be used for a service dog or SDiT. This can include flat collars, martingale collars, head collars, prong collars, e-collars, shock collars, walking harnesses, long leashes for recall training, short leads, and many more items that are common training and working tools aside from treats.
Some gear that handlers typically have on hand are: portable water/food containers, a mat or blanket for the dog to lay on, special boots or shoes to protect the dogs paws from extreme heat, cold, or rough terrain, waste disposal bags, towels, a pet emergency kit, a backup vest or harness, and much more.
There is also certain equipment that may be helpful for training and conditioning such as balance balls, pull straps, weave poles, traffic cones, and other types of agility and training equipment. There are so many different types of equipment, gear and training tools that can be used in service dog work and training, that it is nearly impossible to list it all.
This is really the only area that you may get as much or as little as you like for your service dog, as the laws do not typically require anything more than a leash and collar- unless the leash interferes with the dog’s ability to perform a task (all other times the dog is not actively tasking or if a leash would not be able to be used because of a disability, the dog should be leashed as local law dictates, and under control of the handler at all times as federal laws states). Average cost of gear, tools and equipment can be anything from $25-$3,000+.
All of these costs added together from start to finish over the course of the dog’s life can range from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands; all depending on what you and your dog require to function, and to remain happy and healthy.
Service Dogs Draw Attention
This is the one thing that many people do not think about when considering a service dog. When you do get a service dog, or begin training one, often times you will become the center of attention in the public eye. Since most places are not pet friendly, it is less common to see a service dog in an establishment, which can warrant stares, people asking questions, and encounters with many people who are uneducated about how to interact with service dogs- such as not knowing to ignore a service dog, not knowing to ask to pet beforehand, or denying you access; these are all things that should be considered because they DO happen, and quite frequently. A simple trip to the grocery store to grab some dinner might turn into a much longer excursion because of the interactions people might make with you.
The ADA allows a business or establishment to ask two questions to a handler if it is not obvious what the service dog’s job or tasks are (such as guide dogs or mobility dogs). Those questions are:
1. Is the dog required because of a disability?
2. What work or tasks has the dog been trained to perform?
By law, your responsibility is to answer those two questions if asked by an employee, manager or person affiliated with the establishment/business. If you do not answer the questions, you forfeit your right to public access. Some people have troubles with answering these questions, or with confrontation with other people. This is why it is extremely important to know your rights. You do not have to answer other people’s questions about your service dog, nor should you let others invade your space or distract your animal, or pet him/her without permission. Sometimes, handlers may use info cards (different than ID cards) that list that he/she is a service dog required because of a disability, and his or her task/tasks. This is a great way to answer the two questions asked buy a business or establishment without having to verbally answer. They may also include that the dog is working, federal access laws, the ADA Information Hotline number, and certain state laws. It is also important to know state laws- some states have criminal charges and/or fines for distracting, harming or causing a the death of a service animal.
It is almost guaranteed that you will run into some kind of issue at some point or another when doing public access work; for the handler’s safety, it is often best to figure out solutions for these scenarios before getting a service dog. Having a dog that is “bomb-proofed” and non reactive in any situation, carrying info cards, being able to answer access questions, and knowing how to stand your ground and protect yourself and your dog are all necessary priorities. You have to make sure that your dog can perform its tasks and be safe, as well as making sure you are safe. If you are uncomfortable with the thoughts of being randomly talked to by strangers, asked questions, or having people attempt to invade your personal space or touching your dog without permission, and do not have the capability to protect yourself and your dog verbally or via the law, a service dog may be more of a hassle than a help.
The Dog Always Comes First
Dogs, much like humans and most living creatures, require care, exercise, attention and love. This is no different for service dogs. If a handler is too sick or disabled to properly care for a dog or a service dog, it may be best to explore alternative assistance methods to mitigate a disability/disabilities. It would be unfair to the service dog to not be exercised properly, or if the handler could not afford medical care or regular expenses (such as food) for the dog. A handler must be healthy enough and able to keep up on the training of the dog- whether owner trained, or program/organization trained. Occasionally, a disabled handler may have a partner or friend assist them with taking care of the dog, but ultimately, the dog is the handler’s responsibility.
Similarly, the dog does truly come first in regards to their needs. If a dog is sick, injured, or having behavioral challenges, they may need to be removed from public access work until they are healthy again, or until the issue is resolved; in some cases, they may need to be retired from working or completely removed from public access. This goes along with the fact that service dogs are not robots- they can get sick or injured, and they are not able to perform flawlessly 100% of the time. Depending on the breed, you may have to take weather and temperature into consideration when working, and buy the appropriate gear or skip out on working that day. Certain breeds require more exercise and spacial needs than other breeds. Whether you are owner training or going through a program or organization, you have to be in tune with your dog’s emotions and be able to remove the dog from a situation if he/she is misbehaving or fearful. Being able to sense and honor the dog’s needs is crucial in maintaining a happy and healthy service dog.
In conclusion, service dogs can be really fantastic assistants in mitigating multiple different disabilities. However, it is very important to know that there are downsides, as with most things. The commitment to a service dog is one that is made for the lifetime of the dog. Knowing your own limits financially, medically, and with your ability to handle many types of situations are key to determining if a service dog is right for you. Service dogs are not a one-size-fits-all, they are and can be incredibly expensive- they can cost tens of thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetime from start to finish, and are an investment emotionally and with your time. The service dog comes first so that they can assist the handler; this may resonate with most people, it definitely does not work for everyone. These are some reasons why service dogs can suck- but if you are confident that you can provide for the dog, stay safe and healthy yourself, and meet all of the federal and local requirements, then they might not be issues for you. If you cannot do these things, and are feeling discouraged, you are not alone. Many people face these issues when considering a service dog and cannot provide for them; but that does not mean to give up completely! Situations can change at any point in time. Sometimes people have to wait to get a service dog and are incredibly responsible in doing so. Occasionally, people’s health improves and they are able to better care for a dog. The ultimate goal is better quality of life for the handler, and excellent quality of life for the dog- if one suffers, so does the other, and when that happens, its no good for either the dog or the handler. The purpose of this article is to provide insight to the tougher side to considering a service dog; it may apply to you, or it may not. Either way, it is important information that I feel should be more openly discussed to ensure the success of both the handler and the dog.