Demand for service dogs unleashes a ‘Wild West’ market
Service dogs can help people living with conditions from autism to epilepsy, but a trained dog can cost up to $40,000 — and insurance won’t cover it.
Jenni Mahnaz admits she’s not much of a dog person. She’s mildly allergic and the only pet she had as a child was a hermit crab. But once she learned that specially trained dogs could help her daughters with their medical needs, she was willing to do anything to make it happen.
Her oldest daughter, Suraiya, 6, was diagnosed with autism and sensory processing challenges. Soon after, 4-year-old Phoenix was diagnosed with epilepsy.
“Our family is very likely to end up with two service dogs,” Mahnaz said. “I think we’re probably looking at $10,000 per dog.”
That’s a serious hurdle for the Troy, New York, family of five whose income is below the federal poverty line, even though they’ll save money by buying pups from a breeder and then paying a local trainer to train them as service dogs.
Organizations charge from $15,000 to $40,000 for a fully trained service dog, which they have bred, raised, and trained for a year and a half. None of that cost is covered by health insurance. Other trainers have long waiting lists or won’t place dogs with young children.
“This is very expensive for us, but I am my girls’ parent, and it is my job to do whatever I can to make their standard of living as good as I can,” Mahnaz said. “It is a need for them and it will make a big difference in their lives.”
Demand for service dogs has exploded in recent years as dogs have proved adept at helping children and adults with an increasing range of disabilities. While dogs once served primarily people with vision or mobility impairments, they now help people with autism, diabetes, seizures, and psychiatric disorders. That has overwhelmed nonprofit service dog trainers, who generally donate dogs to patients for at most a small application fee. But unmet needs have helped launch a for-profit service dog industry with hefty price tags.
Rapid growth, however, has come with little oversight, potentially subjecting people who have complex medical issues to huge financial barriers, poorly trained dogs, and outright fraud. Those pitfalls are only exacerbated by social media, including fundraising sites like GoFundMe that allow families to meet pricing thresholds they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. The flourishing market emboldens trainers to charge more for their services, confident that the funds will be donated.
Some, like the Mahnaz family, gamble by training their own dogs to lower the cost. But trainers say that the success rate for self-trained dogs is lower than their own — and that families could be out thousands of dollars.
“The dog could absolutely fail. We could end up with an adult dog who cannot be a service animal,” Mahnaz said. “The reality is we don’t have a choice.”
The lack of regulations for service dog trainers has opened the door for scores of backyard trainers who may or may not be qualified to train service dogs, said Lynette Hart, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California-Davis. There is no certification process for service dogs, either.
“There’s a big opportunity for people who are dog trainers to say, ‘Oh, I will sell you one for tens of thousands of dollars,” she said. “It’s a kind of a wild West issue.”
But that also leaves families open to getting burned with little recourse.
“Sometimes they’re sold a bill of goods,” said Sheila O’Brien, chairperson of the North American board of Assistance Dogs International. The group accredits service dog trainers, but the accreditation is voluntary and only nonprofit organizations are eligible. The group has 80 accredited members and 25 candidate programs in North America. But nobody knows how many unaccredited dog trainers are operating in the U.S.
“It’s so easy to defraud people over the internet. There’s a lot of money to be made here,” said David Favre, a Michigan State University law professor specializing in animal law. “It’s never been controlled, and it’s gotten worse.”
In 2018, for example, Virginia’s attorney general filed a lawsuit alleging a company named Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers charged families up to $27,000 per dog but often delivered “poorly-trained puppies with significant behavioral issues and inadequate skills or training.” The trainer settled the lawsuit last year for $3 million.
In 2020, North Carolina’s attorney general filed a similar suit against the owner of Ry-Con, a nonprofit service dog trainer. The suit alleged that Ry-Con charged families up to $16,710 per dog despite knowing the dogs were not adequately trained.
Both training companies are now out of business and the former owners could not be reached for comment.
O’Brien estimates the average training cost in the U.S. is $30,000 per dog. But trainers must also account for the costs of the 60% of dogs who won’t make it through the training.
Sometimes dogs wash out because of health or temperament issues. “Some are just lovers and not workers,” O’Brien said.
Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants, a Milton, Georgia, nonprofit training organization, said much work remains after a dog graduates, but many for-profit trainers end their involvement when they sell the dog. Many people need help troubleshooting issues such as housebreaking or leash-walking difficulties.
“Clients can get dogs that aren’t prepared, and sometimes, when dogs are prepared, they end up with families who don’t follow through,” Arnold said. “It’s difficult on both sides, but families get taken advantage of a lot more than the other way around.”
Canine Assistants has the ability to train and place a maximum of 100 dogs per year but receives about 1,400 applications.
“The need is overwhelming,” Arnold said. “It made the industry perfect for folks who want to make a little money.”
In most cases, that money isn’t coming directly out of patients’ pockets.
Kelly Camm, development director with the Xenia, Ohio-based nonprofit 4 Paws for Ability, said only about 5% of families can write the $17,000 check required for a service dog. The rest rely on their community, family, friends, or sometimes complete strangers for donations.
Medical Mutts Service Dogs in Indianapolis trains about 30 service dogs a year, about a third of which are dogs that board with them for training.
“There is no guarantee for any of those dogs to go through,” said Eva Rudisile, Medical Mutts’ director of client services. “As you start training and you take them out in public places, you start practicing certain behaviors, it’s quite stressful. And some dogs, they just can’t handle that.”
Medical Mutts charges $15,000 to $17,000 for a program dog depending on what type of disability is involved. It’s $11,000 to board and train a dog. If that dog washes out, the family is out that money. Families that opt for a program dog, on the other hand, are guaranteed to get a dog that completes the training.
“That’s the biggest plus for a program dog,” Rudisile said. “They don’t have the risk of, ‘OK, I got a dog and now I’m stuck with it and it’s not working.’”
For the Mahnaz family, that’s a gamble worth taking. A friend has set up a GoFundMe page to raise the initial $4,000 to get their first dog, a goldendoodle, from a breeder. They’ll start with basic obedience training and, when the dog is old enough, begin its service dog training.
An autism service dog, they hope, will help Suraiya deal with uncomfortable social situations and settle her down when she is on the verge of a meltdown. Eventually, they’ll get a second dog trained to alert them when Phoenix experiences a seizure.
Suraiya, who cannot write yet, has nonetheless created a list of potential dog names that only she can read: Blueberry, Alex, Stardust, Jelly-Jam. Phoenix has settled on Pancake.