How to Get a Service Dog | The Qualifying & Training Needed

Service dogs serve a very important role in society. They have worked with people who have disabilities, helping them navigate through life. Service dogs fulfill a very important task of helping disabled individuals handle tasks and also serve an emotional role.

Those that have a service dog feel an unspoken bond between them and the animal. They have become part of their family and going a day without them is hard to imagine. Are you in need of a service dog? We have put together this article to help explain how to get a service dog!

What Is a Service Dog?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), service animals are defined as dogs that are “individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability”. It can include training in physical, intellectual, sensory, psychiatric, or other mental disability.

Unlike emotional support animals (which are a wide range of animals like cats, horses, etc), the only legal service animal is a canine or a miniature horse. There is actually no officially recognized certification or training program for emotional support animals; you simply need to be diagnosed by a legitimate, licensed medical professional or mental health worker, and you need to make sure your dog is trained to perform at least one task to help with the symptoms of that disability – even if you train them yourself.

Service dogs are extremely well trained and help support a huge range of disabilities. It is actually not hard to qualify for a service animal. However, finding the means to receive one is far more complicated.

The Different Types of Support Animals

It is important to note that since the process for obtaining a service dog has a tendency to get drawn out having an idea of what support animal is precisely right for your individual circumstances goes a long way.

For example, if you are deaf there is absolutely no question a service dog is required. However, if you are suffering from a mental disorder, an emotional support animal may be a more appropriate solution.

There are many instances where people, unfortunately, confuse the different types of support animals. Service dogs sound practical, so they expect one, even though the condition may get partially alleviated through another source.

Let’s examine the different types of service animals:

  • Therapy Dogs: These animals serve a therapeutic value just as the name implies. A canine that visits a nursing home once a week to interact with residents is a good example. In general, therapy dogs provide comfort and affection to people – but unlike other support animals, these are tied to a place (like a hospital or disaster scene) versus a specific person.
  • Emotional Support Animal (ESA): These domestic animals help mitigate many emotional and psychological symptoms associated with a condition or disorder of the handler. ESA dogs do not need to get extensively trained. The biggest requirement is that they are well-behaved, calm, and outgoing. Emotional support dogs are allowed to live in any housing, regardless of no-pet policies, or breed or weight restrictions – and they are exempt from pet rent, deposits, and fees.
  • Service Animal: These animals are restricted to one type – dogs (though sometimes miniature horses are allowed). Service dogs are highly trained and adaptive. They are specifically designed for people suffering from a disability. Their training helps the individual overcome their disability on a daily basis. Unlike the other types of support animals, service dogs are also allowed in any public place or establishment that otherwise would ban pets under law, and they have the same housing rights as ESAs. The other types of support animals generally need to receive permission from the establishment beforehand.
  • Psychiatric Service Dog (PSD): These service animals are designed to serve a specific psychiatric or mental disability. Therefore, the animal is specifically trained to help alleviate the symptoms associated with a singular mental or emotional disorder or condition. One of the more common is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, those suffering from anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and Bipolar Disorder also benefit from PSD dogs. PSDs have the same housing rights as ESAs, but they also have public access, like other service dogs.

Finding the right type of support animal for your individual circumstances is crucial. A service dog may or may not represent the most appropriate animal for you.

Disabilities That Benefit From Service Dogs

While it is certainly not a tell-all list, here is a good indication of some of the many disabilities a service dog is trained and can help deal with:

  • Mobility issues (i.e. paralysis)
  • Sensory issues (i.e. blindness)
  • Autism
  • Epilepsy
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
  • Bone and Skeletal (i.e. scoliosis)
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What Defines a Disability?

If you go by the technical definition, it is “the inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.”

In other words, a disability hampers or completely limits vital life tasks such as seeing, hearing, standing, walking, eating, thinking, and sleeping. Additionally, people with disabilities have rights when it comes to service dogs.

It is not acceptable under the law for an owner, manager, or other representatives of business (public or private) to inquire what disability warrants the presence of a service animal. The only information a representative of an institution may ask is if the dog by your side is a service animal.

They also may inquire about what tasks the service dog is trained to perform for you. Any other information is not appropriate for an owner, manager, or other representatives to receive and is at your full disclosure.

Furthermore, ADA law guarantees disabled individuals the right to live with a service dog regardless of the policies in place at the residence. It includes types of living, like apartment complexes, and other housing that generally does not allow pets. Also, the landlord or manager is not allowed to refuse you service due to the animal. Nor can they require a pet deposit or extra fees for having a service dog.

dog opens door for person in wheelchair

Your Right to a Service Animal

If you are an individual suffering from a disability, you likely have a right to a service dog according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA protects disabled individuals by providing service dogs in an effort to live a normal life.

The ADA also protects disabled people by allowing service dogs in most places animals are traditionally not allowed. It includes airplanes, libraries, restaurants, hotels, and public transportation.

Service dogs are trained to work with certain disabilities. As long as the canine is classified as a working animal and not a pet, you and your service dog are protected under law. Many disabled individuals depend on these loving dogs every day to help them with necessary tasks as well as for emotional support.

How Do You Qualify for a Service Dog?

The first step is to get qualified which is very straightforward. All you need to do is receive written documentation from a healthcare provider that you have a disability and request further assistance. You can speak to your primary care physician or another specialist about the precise type of documentation you will need to provide.

The healthcare provider will then sign off in agreement that you are receiving treatment for an emotional or psychiatric disorder or disability, and that you require the support and assistance of an animal. Once you receive the necessary paperwork it is time to begin your search for finding a good service dog.

Where Do You Get a Service Dog?

Service dogs are obtained via a number of professional organizations. To make it simpler, we break down what getting a service dog may look like from different options.

From a Non-Profit Organization

There are many non-profit organizations that train and donate service dogs to those with disabilities. Some are able to give dogs away for free, but they often have long waiting lists because of this.

Other charitable organizations may not be able to give dogs away for free, but they do provide service dogs at a reduced cost. It’s not unusual to be charged $8,000 – $10,000 for such a dog.

This may seem like a lot of money, but many service dogs cost upward of $20,000 to fully train. Some of the most expensive service dogs cost $50,000 to train. When you consider this, paying $10,000 doesn’t seem so bad.

Though expensive, the price of these service dogs is worth it. Non-profit organizations are trustworthy sources as they choose their dogs carefully and ensure they are fully vetted.

They have a good eye for which dogs will make it as service animals, and are not afraid to flunk dogs that just don’t have what it takes. You can be sure the dog you’re getting is one you can trust with your health and wellbeing.

Another reason non-profit organizations are a great choice for obtaining a service dog is that they tend to offer continual support. Before you receive your dog, you will usually have to attend classes.

These classes teach you all of the dog’s commands, as well as the basics of dog training, so that you can keep your dog’s skills sharp even after you bring them home. If you ever have any questions or issues, you can reach out to the organization for help.

From a Service Dog Trainer

As awesome as non-profit organizations are, they may not be the best option for everyone. Perhaps they are too costly or the waiting lists are just too long. In that case, you might want to consider going to a service dog trainer or (for-profit) organization that specializes in training service dogs.

For this option, you will typically have to provide a dog yourself. However, many service dog trainers are willing to help you find a puppy. Some have partnerships with breeders who specialize in breeding pups that go on to be service animals.

Otherwise, the trainer can help you identify the qualities you should be looking for in a puppy. If you already have a dog, then the trainers will evaluate them to see if they may be suitable for service work.

It’s important to be aware that there is some amount of risk involved here. This is because not all dogs are suited to performing service work. There is always a chance that the dog you choose will flunk the service dog training.

For some people, the risk is worth it, because if the dog does pass, the training usually only takes about six months. This is usually a much quicker turnaround than non-profit organizations. Furthermore, even if the dog does flunk, they may still be useful to you.

Dogs can flunk for various reasons, such as fear or a lack of confidence. When this happens, they aren’t able to work well in public places. However, if you don’t need a dog that you can bring into public areas, then the training may not go to waste.

After all, there is a lot your dog can do for you at home. They can fetch things for you, calm anxiety, or even remind you to take medication. Still, should you choose to go this route to obtain a service dog, then you should have a plan in place if the dog isn’t suitable for service work.

Train a Service Dog Yourself

woman training dog outside

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that governs service dogs. According to this law, it is perfectly legal to train a service dog by yourself. You are not required to hire a professional if you do not want to.

Therefore, training your own service dog can be a cost-effective option. You can also ensure that your dog is perfectly tailored to your needs. However, there is, once again, the risk that you may find your dog unsuitable for service work, and you may need to start over with a different dog or consider other options.

Though it is within your rights to train your own service dog, it’s not a bad idea to hire a professional to help you, especially if you’re not very knowledgeable about dog training. Hiring someone will increase the overall cost of the dog, but this option is usually still cheaper than the others we’ve listed.

To cut costs even further, you can consider online training. There are many professionals that can work with you online via webcam. Here at USSA, we offer an affordable online service dog training course for Psychiatric Service Dogs (PSD). If a PSD is the type of service dog you need, then our online training course may be perfect for you.

Adopt a Failed Service Dog

As we’ve been saying, not all dogs are cut out for service work. However, those that fail training still tend to be well-behaved and may know some useful skills. Dogs that fail their service training are often called “Career Change Dogs.”

Dogs fail for different reasons, such as physical health issues or behavioral issues like fearfulness, excitability, or problems with focusing in public. If you don’t need a service dog to work in public, it’s possible that a Career Change Dog could work for you. However, you’ll want to ask questions about why the dog failed to ensure that they’d still be a good fit for your needs.

You can often find failed service dogs through organizations that offer fully trained service dogs. Some organizations providing Career Change Dogs include Service Dogs Inc., Freedom Service Dogs of America, and Guide Dogs for the Blind. Unfortunately, there is a high demand for Career Change Dogs, which results in long waiting lists.

Steps to Get a Service Dog

Before you take the first step, it is important to really consider that if the responsibilities of taking care of a service animal are right for you. Most people love pets, and for good reason. They offer non-judgmental love and affection. They are reliable. Most animals like to cozy up and provide relief during a difficult day.

However, having a pet, even a well-trained service dog, is a big commitment. Dogs require time and energy to make sure they are also properly fed and well taken care of. Even remarkably well-trained animals like service dogs have some requirements. Do you consider yourself physically, mentally, and financially stable enough to handle one? If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then it is time to move forward with how to get a service dog.

Please note the following process is generalized. There are many organizations out there that train and offer service dogs. However, these are the basics:

  • Get documentation from a healthcare provider. It essentially explains your disability and that you are a great candidate for a service animal.
  • Submit an application. Since there is a high demand for service dogs, there is often an application process. The reason for this is canines that act as service animal require a lot of training. Not every dog is set out to be a service dog so finding the right one for your condition takes some time. Additionally, the organization needs to determine whether you are an appropriate candidate.
  • Meet with the service dog provider. If the application gets approved – congratulations! The next step is to meet with the provider of your new service dog. It is a great opportunity to ask a TON of questions. The more questions the better. You want to make sure they are the right organization to handle your request.
  • Choose a dog or have the dog selected. It can vary based on the organization. Some may outline a few options for you to select. Meanwhile, others might only have one dog in mind that is a qualifying candidate. It is an opportunity to get to know your new service dog better!
  • Start training. It depends on the provider but some may require an initial deposit to start the training for your new service animal. One drawback to having a service dog is the expenses. Training is not cheap. So the sooner you can start saving for a potential deposit the better. This is another reason why training a service dog yourself can be a great option – it can be up to 95% less expensive than similar in-person training!
  • Learn more about coexisting with your new best friend. While the canine undergoes training, this is the perfect opportunity to learn more about what life is like having a service dog. You can learn about their needs, what to expect, and more a lot by checking with legitimate sources.
  • Training is completed. Once the training is completed, you will get notified. Now is the time to make the official transition. You are officially the handler of a new service dog. We recommend celebrating this happy event with a welcome home party with friends and family.
  • Follow-up lessons. It is common with many organizations to have a few weeks of everyday lessons between you and the service dog. It helps build a close interaction between you and the canine. The service dog also gets to know you better and how it can better enhance your life.

How to Afford a Service Dog

Now that you know the different ways to go about getting a service dog, let’s talk about how to afford one. After all, the cost is one of the major factors preventing people from getting service dogs.


Unfortunately, health insurance plans almost never cover the cost (or even part of the cost) of getting a service dog. However, if you have a flexible spending account (FSA), then you may be able to use it toward a service animal, but you will need a letter of medical necessity from your doctor to do so.


Grants are funds that you do not have to pay back. There are many non-profit organizations that offer grants to people with disabilities who are looking to get a service dog. The grant may not always cover the entire price of the dog, but it can definitely help offset the overall cost.


Fundraisers are one of the oldest methods of raising money for a cause. Thanks to the internet, fundraisers can reach an even wider audience.

Not only are there platforms like GoFundMe designed for collecting donations, but social media is a great way to spread the word about a fundraiser. Even if people aren’t able to donate, they can still help by clicking “share.”

Aside from online fundraisers, you can host fundraisers locally. Try reaching out to churches, businesses (especially employee-owned or small businesses), or other community organizations to see if they’d be willing to help.

Oftentimes, businesses will pick a day to promote your fundraiser, and a percentage of their earnings for that day will go toward your cause. Churches can ask for donations on your behalf during service.

Personal Loans

If you’re struggling to afford a service dog, a personal loan can be very helpful. The downside of loans, of course, is not only that you have to pay them back, but also that they will accrue interest. If possible, getting a grant or doing some fundraising can help reduce the amount you have to borrow.

woman in hospital bed hugging dog

Get the Support You Need from a Service Dog

Though it does not take much effort to get qualified for a service dog, it does take some time, patience, and money to make it a reality. However, the investment is well worth it. Service dogs are absolutely beloved by their handlers and make lifelong companions.

Their ability to help improve the daily life of disabled individuals is indescribable. Search the web for some great service dog providers, or train your own service dog, and get started on getting the support you deserve.