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 afterward, Phoenix, 4, 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 family of five from Troy, New York, 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 $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 the 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.”
Lack of regulations for training
Demand for service dogs has exploded in recent years as dogs have proved adept at helping children and adults with a growing 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. 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. The pitfalls are only aggravated 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 for 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, the 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. 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 that a company named Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers charged families up to $27,000 a 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 even though it knew the dogs weren’t adequately trained.
Both training companies are out of business, and their former owners couldn’t be reached for comment.
O’Brien estimates that the average training cost in the U.S. is $30,000 per dog. But trainers must also account for the costs of the 60 percent of dogs that 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, the founder of Canine Assistants, a nonprofit training organization in Milton, Georgia, said that much work remains after a dog graduates but that 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, the money isn’t coming directly out of patients’ pockets.
Kelly Camm, the development director for the nonprofit group 4 Paws for Ability, based in Xenia, Ohio, said only about 5 percent of families can write the $17,000 check required for a service dog. The rest rely on their communities, families, 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 it 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 the 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 can’t write yet, has created a list of potential dog names that only she can read: Blueberry, Alex, Stardust, Jelly-Jam. Phoenix has settled on Pancake.
CORRECTION (Feb. 15, 2022, 5:20 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of the Medical Mutts’ director of client services. She is Eva Rudisile, not Rudasile.