Why less than 1% of Americans with disabilities own service dogs

While service dogs are key in improving many people’s quality of life, there’s still a significant gap that inhibits them from owning them.

As Melody Hewson noticed, simple everyday tasks such as picking up her keys from the floor were becoming too difficult and exhausting, she realized she needed external aid. After her life-long dog, Sutter Cain comforted her during an intense panic attack, she realized the help she needed had been living in her house all along.

“When I told my friend about it, she encouraged me to have him evaluated,” said Hewson. “I never intended for him to be a service dog, I never thought I could have one.”

Service dogs are trained for different purposes, depending on their handler’s disability. They can provide support for the visually as well as the hearing impaired, handlers with epilepsy, extreme mental illnesses, or autism-related behaviors, to name a few.

“A lot of people like having a dog because of the companionship aspect: the dog is with you so you’re a team together,” said Craig Garretson, Senior Communications Officer at The Seeing Eye, a non-profit organization that breeds and raises guide dogs. “People like taking care of the dog, cuddling with the dog. You have a friend with you all the time.”

But not everyone has good luck. Around 86,000 million Americans have some kind of disability; however, there are only an estimated 500,000 service dogs in the nation, meaning that less than one percent of people who could benefit from them actually own a service dog.

Less than one percent of Americans with disabilities actually own a service dog. (Photo: CDC website)

“I think service dogs should be a bit easier to get access to—it’s just a bit of a process because every dog has a different personality, different working drive, so you have to really find those dogs who are actually meant for the job,” said Destiny Duenas, a dog trainer at Applause Your Paws and fellow service dog owner.

Because genetics plays a major role in determining whether a dog can perform service work, the amount of dogs who can be trained is greatly limited. It’s therefore common for handlers to solely seek purebred dogs, as they are more predictable in terms of necessary qualities to successfully do their job.

“Most people think any dog can be trained as a service dog: no, that’s not true,” said Rose Lesniak, dog trainer. “They have to have a certain ability already. That’s why a lot of dogs that are in facilities flung out of service dog training because they just don’t have what it takes.”

According to Lesniak, information is key in solving this issue, and both handlers and trainers must educate themselves on a dog’s particular genetics before attempting service training. These characteristics include the tasks the dog is bred for, its height, weight, and temperament, among other factors.

“A friendly, warm, loving dog could perhaps be trained, but it just doesn’t have what it takes,” said Lesniak. “If you were to train it, you’d really be doing that dog a disservice because it is not genetically and behaviorally set up to achieve those goals.”

But while it can be difficult to train untraditional dogs, it’s not impossible. Duenas, for instance, has been able to successfully train her Sheltie, Bambi, into helping her with panic attacks and mental health conditions.

“My girl is a bit of a unicorn,” said Duenas. “Bambi has definitely made my life easier. She’ll go ahead and break my habits for self-harm, sense my medical episodes before they happen, and she’s wonderful at pressure therapy as well. She’s definitely a big confidence boost for me, because I know that she’s always got my back when I’m out.”

While few Miamian trainers specialize in service dogs, most are familiar with it and can either take on the challenge, or refer a handler to somebody else. (Photo: Google Maps)

Aside from a limited pool of candidates, financial limitations can also inhibit a disabled person from acquiring a service dog. The National Service Animal Registry estimates the cost of a service dog to be from $15,000 to $30,000.

“I think of the people who could benefit from a service animal, and the cost is very prohibitive,” said Hewson. “It would be nice if there was some sort of grant or many more dog trainers capable of teaching the dogs.”

There are, in fact, multiple non-profit organizations across the country that either provide grants or facilitate in some way access to service dogs for those who need one. A few include Assistance Dog United Campaign, PETCO foundation, Planet Dog Foundation, and The Seeing Eye. The latter, for instance, charges a $150 fee to own the already-trained service dog and hasn’t raised its prices since the 1930s.

“We get a lot of donations, so that’s how we make the difference between the $150 that the person is paying and what a service dog would actually cost,” said Garretson. “The $150 is really a token fee, but a lot of people still don’t have $150 laying around, it’s a lot of money. We just don’t want a situation where we place a dog in a home where the person can’t afford to buy food for it. If you can’t afford $150, you probably can’t afford food.”

U.S. veterans are another group that can greatly benefit from acquiring service dogs, as nearly a third of them have reported having a disability. Local and nationwide organizations such as Patriot Service Dogs or Canine Companions are dedicated to providing this service for veterans free of charge.

But despite its economic toll and the spread of misinformation, many people with disabilities simply don’t require a service dog and might be better accommodated in some other way.

“Not every disability is mitigated by a service dog’s tasks. While it is true that the tasks can be highly customizable—meaning a service dog is highly versatile in the needs it can meet—we have to realize that something like a wheelchair can also be very versatile but is not appropriate for every situation,” said Alex MacDonald, who has been a service dog user for 8 years.

For a dog to be considered a service dog, the handler must have a disability that falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Emotional support, therapy, comfort, or companion dogs, for instance, are not considered service animals under the act.

However, that doesn’t stop many people. Due to businesses not asking for the necessary documentation (according to Florida Statute 413.08), anyone can pass their regular pets as service animals. 

“Pets are not service animals. I think it really does a disservice to people with disabilities because people are bringing in pets and saying they’re service animals when clearly they’re not by not adhering to a code of conduct,” said Lesniak. “People are so unsure of what the law is, some people are still asking for a card; you can get those cards online. It really does not help the disabled at all; it makes it worse.”

Some service dog owners would like to see state governments enforce certain guidelines to avoid situations like these, as well as clear some common misconceptions others may have about service dogs and their handlers.

“If you look at the ADA, it’s a very gray area and that’s why a lot of people are able to fake it. If we compare that to Europe, in Europe, it’s very hard to fake an assistance dog because they actually have to go through a specific training program and carry their paperwork, while here in the U.S., you’re only allowed to ask two questions,” said Duenas. “People will go on Google, the dog isn’t actually a service dog but they can fake the answers.”

Oftentimes, many potential handlers don’t acquire a service dog simply because they don’t know where to start.

“I think most people have heard of guide dogs. So we don’t have to convince people that a guide dog is a good idea, we just have to tell them ‘If you want a guide dog, you can come here,’” said Garretson. “People may not know how much it costs, people might not know how it works… We are trying to reach out to people to let them know: ‘this is how it works and this is what you get.’”

Overall, the service dog community remains united, with many of its members looking to give the extra mile to help other handlers feel more comfortable and confident in their conditions.

“A long-term goal for me is I would love to train service dogs for a bunch of different disabilities just because it’s something that we need more trainers for, especially here in the South Florida area, we really don’t have anyone that specializes in that,” said Duenas.

Sofia Colignon is a senior at Florida International University double majoring in English in the writing and rhetoric track and digital communication and media in the digital journalism track. After completing her studies next summer term, she wishes to pursue a career within the entertainment field.