Best wishes for a sweet New Year from At Your Service Dog Training. May all beings be happy, healthy, and at peace.
I specialize in helping people to train their own service dogs. While I love my work, the worst part is when I have to break the news — or confirm a client’s dreaded suspicion — that their dog will not be able to become a service dog and must be career-changed. To prevent these heartbreaking situations, I try to reach service-dog owner-trainers as early as possible in their process — ideally before they acquire a dog — to head off some of the most common problems.
Here are five common problems that lead to dogs not being able to work as service dogs. Each of these five could fill a book on their own, so I have not delved deeply into any of them. Please keep in mind that this article addresses large concepts with broad strokes. It is all generalizations. Consider each point merely food for thought and discussion with an experienced trainer that understands dog behavior and service dog training.
1. Acquiring the wrong breed
In the land of the American dream — where our cultural story is that anyone can become anything if they work hard enough — we don’t like to think that some dogs might not be well-suited to a job based simply on who they are or how they were born. However, with service dog selection, this denies a simple reality. Not every human can be an Olympic athlete, and not every dog can be a service dog. A service dog’s physical health and their temperament (sort of a combination of their personality and mental health) is the foundation from which everything else is built.
Breeds were developed by selectively choosing certain traits to be passed along and others to be avoided. While there are always major differences among individuals, hundreds of years of breeding does make a difference.
Generally speaking, a service dog candidate should be highly social with people and dogs; food-motivated; low-prey drive; relaxed, happy, and confident with strange and new things; not bothered by sudden or loud sounds; eager to work and train; and easily able to relax and nap anywhere, tolerating long stretches of boredom and inactivity. If this sounds like a lot of Labrador retrievers you’ve met, now you know why Labs are the overwhelming favorite of most of the largest and oldest assistance dog programs! Sporting breeds were bred to work cooperatively with people, to have low prey drive, and to tolerate unpleasant conditions with aplomb. Golden Retrievers are another sporting breed that tend to be popular with service dog programs and share many of these traits, as well as Standard Poodles for those looking for a hair coat.
The most common mistake I see with breed choice is owner-trainers thinking that because a service dog is a working dog, they should get a high-drive breed that loves to work, such as a Border Collie, Australian Shepherd, or Australian Cattle Dog. Dogs of these breeds are likely to have trouble relaxing, lying around and snoozing, doing nothing while their handler attends classes or waits hours at the ER or works at their desk. Another commonly problematic breed choice are some of the guarding breeds. Breeds that were developed to use aggressive displays to keep people or animals away may be likely to be aggressive or reactive to strangers or in strange environments. If you’re researching a breed, and the breed standard includes phrases such as “loyal,” “wary of strangers,” “aloof,” “courageous,” “protective,” “reserved,” “territorial,” etc., these are often euphemisms for dogs that are more likely to have a tendency toward reactivity with strangers. Since service dogs are constantly surrounded by strangers, if a dog is naturally uncomfortable with strangers, in many cases it can be very stressful on dog and handler alike just for the dog to tolerate, let alone be able to work well in those circumstances. Terrier and hound breeds are also lower probability SDiT material as they were bred to want to run off to chase critters — meaning they have not been bred to work cooperatively with people and they tend to have higher prey drive. Discussing the right breeds for a person’s future SDiT — including both what is generally important in a service dog and what the individual’s lifestyle, preferences, and needs are — is a big component of what I offer in a service dog pre-adoption consult.
Is it possible to successfully train a service dog from a nontraditional breed? Sure. I’ve done it myself. But you have to have a lot of other factors lined up, be able to select individuals that are the exception to what the breed was bred for, as well as be lucky. Since training a service dog is already a monumental task with a low probability for success, this tends to make things even more dicey. For most people, it makes sense to stack the odds in your favor with breed choice.
2. Going to the wrong breeder or other dog provider.
Even if you pick a likely breed, you still need to pick the right type of individual from that breed. One common mistake is to choose a dog from working lines, meaning that the particular breeder is breeding dogs to do what they were originally bred for (hunting, protection, herding, etc.) versus breeding dogs to be pets. We may think, “A service dog is a working dog, so I should get a dog that was bred to work,” but this is generally not true. The type of work a service dog does is usually very different from the work most breeds were selected for. For example, while Labrador Retrievers are generally a good choice for service dogs, working lines Labs were bred to hunt. Hunting dogs are high energy, bred to run through fields and jump into cold waters, to be out in the elements with the hunter for hours. Triple this energy level for working lines herding dogs! These days, Golden Retrievers that are bred for agility competition are also much too high octane for service dog work.
Contrast this with most service dogs. They may need to walk on a loose leash for a few minutes or an hour, then lie down and wait, and then maybe eventually do a task (retrieve something, alert to their handler’s medical condition, open or shut a door, etc.), and when that’s done, lie down and wait some more until doing another controlled walk. Most “working lines” or “performance” dogs from any breed will be way too intense and high energy for almost all service dog situations.
Also, it’s important to consider what type of work dogs are bred for. Some breeders of “working lines” German Shepherd Dogs market them as potential SDiTs. Working GSDs are generally bred for IPO (schutzhund or protection work) which means, among other things, being willing to bite people with maiming force (“some level of natural aggression and protective instinct”). That is not a good trait for a dog that will be in public constantly around unpredictable people, including children, who may run over to pet the doggy.
Trying to assessing whether a breeder or a dog on a PetFinder listing is the right match for you, based on their website or a phone conversation is really tricky. This is why I offer dog search support along with pre-adoption consultations. Becoming “literate” in what to search for in a rescue dog or a litter of puppies takes time, information, and skill. It makes a big difference to have guidance in the process.
3. Choosing with your heart, including “rescuing” a dog that is not an ideal candidate.
Wait! Before you post your angry comment, hear me out.
If your purpose in getting a service dog is that you need skilled assistance on an ongoing basis to function optimally, that is a big job. You want that job to go to someone who will love and thrive in that work and be able to do it well. You don’t want the job to go to someone who will be overwhelmed, stressed out, and cause disappointment and heartache for you. That’s not good for either of you.
Most dogs are not cut out for service work, by which I mean they are not happy in this work. It is our responsibility — to both dogs and people — to try to choose and train dogs as service dogs who will love it. See point #1 again for the type of dog that is likely to thrive as a service dog.
What happens if you arrive at the breeder’s house that sounded so good on the phone and looked so great online, but you are shocked to see that six-week-old puppy that has been raised in the cold, dirty garage — and the mother of the pups is tied out in the yard, barking, growling, and lunging at you? If you think, “I will save this puppy by taking her home and loving her and giving her a wonderful job,” that is a noble sentiment. Unfortunately, it may also be a source of regret for the decade to come if you spend thousands of both dollars and hours on behavior modification for a dog with severe behavior issues that will never be a service dog. You cannot undo genetics or a poor start in life. It is possible to help any dog become the best version of itself it can be, but it may not be fair to that dog to expect it to achieve elite level performance in the constantly changing landscape that we busy humans experience as normal.
The same applies to choosing the dog from the shelter or foster home that’s been there for weeks, months, or years, or has been returned several times. Or that is so shy, it is hiding in the back of its kennel. A behavior modification project and a future service-dog-in-training are not the same thing. If you really want to get a dog from rescue, be prepared to invest a lot of time and probably considerable expense — with the help of a trainer experienced in behavior assessment — in finding the needle in the haystack of the dog with the wonderfully stable temperament who is physically and behaviorally glowing with health, fitting the description of the ideal candidate in point #1 .
4. Economizing early in the process — while searching for the dog or during puppy raising and basic training.
Most people I speak to choose their dog without professional support and start training on their own, sometimes taking a puppy kindergarten and basic manners class. Their plan is to consult a service dog trainer once they’ve trained the basics inexpensively and are ready for task work. To put it bluntly, too often, by the time an owner-trainer consults with me, it is because there are serious issues to address — or for which intervention will not solve the problems.
Group classes are great, and I always recommend a well-run, positive puppy kindergarten for anyone raising a puppy — especially future SDiT puppies that need so much skilled socialization. But for service dog training, it is really not enough. It is too easy to overlook critical issues or make decisions early on that you will be trying to fix for months or years later.
There is only so much I can do if, by the time an owner-trainer contacts me, they have already chosen a breed that is unlikely to be suited to the job and/or acquired a dog whose individual temperament is a poor match. Then they have worked with a trainer that uses punitive methods (choke chains, shock collars, etc.) that have exacerbated fearful or reactive tendencies. Now that the dog has major problems, they will spend whatever it takes to try to “fix” the situation. Nowhere does the aphorism “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” better apply than in service dog training!
Even in less dire situations, you can save a lot of time and hassle by getting a training map on how to proceed at the beginning of your journey — rather than trying to retrace the route you’ve been driving for months. For example, it is often quite easy to avoid the problem of training a dog to do things that will interfere with long-term task work (such as training a dog needed for balance to do an auto-sit or punishing a dog for jumping up that will need to do deep-pressure therapy).
I know that in America, the land of DIY and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, we like to think if we are resourceful and have a “can-do attitude” we don’t need to consult with professionals. After all, why spend money and time on things we can figure out for ourselves? That can work with a craft project or even fixing a car, but a dog is a living organism that cannot be “fixed” like an engine. Once a behavior or a negative emotional association is established, it can never be erased, only modified.
Becoming a service dog owner-trainer is truly akin to entering a new career. When was the last time you entered a career or profession and were great at it off the bat? Where you knew everything you needed to know and didn’t make significant mistakes? How about if you were trying to do that with no mentoring, classes, tutoring, etc.?
I have dedicated my life for 20 years to learning everything I possibly can about service dogs and their training, and I am still constantly amazed and humbled by how much I don’t know. While there is a lot you can learn from books, videos, and online discussions, there is also a lot you cannot learn that way. For one thing, a lot of the online information on service dogs is just plain wrong. I am often horrified by what clients tell me their groomer, vet, cousin, etc., told them they should or shouldn’t do with their dog. Even sometimes, unfortunately, what another trainer told them.
For another, dog training is a physical skill as well as a mental discipline. How well would you learn a new sport from the ground up from a book or online discussion? And for many people with disabilities, there are modifications to the process that are necessary or helpful to be successful. Individual modifications obviously require an individual approach that you rarely get from books, videos, and blog posts.
Lastly, working with dogs — both in training and even more so in evaluating a prospective dog — requires expertise in the ability to “read” dog body language and behavior in the moment and decide how to adjust training or whether to continue testing. This really requires a lot of hands-on experience with a lot of dogs — the more, the better.
5. Unreasonable expectations.
There are so many false expectations that lead to heartbreak. Here are just a few of the major categories…
Money. Training a service dog is a hugely expensive endeavor. If you are owner-training because you think it is more affordable than getting a program dog, you may be in for a rude shock. (Please read my post about the cost of service dog training for a lot more details.) If you can’t afford a Service Dog Consult, how will you afford the vet bill when your dog inevitably gets sick or injured? In the best case scenario, the vet bill will be comparable. More likely, it will be much higher. If you can’t afford the cost of caring for (let alone training) a service dog, you may be better off finding a different assistive technology or other solution than a service dog.
Time. Training a service dog is a full-time job. Really. Expect to dedicate most of your mental energy and a considerable amount of your physical time and energy to training and caring for this animal and turning it into a skilled assistant. (Please read my post about how long it takes to train a service dog for more details.) If you don’t have a lot of time to devote, it is almost guaranteed not to work. In that case, a program service dog or a non-dog solution for your disability may be the better options.
What is your dog capable of? Of course your dog loves you and loves treats, petting, praise, play. Does your dog love being around strangers? Does your dog love working for food more than running after squirrels, playing with other dogs, etc.? Does your dog enjoy going to places that are noisy and busy, with slippery floors and big moving things that he’s never seen before? Is your dog able to think and learn in these situations? If your dog could choose his career, would it be to go with you into constantly changing new situations, focusing only on you, choosing between either laying around doing nothing or focused manners, obedience, and task work?
What are you capable of? Do you love dog training? Do you have the physical and mental ability to train your dog every day, many hours every week, in a variety of situations? If not, do you have financial or family or community support to ensure someone else skilled and caring can do the parts you can’t do?
Five Ways to Prevent Heartbreak
What is the solution? Well, there are no guarantees. You can do everything right and still get unlucky with a dog that develops health or behavior problems. However, there is still quite a lot you can do to increase your chances of succeeding.
- Put in the work BEFORE you get your dog. Do the research and preparation before you even contact a breeder or start looking at rescue websites. Learn all there is to learn about service dogs and their training and what you need to do to set youself up to choose the dog that is most likely to succeed. It’s not just researching the breeds. It’s also researching the breeder or rescue — and knowing what to look for. Then meeting the breeder and her dogs or foster dog — and knowing what to look for. Then having the litter temperament tested or the dog assessed by an independent trainer who can evaluate them. AND, just as importantly, research the trainer, too! There are a lot of dog trainers who will not be the right match for you — even many service dog trainers. Get references, look for meaningful certifications, observe classes. If the person who is advising you is giving you bad advice, you’re not any better off than going it alone!
- Choose with your brain first, heart second. Pick the breed, age, and type of dog that is likely to succeed, not the one that is cute or reminds you of your childhood dog or that you saw being so brave on that TV program.
- Be PATIENT. Finding the right dog takes a long time and a lot of work. It can easily take a year or more.
- Be willing to walk away and start over. If you go through all the steps to find the right breed, trainer, litter or rescue, and it turns out the right puppy is not in that litter or that foster dog is not appropriate, see points #1, #2, and #3 again — make the tough (brain-powered) decision based on relevant information and then be prepared to wait some more.
- The best way to succeed with points #1, #2, #3, and #4 is to work with an objective advisor who can help you assess your needs and the breeds or individual dogs you are considering. Someone who will support you in making difficult choices. Someone with experience with service dogs, dog behavior, dog training. Please use care and be picky about the service dog trainer you work with! The closest or least expensive trainer may be the best choice, or they may not. For service dog training, you really need the best.
In the long run, booking a service dog consult or pre-adoption consult is likely to save you incalculable time and money. It may be hard to do if you think you have already learned everything you need to know. It may be difficult to think about spending money on dog training when you don’t even have a dog yet! However, that is actually the best time to invest. I have never yet heard a client say that they regretted investing in preventing a problem. If worst comes to worst, you have wasted some money because everything is so perfect you didn’t need help. That’s a pretty good problem to have! (And extremely unusual.)
On the other hand, I hear very often from people who are full of regret for not contacting me sooner. The long-term costs of which — in time, emotional devastation, and money — are much, much higher.
There are no shortcuts to training a service dog. It is a long and winding road. But you can get help along the way to make the road that much smoother and more likely to get you to your final destination. And now you know five detours not to take.
I wish you all the best on your service dog training journey!
We are excited to announce that At Your Service has a new home in the North Quabbin for our group classes! After wrapping up our last Family Dog Manners & Obedience class at the end of July at Orange Innovation Center, we moved to Mount Tully Kennels.
The new training space has several advantages, including…
- new rubber floor — easier on dog and human muscles and joints
- convenience of Mt Tully’s store, easily pick up treats, food, or other dog gear before or after class
- the store to train “leave it” or loose leash walking with distractions for intermediate and advanced classes
We are offering several classes this fall…
Family Dog Manners & Obedience
- Thu., Sep. 14 at 5:30 PM
- Thu., Oct. 26 at 5:30 PM
The basic manners every dog needs to fit in the family. Perfect for adolescents or newly adopted dogs. Leash manners, greeting, focus, down, stay, leave it, drop it, come, touch, and wait. Trained with positive methods for dogs — and humor and clear instruction for owners. Six-week class for only $138. Register your dog for class. (NEW! Choose Better Manners Bundle. Register for both Family Dog & Intermediate and save $27! Register your dog for Better Manners Bundle for only $249.)
Intermediate Manners & Obedience
- Thu., Sept 21 at 6:45 PM
For graduates of Family Dog. Get reliability with behaviors that make life better for you and your dog: maintain leash manners and focus around distractions, longer and more reliable stays, coming when called from a distance or away from a distraction, and fun training games, too! (1 space left) Six-week class for only $138. Register your dog for class.
We are also offering a specialty class on public access training for advanced service dog teams. This class will meet in a variety of different locations in the Pioneer Valley, including stores, restaurants, medical settings, malls, and more. Please get in touch for information about service dog training classes.
Saturday, Sep. 16 from 12-3 PM
- Meet the trainer
- Get free pet training tips and handouts
- Questions about service dog training? We can answer those, too
- Training demos or bring your friendly dog
- Enter our raffle to win the “Good Dog Goody Basket” — includes At Your Service towel for training “go to place,” At Your Service clicker, Kurgo car convenience harness and tether, Karen Pryor Clicker Training treat pouch, lump of “coal” feeder toy (for bad dogs that want to learn to be good), and lots of yummy treats and chews!
Stop by! We’d love to see you!
More and more trainers are being asked to train a service dog (SD), emotional support animal (ESA), or a personal “therapy dog” for an adult or child with disabilities. The terminology is confusing and everyone says something different:
- One trainer tells you that a service dog must be trained in three tasks, another says the dog just needs excellent manners to be in public. Who is right?
- Your client says his emotional support skunk is allowed in the grocery store, but that, well, doesn’t smell right to you…
- A former client just emailed to say that since he moved to a new state, his chiropractor said his service-dog-in-training is not allowed in the office because that state is not covered by the ADA. Can this be true?
If this sounds familiar, this live webinar is for you!
This Pet Professional Guild webinar, “SD, SDIT, ESA, Alphabet Soup?! What you need to know about US Service Dog Laws & Terms” will guide you with humor and clarity through service dog laws and terminology. Attend the live webinar and have a chance to ask questions in real time: Monday, August 21 at 2 PM Eastern Time. Or register and watch it any time at your convenience!
You’ll learn what all these terms mean and better understand your legal responsibilities as a trainer of a service dog. You’ll get clarity on how the laws for service-dogs-in-training (SDiTs) are different from laws for trained service dogs and how to find the laws in your state.
It can be awkward for trainer and client alike to sort out these terms (“therapy” versus “service” versus “emotional support”) and the legal and training requirements behind each. This presentation will explain the legal meanings and differences between these terms in the United States, the requirements for training each, differences in US state laws for service-dogs-in-training, the standards of behavior and appearance for service dogs, and explain the reality behind the question of “certification.” You’ll also learn how to distinguish between legal requirements and ethical or community standards, and how to apply these concepts to working with clients.
This webinar is geared to professional dog trainers in the United States that are new to the complicated world of service dog laws and standards. People who are training a service dog for themselves or a family member, or who are considering training a service dog, are also encouraged to attend and will get a lot of useful information. No previous service dog training experience or knowledge is necessary.
By the end of this webinar, attendees will understand and be able to answer client questions on the following topics:
- The difference between the terms “service dog,” “service dog in training,” “emotional support animal,” and “therapy dog” and when handlers of each have access to public accommodations
- Understand the definition of a service animal under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and where a trainer or handler of a service animal is permitted or excluded
- Understand how laws for service-dogs-in-training (and who is a trainer under the law) vary from state-to-state and how to find out their own state’s laws
- Understand the community standards for appearance and behavior in service dogs and how these differ from legal requirements
- Steps trainers and clients can take to protect themselves if access challenges occur
About the Presenter
Sharon Wachsler CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner with more than 25 years of experience in the disability community. Before she began her second career as a dog trainer, Sharon was a disability information and referral specialist and service dog owner-trainer, as well as the founder of the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival, a writer for the International Association of Assistance Dog Partners newsletter, and the blogger for the popular service-dog trainer’s blog, After Gadget. Sharon opened At Your Service Dog Training in Wendell, MA, in 2014, offering private training, consulting, and group classes to service dog owner-trainers. Sharon is an experienced presenter and writer on service dog topics and enjoys consulting with and speaking to trainers, owners, and community groups about service dogs and their training.
Have a question? Get in touch!
The two questions most people ask me about training a service dog are…
- How much time will it take?
- How much does it cost?
I have the same answer for both questions:
- It depends
- Much more than you expect
Of course, there’s more to it than this. To find out what it depends on and how much it can amount to, read on!
This post focuses on the costs of training a service dog.
Be ready for a shock…
I hear from many people that they have decided to train their own service dog (SD) because they think it will be less expensive than getting a trained dog from a program. This is very rarely the case. It’s true that with a program, you may have to pay more upfront in one lump sum, whereas when training your own SD, you are spending more over time. However, depending on a variety of factors, it may actually cost much more over time to train your own service dog than it costs to get a trained dog from a service dog program. Obviously, if you’re able to find a nonprofit program that trains dogs for your disability and covers all or most of the cost, that is by far the least expensive option and certainly worth looking into.
As we examine the cost of training a service dog, we should start with…
The Cost of Owning (Any) Dog
All dogs cost money to keep and care for. These costs are almost always more than we expect. They include food, veterinary care, toys, treats, bedding, equipment (leashes, crates, harnesses), grooming, boarding, etc. A lot is situational:
- Small dogs cost less than big dogs (e.g., miniature vs. giant schnauzer)
- Healthy dogs cost much less than sick dogs (e.g., a dog with issues with elbows or hips, eye issues, breathing issues, dental issues, allergies, etc.)
- Well-behaved dogs costs much less than “behavior project” dogs (e.g., aggression, reactivity, separation anxiety)
- Dogs with easy coat care (e.g., Labrador retrievers) cost much less than those requiring extensive grooming (e.g., poodles and their mixes)
- Young adult dogs (ages two to seven) generally cost less than puppies and geriatric dogs
While you will probably know ahead of time the age, coat, and size of your dog, everything else is up for grabs. Nobody expects to get a dog that will be ill or injured often or that will have a severe behavior issue, but neither is uncommon. This is as true for people looking for a service dog as people looking for a pet.
Various sources I’ve found (some are below) estimate the cost of owning a pet dog as averaging between $300 and $10,000 per year, with many giving the average as $500 to $5,000 per year. The low end of these estimates are very low. I can’t imagine keeping costs down to $500 per year! They probably cover small, healthy, young adult dogs with low grooming and training needs, where owners are really doing the bare minimum in terms of treats, toys, medical care, gear, training, food, etc. If you’re thinking of training a service dog, you will never do the bare minimum with your dog in any area! That will certainly increase expense.
Note: As you read these cost estimates, keep in mind that your location will also affect the cost of services in your area. If you live in a more expensive part of the country, adjust all costs upward
Here are some articles on the cost of pet dogs:
- Pet Education: The Cost of Owning a Dog (Great article includes low, medium, and high estimates for multiple costs. Low estimate for first year is $511 and high is $6600. Annual estimates after that are $287 to $2,485.)
- The Annual Cost of Pet Ownership: Can you afford a furry friend? (Estimates first-year cost of a pet dog at $1,270)
- Petfinder: Annual Dog Care Costs (First-year estimate ranges from $766 to $10,350; annual cost estimates from $526 to $9,352)
Additional Service Dog Costs
Your service-dog-in-training (SDiT) candidate will likely cost much more in the first couple of years than later on. Let’s examine some of the costs you will incur when obtaining your SDiT candidate.
Additional Annual Costs in Caring for a Service Dog or SDiT
In addition to the costs for a pet dog, SDs and SDiTs have more costs for the same issues. For example, while all dogs needs treats and toys, a SDiT often needs more treats and toys because of the amount of training, enrichment, and general attention to behavior needed. Here are some additional estimates of costs for a service dog or candidate…
- Training treats and toys (chews, feeder toys, retrieve items, bazillion treats). Costs will vary with the amount of enrichment needed, energy level, whether the dog tends to destroy their toys quickly, size of the dog, etc. Estimate: $200-2,000
- Service dog gear (harness, leash, vest, pack, cart, head halter, etc.). For a dog that just needs the basic vest with patches, it may be very inexpensive. For a dog that needs a custom support harness for guiding or balance, it may be much more. Also, handlers often must try several pieces of equipment or modify equipment to make it suit their needs or fit the dog properly. Estimate: $100-1,000
- Extra vet care. A SDiT may need x-rays of hips and elbows or other health tests (vision, hearing, etc.) or other veterinary care or check-ups to make sure the dog can safely and healthily perform the work needed. Estimate: $250-1,500
- Extra grooming. A pet dog doesn’t have to look and smell terrific every day, but a service dog must be neat and clean and free of offensive odors to work in public. This will mean, at minimum, combs/brushes, toothbrush and toothpaste, dog shampoo, nail clipping, etc., and for dogs with significant coat care (especially doodles, poodles, and any poodle mix), also grooming scissors, clippers, and blades, as well as trips to the professional groomer. Estimate: $50-1,500
Finding a likely SDiT candidate is extremely difficult and is always a gamble. If you take your time and work with experienced trainers who can help you assess dogs you are considering, and if you also get lucky, you may end up with a dog that you successfully train as a service dog. However, you may also wind up with a dog who cannot become a service dog. But to stack the deck in your favor to make it more likely that your dog will succeed takes considerable time, money, and effort.
If you buy a puppy or adult dog from an excellent, reputable breeder that has done all the appropriate health testing, your costs may appear to be higher than adopting a dog from a rescue or shelter. However, this is not always so when we look at the details.
Adoption fees for a rescue dog are usually between $250 to $500, but finding the right rescue dog can be so challenging that it may require multiple professional assessments to choose a viable candidate. This can easily cost more than the dog’s adoption price.
Generally speaking, you can expect a puppy from a reputable breeder to cost around $2,000. However, the fee may be significantly higher, possibly up to $4,000, depending on the breed and associated costs (rarity, medically involved pregnancy/delivery, etc.). There may also be transport costs to get the dog to you (depending on logistics).
In addition, puppies generally cost more than adults during their first months home because they require frequent vet visits for shots and living/training expenses that adults often don’t require, such as pee pads; exercise pens, crates, gates; toys, equipment, or your personal possessions that must be replaced due to chewing or house training accidents, etc. But these single one-time outlays are really the tip of the iceberg.
Search and Assessment Costs of the Candidate Dog
One big expense — in both time and money — that people very rarely expect is in the search for the right dog. With a pet dog, the stakes are lower and most people are not choosy about their dog’s specific requirements for health, temperament, trainability, energy level, etc. With a service dog, those issues are of paramount importance.
Consider this: Only half of dogs that are the cream-of-the-crop — that have been carefully bred over generations by a service dog program specifically to be trained as service dogs — graduate to become service dogs. The percentage of dogs from good breeders that succeed is lower. The percentage of rescue dogs that succeed as service dogs is extremely low — between less than half of one percent (0.3) to 12 percent.
To find the right dog, you will likely need to do some or all of these steps:
- Hire a service dog trainer to help determine the best age, breed, or type of dog to search for, or to consult with to help you find excellent breeders or foster prospects. For example, my Pre-Adoption Consult and Dog Search Support service includes getting a detailed history of the client’s needs and lifestyles, a meeting to discuss details of what is needed, and recommendations for whether to get a puppy or adult, types of breeds, a rescue or dog from a breeder, etc. And then help with the search process. This all takes time and expense. However because I am guiding clients away from unlikely prospects, they are less likely to spend money on repeated tests of obviously inappropriate candidates…
- Hire trainers to temperament test a litter of puppies. Once you have found a great breeder and paid a deposit for one of the puppies, you’ll want an independent evaluator to temperament test the litter to help you choose the best candidate. This may easily cost $300-$400. And if none of those puppies test well, you may start over with another breeder or another litter and pay that much again. Or you may need follow-up testing on the most likely individual puppies in the litter.
- Similarly, if you want to get an adult dog from a breeder or a dog of any age from rescue, you will likewise need to have a knowledgeable service dog trainer conduct a behavior assessment of a dog that you’re considering. In the simplest case, the dog is local and your trainer conducts an assessment (costing $100 to $300). In more complicated cases — e.g., a dog in rescue on the other side of the country — you may need to hire a trainer to assess the dog, get a detailed history from the foster owner, pay to have the foster owner take the dog to a vet for x-rays or other health screening, hire someone to take video of an assessment of the dog (or repeated assessments) and then show the video to your local service dog trainer.
Initial First-Year Training Costs — after adoption
Once you have your candidate puppy or dog, an enormous amount of time goes into training it. How long it takes to train varies with the skill of the handler/trainer, the speed at which the dog learns, the amount the dog needs to learn (based on previous training and on the skill set needed for the dog), and particularly, on how much training time the dog gets. These factors also affect the cost of training. Generally speaking, if your dog is a great candidate and you put in a lot of training, you should expect to spend about two years on intensive training and then another year on refining while your dog is working.
Training cost will also be affected by what type of training you do — how much is done by a professional trainer versus by the owner — and the trainer’s rates and set-up. The least expensive options are the most do-it-yourself (DIY) including using books, videos, and online groups. The least expensive option for working with a trainer is usually group classes. Private lessons are more expensive, with day training usually costing more (because lessons are more frequent), and board-and-train as the most expensive. While more expensive, day training and owner lessons are usually best for training your dog faster and more effectively while also giving you better training and handling skills. The more you do on your own, the longer training takes because you will make more mistakes that you’ll have to retrain. So there is always a trade-off between cost and time.
Here are some possible estimates for the least expensive route possible, the average route costs, and a more expensive route. NOTE: Keep in mind that these estimates assume a dog that is an appropriate, successful candidate (behaviorally and physically healthy and normal level of trainability) and an owner that keeps up with their side of the training. When either of these is not the case, it will have a profound impact on the rate, success, and cost of training.
Super-Frugal DIY Example — Lowest expense first year
For the owner-trainer who is incredibly motivated, resourceful, frugal, already reasonably skilled at training, who has loads of free time, and who also has a rock-solid dog in terms of temperament and health, here are examples of potential training costs. This assumes this individual is devoting most of their time to training, including learning everything they can about service dog training. This individual is getting a lot of their training information from reputable, credible free training sources such as information from skilled, reputable, science-based trainers via blogs, youtube, listservs, etc., as well as these services:
- Service dog consult/assessment: $200
- Group puppy class: $150
- Group basic manners class: $150
- Group intermediate manners class: $150
- Group advanced manners class: $150
- Service dog and training books and DVDs: $200
- Package of five private lessons to address persistent bad behaviors and coaching on assistance task training: $500
- Total: $1,500
Team Requires Significant Training Support — Higher expense first year
For the great majority of situations, that DIY example will not be nearly enough. The other end of the spectrum is the person who wants their dog trained but needs a great deal of skilled training assistance. This is often the case for people who do not have a lot of time or interest in doing a huge amount of training. Examples may include…
- A parent or parents who work full-time and want their dog trained to assist a family member
- A handler whose disability interferes significantly in their own ability to train their dog
- A handler who — due to disability, age, education, learning style, personality, or other factors — requires more skilled training/support
- A dog that poses more training challenges (e.g., hyper dog that needs to learn to relax or dog that has developed strong bad habits — e.g., jumping, barking, stealing — or that has mild behavior issues), requiring skilled training before it can be reassessed to see if service dog training will be possible
The first year of training services in this situation may look like this:
- Service dog consult/assessment: $200
- Puppy kindergarten or group basic manners class: $150
- Puppy board-and-train (6 weeks): $6,000
- Day training (three times a week for 10 months): $13,000
- Specialty (e.g., advanced manners class, public access field trips, assistance task training, referral to behavior consultant): $1,000
- Total: $20,350
“Typical” Training Expenses — first year
While there are so many variables that I hesitate to ever say “typical,” many of the clients I work with fit some version of this picture:
- Interested and able to devote considerable time to training (only work or go to school part-time and have limited family or other obligations)
- Have minimal training skills but with hard work, careful instruction, and practice, become relatively skilled handlers and trainers after six-to-12 months
- Dog does not have severe behavior issues but has some entrenched bad habits (e.g., counter surfing, hyper greeting) or mild behavior problems (e.g., limited reactivity to one type of trigger, moderate separation distress)
- Handler uses recommended books, handouts, videos, but team learns much better with in-person coaching
The first year of training services in this situation may look like this:
- Service dog consult/assessment: $200
- Puppy kindergarten or group basic manners class: $150
- Day training (three times a week for 6 weeks): $1,500
- Private lessons (once a week for 4 months, twice a month for 4 months, once a month for 3 months): $2,700
- Group intermediate manners class: $150
- Group advanced manners class: $150
- Specialty (e.g., public access field trips, assistance task training, referral to behavior consultant): $1,000
- Recommended service dog and training books and DVDs: $150
- Total: $6,000
Obviously, there are huge ranges in all of these estimates, but if I add up the lowest estimates, the highest estimates, and the average rangers, here are how the estimates stack up…
First-Year Cost Estimates
Least Expensive: $3,650
Most Expensive: $40,250
Both of these extremes are unlikely. For the low end, everything would need to go right:
- the dog has perfect health, breeding, behavior
- is low-maintenance (small breed, easy coat care, young adult)
- and the owner/handler is skilled, has lots of time and devotion, etc.
Obviously, the chances of the stars aligning this perfectly are low!
The high end assumes an expensive puppy from a breeder, large expenses in finding and selecting the pup, the biggest veterinary and basic care costs, and the most training expenses. Fortunately, this is also atypical.
More Typical Expense Estimate: $16,000-$20,000
For this estimate, I took the averages of some of the usual pet dog costs and then the more typical training and gear needs estimates.
Once you see what goes into training a service dog, it can help explain why a service dog trained by a program can easily cost many thousands of dollars. There are many good reasons to train your own service dog, but if you’re doing it because you think it will be an inexpensive option, you are likely to be continually, shocked, disappointed, and scrambling to cover costs. Before embarking on this journey, make sure you have the time and money to devote. While you may hope that your expenses come out on the low end of the scale, there are never any guarantees. It is helpful to have extra set aside for those inevitable unexpected costs.