Jenni Mahnaz admits she’s not much of a dog person. Ella 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 after, 4-year-old Phoenix 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 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 prepare the animals as service dogs.
Organizations charge from $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 that 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.”
Demand for service dogs has exploded in recent years as dogs have proven adept at helping children and adults with an increasing 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. But unmet needs have helped launch a for-profit service dog industry with hefty price tags.
Rapid growth has come with little oversight, potentially subjecting people who have complex medical issues to huge financial barriers, poorly trained dogs and outright fraud. Those pitfalls are only exacerbated 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 the funds will be donated.
Some, like the Mahnaz family, gamble by training their own dogs to lower the cost. But trainers say the success rate for self-trained dogs is lower than 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.”
It also leaves families open to getting burned with little recourse.
“Sometimes they’re sold a bill of goods,” said Sheila O’Brien, 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. But nobody knows how many unaccredited dog trainers are operating in the US
“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.”
O’Brien estimates the average training cost in the US is $30,000 per dog. But trainers must also account for the costs of the 60% of dogs who 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, founder of Canine Assistants, a Milton, Georgia, nonprofit training organization, said much work remains after a dog graduates, but 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 have the ability to train and place a maximum of 100 dogs per year but receive about 1,400 applications.
“The need is overwhelming,” Arnold said. “It made the industry perfect for folks who want to make a little money.”