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How much is a service dog, anyway? The latest version of the federal government’s estimate is $50,000, which is way above the $35,000 cost of a service animal as it is required by the Fair Housing Act. The estimate was made up in November, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and an October 2014 survey of service dog users by the Bureau of Health Care Delivery and Standards.
This number will surprise many, as the public was informed earlier this month that the estimated cost of a service dog is $35,000. The government used that figure as part of its request for a $25 million increase in its request for funds to cover the estimated $500 million cost of the 2015 budget. (The request for money was met with an enthusiastic response by members of Congress.)
But that’s not the number you should use when calculating the cost of a service dog, said Linda J. Vines, an employee of a service dog training company in San Diego. Her company, Service Dogs International, has trained more than 700 service dogs since it began training dogs in 1997, and she estimates the cost of each dog trained to be $35,000. (Some of those dogs go on to work as therapeutic dogs, performing for disabled people such as children with autism.)
There are good reasons to expect the costs to be much higher than $35,000. For one, Vines has no control over what a new owner of a trained service dog will do with it. She can’t prevent a person from buying a dog, taking it to an animal shelter and then claiming that dog as a service dog. The dog then gets adopted out and trained by another organization.
Vines said that in her 30 years of running the business, her company had never adopted a dog it had trained as a service dog. And she has little doubt that other organizations would go through a similar process. She said, “We haven’t seen anybody go and find a dog, train it, and then sell it to someone else.” She did say, however, that many of her clients would sell their dogs after having them trained as service dogs, but those clients didn’t want their dogs to be adopted out and trained by another organization.
It also doesn’t make sense that a dog could be adopted, trained and used as a service dog and yet be listed at less than $35,000 on the government’s service dog cost estimate. In its November estimate, the government listed the cost of training a service dog for the first time at $7,500, and the second time at $15,000. A dog being trained for a third time would cost a bit more. But if a person wanted to train and use a dog for a fourth time, that dog would cost $21,000.
Vines said that most service dog users are on disability. They often need a dog trained to assist them with all aspects of life and are very willing to pay whatever it costs to acquire and train a dog. She also pointed out that most of her clients use their dogs to help them walk. This is a task that requires two people and a great deal of time. A dog trained to help a person get around a building or city is more likely to cost $35,000 or more.
The service dog training companies Vines is familiar with charge an average of $13,000 to $18,000 for training a dog for the first time. A typical charge for training a dog to help a person get around a building or city would be closer to $30,000. She noted that many of the owners of the dogs her company trains are people who have bought a dog for the first time and who haven’t been able to train it to be a service dog. “They are not necessarily in a position to do it and they have been struggling with the fact that they can’t train their dog to be a service dog. They are coming to us and saying, ‘I just bought a dog, I want a service dog, how much is that going to cost me?'”
This is where the estimated $35,000 comes in. Vines said that her company estimates that the average cost of a dog trained to be a service dog for the first time would be around $35,000. A dog that is trained to help a person get around a building or city would likely cost around $55,000.
Vines said it takes two months to train a service dog and then two months to evaluate it. The person training the dog must be sure it will be able to do its job. A person with cerebral palsy may have a dog that can pick up a dropped item but cannot pick it up if the item is on a table. A person with a degenerative disease such as multiple sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease may have a dog that can pick up a dropped item but cannot pick it up if the item is on a table. And of course, all dogs have limits. A dog can’t carry a wheelchair around, for example.
But Vines said that a person who buys a dog trained to assist a person with a disability has no guarantee that the dog will do that job. And even if it is a great dog, it will require a lot of time and energy to train it and maintain it.
Some service dog training companies also do a “fidelity bond” with their clients. It guarantees that the client will buy another service dog from that company if that dog fails. Vines said that no such bond was required for her company to provide service dogs for clients.
Vines was one of the speakers at a service dog symposium I attended last year in San Diego. Other speakers included people who own dogs trained as service dogs and people who own dogs that perform a wide variety of tasks. One person spoke of his dog, a golden retriever, who not only retrieves items, but will stand watch over his owner’s sleeping children, and who would alert him to a problem if he saw someone getting too close.
Another man spoke of his service dog