How to Get a Service Dog if You Have a Disability

(Last Updated On: June 21, 2019)

Wondering how to get a service dog? We understand. Service animals are a confusing topic! There is a lot of confusion about the process, including the decision between a service dog and emotional support animal.

A service dog can make a huge difference in your life.

If you’re disabled, you may be able to enjoy greater independence and freedom with a trained companion. There is a big difference between an actual service dog and an emotional support animal, so be sure you understand the difference!

The training is really what sets service animals apart and makes them so beneficial. They can be trained to help with specific tasks, depending on whether you are blind, deaf, mobility impaired or living with another disability. Service animals can even be trained to help with mental disabilities!

how to get a service dog

Who qualifies for a service dog?

In order to legally qualify for a service dog, you must have a disability that substantially limits your ability to perform at least one major life task without assistance. Your disability could be physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual or mental. However, the animal must perform at least one critical task for you, such as helping you see, helping you move around, alerting you to dangerous blood sugar levels or oncoming seizures, etc.

Here’s how to get a service dog.

It’s an easy process, but it can take a long time. Here’s what you need to do.

Step 1: Talk to your doctor.

Getting a service animal starts with getting a diagnosis from a doctor. The doctor may also need to provide you with a letter indicating that a service animal can help you manage or mitigate your disability. Ultimately, you will need to be able to prove that you have a disability and that the animal will help in some meaningful way.

Step 2: Decide whether to get one from an agency or train one yourself.

Once you have the paperwork in order, there are a few ways that you can go about actually obtaining your animal. You can obtain one from a service dog organization that will train the dog for you, or you can train the dog yourself! Of course, training the dog yourself may be too difficult (especially if you need the animal to perform complicated tasks, like being a seeing-eye dog).

There are many low income people who need service animals, and the costs can be very high. Training a service animal is a huge investment of time and effort on the part of these agencies. It is not uncommon for an organization to ask for $20,000 or more for a service animal. Of course, you can also opt to train the animal yourself. This can be extremely difficult, though, especially if the animal has to perform complex tasks. The American Kennel Club has a great tutorial called “Service Dog Training 101” if you want to try it yourself.

Step 3: Plan some fundraisers to help with the cost.

This is obviously a ridiculously high amount for low income families to come up with. That’s why many organizations provide fundraising options for families who need to obtain a service animal. It is rare for family to successfully fund-raise for a service animal on a platform like GoFundMe. However, you can host bake sales, spaghetti dinners, chili cook-offs, ice cream socials, silent auctions and more. This list by Anything Pawsable has over 100 ways that you can raise funds for a service animal.

how to get a service animal

Still wondering how to get a service dog? These agencies may be able to help.

There are many organizations that are dedicated to partnering people with service animals. They may be able to help you or point you to another organization that can help.

If you are visually disabled, here’s how to get a service dog.

The Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation provides people who are blind or severely visually impaired with a German Shepherd that can help. The dogs and training are free! They even include at-home follow-up visits at least once per year for free. How cool is that?!

The Guide Dog Foundation helps people who are visually impaired also. They offer labradors and golden retrievers, as well as hypoallergenic poodles that can serve people who are usually allergic to dogs. This is provided at no cost.

Guide Dogs of America also offers free services to those who are visually impaired.

The Seeing Eye provides seeing eye dogs for a fee. The fee is $150 for their first dog or $50 for a successor. Veterans pay only $1. Payments can be made in installments. However, you are also required to attend a 3.5 week training at their Morristown campus in order to receive your animal.

If you are hearing disabled, here’s how to get a service dog.

International Hearing Dog, Inc. specifically trains service animals to listen for their owners. The trained animals will respond and alert their owners to sounds like approaching cars, alarm clocks, telephones, doorbells or other specific sounds. The animals are provided free of charge.

Paws with a Cause provides hearing dogs for those who are hard of hearing. The dogs are trained to respond to smoke alarms, doorbells, children crying, and other specific sounds. The hearing dog will nudge you to alert you to the noise, and then lead you to the source. Hearing Dogs can even be trained to respond to sign language for those who are non-verbal! Paws for a Cause provides the animals at no cost.

These organizations provide service dogs for free or cheap.

The Assistance Dog United Campaign (ADUC) assists people who need an assistance dog but can’t raise the necessary funds themselves.

Paws with a Cause provides service animals to assist with many types of disabilities. They provide the animals free of charge based on prior donations. Since they rely on donations to cover the $30,000 cost per service dog, they encourage everyone to fundraise to help the next person receive their dog. This “pay it forward” system has been in place for years.

These organizations provide service dogs for a fee.

4 Paws for Ability specializes in placements with children, especially those who have been turned away from other agencies because they are too young, too disabled or not disabled enough. They also place dogs with veterans who need them.

The only thing that 4 Paws for Ability requires is a physician statement that the person requesting the service animal actually has a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Unfortunately, the service animals at 4 Paws for Ability are not provided at no-cost. They have a partial payment model which requires you to pay $17,000 of the $40,000-$60,000 cost of training the animal. The fee is not tax deductible, either.

The Service Dogs for America also provides service animals. You can submit the preliminary application for free, but there is a $50 non-refundable fee for the full application.

If you are selected to receive a service animal, you will need to pay the full $20,000 fee. Fortunately, the SDA also has a dedicated staff member that helps with fundraising, grant applications, payment plans and scholarships to help approved clients find the money to pay for their service dog.

This fee includes at least three weeks of training at the SDA campus, guest housing during the training, all training materials, home visits, fundraising assistance, recertifications, follow-up consultations and more.

Watch out! There are many service animal scams out there.

As always, there are people looking to make quick money by deceiving people who need help. If you’re looking for a service animal, be sure to watch out for these common scams!

#1: They promise to deliver the trained animal to you.  

Most of the organizations that we have found require you to participate in the training process. After all, you’ll need some training to learn how to work with your new partner! If the agency asks for lots of money and promises to deliver the animal without any effort on your part, be very skeptical.

#2: Know the difference between a companion pet, emotional support animal and service animal.

These are three very different things. Emotional support animals don’t have the same training or privileges that service animals do. You need to make sure that you are actually receiving a trained service animal.

#3: Don’t pay an online service for a service animal letter.

There are many websites that promise to provide you with a service animal recommendation letter within mere minutes. Don’t trust these websites! In many cases, the legitimate service animal providers will not accept letters from these quick online services. They want to see a letter from your actual local physician.

Be prepared to answer questions, but know your rights.

It’s natural for people to have questions about your service animal, but it’s important that you know your rights. There are only two questions that you may have to answer about your service animal.

The first question is, “Is this a service animal required because of a disability?” The answer is simply yes. You do not have to identify or explain your disability whatsoever.

The second question is, “What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?” You do not have to go into great detail to answer this question and you do not have to identify your disability.

These questions can only be asked if it is not obvious that your dog is a service animal. To avoid these questions, simply use a vest, patch or harness that indicates the dog is a service animal.

Employees are not allowed to ask you to provide documentation, require the dog to demonstrate its task, or inquire about your disability.

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