How to Get a (Trained) Service Dog
Updated: Feb 8
First, be aware that while some organizations will give service dogs for free, they tend to be very localized (like requiring you to live in a specific state or even part of a state) and/or have very long waitlists (think 3+ years). So, you need to be prepared to pay thousands of dollars (possibly $30k+) either out of pocket or through fundraising. It is still worth it to research the organizations out there before worrying about the money, however, as many organizations can either give you a way to start fundraising or they will actually help you with fundraising.
Before doing your research, I would sit down with any financial support you will be calling on (such as parents or partners) and determine just how much you’re able and willing to give out-of-pocket. Also put a lot of thought into your wants and needs and decide how long is too long to wait? Some waitlists are many years long, some tend to have dogs ready within ~6 months (those are much less common, though). So, just how long are you willing to wait? Those numbers may change as you do more research, but starting out with a budget and a timeline will help you weed out at least some organizations to start.
Before you really dig into the organizations and find one or two that will work for you, make sure you have your list of required tasks/work that you’ll need your dog to do. Will you need some psychiatric tasks? How about medical alert/response? Standard mobility tasks (such as opening doors)? Different organizations train for different things. Mobility-only service dogs are the most common, followed by medic alert/response-only. There are more psychiatric-specific organizations every year, but they are still much less common. Finding an organization for a multi-purpose dog (one that has tasks/work from more than one category) is the hardest.
It’s also important to be aware that many organizations have specific requirements such as only working with handlers who are 18+ years old, only working with people confined to wheelchairs, or only working with military veterans. These are things to look out for when looking at organizations, especially if you are looking for a service dog for a minor or looking for a psychiatric/multi-purpose service dog.
Once you’ve done your prep work, it’s time to start looking for organizations. Some people will be able to find hundreds of organizations that could help them. Some people will only find a handful. That’s okay. You only need one, in the end, that works for you.
You can start with Assistance Dogs International (ADI) organizations, but if you have trouble finding one that fits your situation, going to Google is a perfectly fine solution. Searching for something like “anxiety service dog” can bring you many organizations, but some will be less reliable than others. Regardless of where you find the organizations you’re looking at, you want to do your research before applying. Be prepared for long, detailed question forms that require you to go into detail about your health problems, your daily abilities, and more.
Look for these specific answers in each organization’s website:
1. Do they train dogs for your specific needs (e.g. psychiatric tasks)?
2. Do they have any restrictions on who they will train dogs for (age limitations, specific disabilities, etc.)?
3. Do they allow you to have other pets in the house?
4. How much will you have to pay or fundraise for the dog?
Will they help you fundraise?
5. What kind of wait time is expected from applying to being approved and then from being approved to getting a dog?
6. What training methods do they use (and expect you to use once you get the dog)? Are you comfortable with that?
7. What’s the partner/handler training process?
How long do you have to spend with the dog prior to receiving it? (Often, they’ll require a minimum of 4 intense training days, sometimes up to 2 weeks.)
Where do you have to go for training?
While doing this training, do you have to find your own housing or will they offer you some? (Be prepared to get your own housing and transportation to these programs.)
8. Do you keep ownership of the dog once it’s given to you? NOTE: Many organizations retain the rights to their dogs, which, hopefully, shouldn’t matter, but that means that they can take the dog back if they feel they aren’t being properly cared for or for any other reason they decide.
If they do keep ownership, what would make them take the dog away from you?
9. Are there any requirements after getting the dog, such as yearly certifications or monthly check-ins?
10. What happens if there are any training/behavior problems once you get the dog?
11. What happens to the dog when they are ready to retire?
Do they take the dog back?
Do they let you keep the dog? Even if you’re getting another service dog?
Do they help find them another home?
Every organization is slightly different and every situation is unique, so I can’t tell you which specific answers you’re looking for. Once you’ve looked through several organizations, you should start getting an idea of what’s acceptable to you or what’s not.
If you have been through the process and have any other questions you think should be included in this list, please comment or send us an email! We’d love to hear your thoughts.