There is no way around it: From training expenses to veterinary bills, acquiring and caring for a service dog can be expensive. According to the National Council on Disability, people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities. While there is rarely a way to completely eliminate these various costs, there are ways to reduce some of them.
There is a very wide range of possible fees when it comes to acquiring a service dog. Some larger non-profit organizations or those that have acquired grants may be able to provide a service dog at minimal or sometimes even no cost to recipients. Not all non-profit organizations are able to do this, and non-profit fees vary greatly. People looking for a service dog need to be aware that there is no regulation in the industry and some unscrupulous organizations charge exorbitant fees for dogs that have little training. Sadly, trainers are increasingly receiving requests for training help from people with disabilities who paid high fees for dogs with severe behavior challenges. Unfortunately, given the high demand for service dogs, many reputable non-profit organizations have very long wait lists. It is not unusual to see non-profit organizations sharing that they have wait lists upwards of four years, and some are even closed to new applicants.
Because of the great demand for service dogs and long wait lists, many people choose to select and train a dog for this work independently. With this approach, the owner assumes the costs themselves. Trainers working with owner-trainers can support their clients in their efforts to offset some of the costs by sharing information about these possibilities:
- A service dog may be considered an impairment related work expense (IRWE). If the individual is receiving Social Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance, and the service dog enables the person to work, the service dog training and other expenses might meet the criteria for an IRWE and be deducted when determining eligibility for benefits. The regulations are, unfortunately, complex; details can be found online.
- Expenses for training and caring for a service dog may be reimbursable via a Flexible Spending Account or Health Savings Account. Some documentation may be required. Individuals should contact their plan administrator for details.
- The expenses of training or caring for the service dog may be directly deductible from the owner’s taxes. Individuals should keep careful track of their expenses and contact a qualified tax professional such as a CPA to learn precisely which expenses can be deducted.
In addition to these deductions, there are other ways trainers can help clients make the most of their training sessions and keep their costs manageable. For example, the trainer can recommend the client combine group training classes with private lessons to allow the team more practice opportunities at a lower overall cost. Trainers can recommend books, videos or websites to complement the information covered in lessons so clients improve their overall knowledge of how to train the dog, making the process is more efficient.
Utilizing a combination of services, such as incorporating virtual training services, can also be helpful. Teaching clients strong technical training skills can help enable owner-trainers to train their dogs more efficiently. One thing trainers should not do, however, is recommend less training than the team actually needs. While it may make things financially easier in the short term, fixing gaps in training can be more expensive later, since undesired behaviors that have been practiced take longer to change.
There is no getting around the fact that acquiring and caring for a service dog is a costly endeavor and is not accessible to every person with a disability. Of course, trainers should never attempt to cut corners that could put a team in danger. It’s also important to know when to refer a client to a finance or tax professional for more information. However, one of the benefits a service dog trainer can provide clients is helping them be judicious in how they spend their money and offering resources where possible that might help make a service dog more affordable.