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Can You Justify Your Service Dog Training Costs?



I was very interested in trying to get us into the Committed Canine class, but am hearing some controversy in regards to the matter. I have been told that I can take Jack to Petsmart and have him trained for $200, have you heard of this? I guess I am looking for you to assure me that I am doing the right thing by deciding to come to you for $800.00 more plus transportation and lodging. I greatly appreciate your help and all you do.


I have never heard of PetSmart or Petco taking on the role of training Service Dogs.  I have been in a PetSmart when the basic obedience classes were being held.  I am not impressed with the level of training they offer for “basic obedience of pet dogs”, and neither are the dozen of clients that I have had come to us for training who report they “tried their classes but it didn’t work".   Based on the inferiority of the training for “basic pet” level classes, from my experience, even if PetSmart offered a Service Dog training option, I would have no confidence that the training would be at the level required for Service Dogs.  

I did some research on the internet about the trainers who are employed at the large pet department stores.   They are typically right out of a quickie class (perhaps a month or two of instruction) and they are in the very early stage of their training “career”.    While they may be able to repeat what they read in a book or show you techniques that they learned when training their own pet dog during their class, they have very little experience working with dogs or people.  “Book smarts” only gets a person so far, especially when we are dealing with living, breathing animals (both dogs and people!).

On the contrary, I have over 25 years of experience working with dogs and their people, and the last 9 of those years I have run my own, full-time professional dog training business.  Teaching dogs and their people has been my sole occupation since February 2002, when I left a 20 year career as a professional biologist (during which time, of course, I studied animal behavior as well as human psychology and sociology).  While I was working in corporate America, I also maintained a side-job teaching dog owners in class situations as well as privately.  My husband has been working, full-time, with me for nine years as a professional trainer as well.   So, combined, we have over 35 years of experience working in the field.

A service dog’s level of training must be at “Navy Seal Special Ops” level while most pet dog training needs to be a Shopping Mall Guard standard.  There’s no comparison.  The expectations of a Service Dog’s behavior in public and the dog’s need to be able to execute commands that mitigate a person’s disability (regardless of whether that is in the home or in public) are at a level that requires exceptional training, not just a “beginner obedience class” stage of performance.  So, my advice to anyone who wants to employ the use of a Service Dog is to do a lot of homework and not cut corners.   Whether a person chooses to train the dog themselves with the guidance of a professional trainer or whether they acquire the dog from an organization, the dog’s training must be maintained, daily, for the rest of its service life.   The training must be upheld at a very high standard.  Choosing the right trainer or organization will be instrumental in whether the person can actually maintain the dog, or not. 

While cost should not be at the top of the list as far as a decision criterion to identify the person or organization from whom you receive training and support for your Service Dog, obviously it matters.  In comparison to every other Service Dog training scenario that I have been able to identify doing thorough research, our services are less expensive. 

In general, here are the most common options available to acquire a Service Dog:

1.   A.     “Free” to qualified individuals.  There are large organizations that may be able to offer a dog “for free”.  But, typically one must be put on a waiting list that is usually no less than two years.   They usually have a $20 - $100 non-refundable “application” fee.   Also, most of these “free” Service dogs require that the recipient pay for travel to the organization’s location for no less than 10 days, often 2 weeks or more to learn how to handle the dog.  The recipient usually must pay for some type of equipment or learning materials, as well as the housing and travel costs.  It’s important to note that these organizations require a person to “qualify” for the dog.    Very few of these organizations place dogs into service to mitigate psychiatric disabilities like panic disorders or PTSD.  Typically, these organizations do not permit the owner to provide the dog and they may also have policies regarding what breeds they train and place as Service Dogs.


2.   B.     “Free” if you do your own fund raising.  It’s fairly common to see organizations that claim to place SDs for little or no cost.  They usually claim that their cost to maintain and train a dog is between  $10,000 - $25,000.  They require that most or all of that money is “donated” to their “not-for-profit” organization through fund raising efforts that you, personally, must assume.  They may  set you up with a fund-raising counselor who will guide you on how to solicit the $10,000+ “donation”.  Then, you may still be placed on a waiting list for a dog.   Like the option above,  few of these organizations place dogs into service to mitigate psychiatric disabilities like panic disorders or PTSD.  Typically, these organizations do not permit the owner to provide the dog and they may also have policies regarding what breeds they train and place as Service Dogs.


3.    C.     Pay a professional trainer for instruction.  This can be a private situation or a class such as we offer.   This requires that the individual assess the professional trainer’s credentials to ascertain whether s/he has the experience and resources to provide the necessary information and training methods to teach a person and her dog at the standard required of a fully functioning service dog.  Since the trainer does not have to incur the cost of acquiring and then maintaining the dog (which can be quite costly), the cost of professional instruction can be a very reasonable option.  The waiting list is typically shorter.  The owner may be permitted to choose the breed, or use their existing dog. 


4.   D.    Train your own dog.  Because, in the USA a federal accreditation or certification program for Service Dogs does not exist, and most States do not have requirements regarding certification or licensing of Service Dogs, just about anyone can decide to train their own dog to mitigate their disability.  There are “public access” laws that pertain to people with disabilities that use a dog to mitigate their disability, but they do not include any information about certification.   Unfortunately, this means that unworthy dogs whose behavior is not acceptable for public access may be donning a Service Dog cape and making a bad example for the rest of the folks who use well trained Service animals.   So, while this may see the least expensive in terms of green-money, it can be the most costly to Service Dog owners, in the long run.

Many organizations charge an application processing fee.  While we do not do that, I fully understand the point.  Writing this email response to you has taken me over an hour of my time and I will get nothing for it but the opportunity to post the information on my website so that I won’t have to answer the question, again, rather I can just forward someone to the webpage.  The reason that we chose to increase our prices is because of all of the administration and follow-up time we spend with potential  students as well with our student clients who have been through the class.  When I first priced the class, I did so based on the resource requirements to actually hold the class (one-on-one time with students).  What I found, after tracking over a year worth of data, is that I spend more time outside of the class performing administration duties than I do with direct interaction with students and their dogs.  Much of my time is spent answering questions, speaking on the phone with students or prospective students, discussing breeds of dogs, discussing the person’s disability, and the conversations (both in email and on the phone) are often hi-jacked to discussing a person’s pet dog’s behavioral issues.   Essentially, I am working for free much of the time, and the bank that holds my mortgage requires “real” money. 

The non-for-profit organizations pay their employees; administrators, trainers, kennel help, the printer that prints their training materials, the companies that make their Service Dog vests and the electric company that provides them utilities.  The employees of the non-for-profit organizations don’t work for free.  I happen to think that our level of instruction and training is exceptional.   And, it is not easy to find.  It is still a “deal” at the prices that we charge.  To determine that for yourself would be more powerful, so I would encourage you to do your own research.

As an example of an organization that offers both trained dogs and offers the option for people to provide their own dog for training, here is a link to a Service Dog organization website: http://puptky.giving.officelive.com/HowtogetaSD.aspx

I cut the following directly from that page (publish date of this article 2/2010 - so any changes since then will not be included here):

If you want to use your own dog to train:

 Step #1:  Application.  Please fill out one of our Service Dog Applications and return it to us along with the $75 processing fee.

 Step #2:  After acceptance to our program, you will need to set up a date and time for us to evaluate your dog for suitability for service dog work and the tasks you need the dog to perform for you as a Service Dog. The evaluation is $500.

 Step #3:  If your dog is accepted to become a Service Dog, you will then be required to sign our contract. *If the dog is not accepted, you will need to make the decision of whether to continue the program with one of our dogs or discontinue  the program.  If you decide to continue with one of our dogs, you will be required to make a $500 deposit for a hold fee for one of our dogs.

 Step #4:  Make the $7000 donation to our organization for the training program and support

 Step #5:  Schedule your training week with us.

Step #6:  Arrive at our facility to begin training.

As a comparison, we charge $1000 for 2 full days of training instruction for Phase One.  Then, we charge $1000 for 2 full days of training instruction for Phase Two.  So, that’s four full days of training.  They provide a “week”.  I don’t know if that’s 5 days or 7 days, I cannot find that on their site.   I would guess it’s a five day week.   So, their 5 days costs $7575 and our four days costs $2000.  Our costs (which are specifically for training a dog that is owned, housed and cared for by the student), include many hours of administrative time.   While I understand organizations which require an Application fee to cover those costs, we do not require an application fee for our program, but rather we include that fairly intensive administration service in the price of the class.  We spend many hours communicating with the student via email or telephone both before and after the class to answer questions and provide training support.  Those services are included in our course fee.  We also have a Yahoo list for students which requires our time answering questions and giving suggestions to students who can also consult with each other via that medium. When making a price comparison between organizations, I recommend inquiring what is included in the training fee, if that information is not listed on the organization's website.   I make no claims regarding what is included in the organization I used to compare to our service beyond what they had listed on their website when I created the comparison for this article.

While I did offer a comparison, it was not to disrespect that organization in any way, or to make any judgments regarding their services.  Like our facility, the example organization is located about an hour from a larger metropolitan area - they are in KY we are in south-central IL, so a comparison is probably fair.  I provided the example in this article simply as an means to encourage folks to do their own research to see what is "out there". 

We don't price our services based on other trainers' fees.  We set it at a level that we believe is fair for our geographical area and the service we provide.   If we lived closer to a large metropolitan area, we'd have to charge significantly more to cover expenses.  But, then, folks would be paying for our rent, rather than our high quality instruction.  When you come to train with us, you come to our 50 acre working sheep ranch in rural Illinois where we have converted a large, metal building into a training space.  I print my own manuals, rather than have a printer do the work.  That way I can edit and update as necessary, and it also results in less expensive training materials for our clients (written training materials are included in our class fee).  We don't think a dog needs a fancy facility to learn how to behave properly.  At times, to offer a good amount of "natural" distractions, we train outdoors by our large pond, where the sheep are grazing in an adjoining paddock and where our geese and ducks are maintained free-range.   We also understand that a typical "client" for a Service Dog usually has a reduced income compared to the general population.  We don't don matching "Trainer" wear with a printed company logo when we instruct class.  And, mostly, we believe that our methods are very "efficient" because we use processes that dogs understand - and dogs usually can learn very quickly, then they need lots of time to practice in different locations.  That is why we structure our program the way that we do.  We can accomplish a lot of learning in a short time because of the processes we use and because of our extensive years of experience.

I often believe that the typical American is impressed more with the glitz of "packaging" and "marketing" than they are with substance.  We offer substance in our training processes and integrity in the manner with which we deal with people and their dogs.  We do not add fancy wrapping so we don't charge for it, either.

We implemented a Financial Assistance Fund (supported by donations, alone) to help off-set the cost of the course to qualifying individuals.


  © 2009  Tammie Rogers - all rights reserved.   For permission to reprint email Tammie.  





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