by Veronica Morris, PhD
After you’ve decided a service dog is right for you and your disability, one of the first things you need to figure out is how you will obtain the dog. There are two main ways that people get service dogs: program training and owner training.
Program-trained dogs are generally sourced by a nonprofit or business that then spends a year or more training the dog for your needs. You generally have to fundraise for the dog. When the program finishes the main part of the dog’s training, you usually go to the facility and spend a couple of weeks learning how to handle your dog. Then you take your service dog home.
Owner-trained service dogs (sometimes called “self-trained service dogs”) are generally sourced by you, the disabled person. You train them yourself, normally with the help of a professional trainer. You are in charge of the costs and timing of training the dog.
Just like with most things in life, service dog training is not black or white. There are also a variety of ways to obtain a service dog that are in between program- and owner-training.
This article takes you through a series of questions that can help you think about whether a program-trained or owner-trained dog is better for you. No method is perfect, so there will always be downsides to the options. You should weigh the things that are most important to you and see what drawbacks you can live with.
How much money can you spend?
One of the biggest differences between owner-training and program-training is cost.
When it comes to programs—whether it’s fair or not—some types of disability or disabled people are simply more attractive to donors. For example, guide dog programs get lots of donations, so most guide dogs are free or nearly so. It’s the same with a lot of mobility disabilities.
Unfortunately, psychiatric disabilities don’t usually garner as many donations to offset the cost of the dog (unless it’s for veterans or children). Generally speaking, most reputable psychiatric service dog programs are going to charge $20,000–$30,000 for a dog.
Owner-training can be a lot cheaper, or it can be just as expensive. How much owner-training would cost you depends on how much trainers cost in your area, how much you plan to use trainers, the health of your dog, and sometimes unexpected factors.
If you get a dog with a lot of health concerns, your financial need can easily surpass the amount of money it will cost to get a program dog. That’s why we recommend spending more money up front with either a well-bred puppy, or a young adult who’s had X-rays, eye exams, and genetic testing.
Generally speaking, if you include the cost of a well-bred puppy (around $2,000, depending on breed and breeder); initial vet care; food, treats, and gear for two years; and training for two years, expect it to cost about $5,000–$7,000. Rescue dogs generally cost the same amount because the cheaper purchase price is offset by increased vet and trainer expenses.
How much time do you have?
If you work full-time and are managing a house full of kids, you might not have the time needed to train your own dog. If you owner-train, you will probably be spending 5–10 hours a week training your dog, going to dog training classes, learning about dog training, and driving back and forth from all the classes and training opportunities.
Additionally, you will be spending a lot of time throughout the day reinforcing good behavior, preventing bad behavior, and providing the basic care any pet dog would need. This basic care can be intense with a puppy!
Every outing you take the dog on, especially early on, will have to be focused entirely on the dog. So you can’t shop while training your dog, for example. This means extra trips every week to stores solely to practice with your dog.
Some people don’t have the time or energy to train their own dog, but are still able to handle a dog, care for a dog, and keep up with the lifelong maintenance training. For them, fundraising and then spending a couple of weeks with a program to receive a trained dog can be a better bet.
But you still need to factor in that fundraising can be a job in itself! To raise money from people who don’t already love you, expect to do the legwork to host multiple events and secure support from community groups.
Even after you have a trained dog from any source, the maintenance training is part of a service dog handler’s lifestyle. You will probably need to spend about half an hour a week maintaining your dog’s training whether you get the dog from a program or train the dog yourself.
Do you care about breed and size?
Most programs only work with dogs of certain breeds or sizes. You will likely not have a choice in this if you go with a program. Most programs use Labs, Goldens, or Poodles.
Owner-trainers can choose exactly what breed and size of dog they want to use. Some breeds are better suited for service work than others, so enlist the help of a trainer or experienced service dog handlers to help you choose the breed and individual dog you will work with.
Can you deal with a washout?
One of the biggest risks with owner-training is that your dog will “wash out”. That means they are or become unsuited for service work for one reason or another, and do not complete their training. This could be for health or temperament reasons.
If you get a dog from a reputable program, the odds are that it will work out as a service dog for you since it’s already been through extensive training.
If you train a dog yourself, anecdotally it seems about 75% of the dogs that enter training achieve service dog status. Programs have a lower success rate (closer to 50%) because they wash dogs for reasons owner-trainers can work around (like avoiding certain environmental allergens or food allergens), or because owner-trainers can spend more time and energy doing individualized training to overcome problems that wouldn’t be worth the program’s time to train out.
In my own experience, I’ve attempted to train five dogs as service dogs. One of those washed out. One more is still in training, but it seems likely he will succeed.
If your dog washes out, you have to decide if you will keep them as a pet or re-home them.
How long can you wait?
A service dog not only is a long-term solution, but almost always comes with a long “production timetable”.
When you get a service dog from a program, you have to wait until there is an appropriate match for you. This usually means waiting two years (or longer!) before you are placed with a dog. But when you are placed with the dog, you are placed with a fully trained service dog who is ready to go.
If you owner-train, it generally takes about six months to find an appropriate dog from a rescue or to find a breeder and wait for puppies to be born. Then you have a dog, but it is not trained to assist you yet.
Generally speaking, dogs can start being trained to help with your disability fairly early on. So pretty soon after bringing the dog home, you will have some assistance from the dog—in addition to the significant emotional support of having a dog in your home.
However, the dog will not be fully trained for about two years, so it could still be two years before you have a fully trained service dog. That means you’ll have partial support for the two years of training, when compared to a program dog.
What training methods do you agree with?
Some people feel strongly about certain training methods. If you train your dog yourself, you can choose which training methods you want to use. If you get a dog from a program, it can sometimes be difficult to find a program that uses methods you agree with.
To learn more about dog training methods, read Katie Jesseph’s insightful article.
Do you have the resources to avoid scams?
Unfortunately, many service dog programs—and especially psychiatric service dog programs—are scams.
These can range from ill-intentioned people selling six-month-old puppies for $30,000, to well-meaning people who want to help but don’t have the resources, knowledge, or ability to provide solid dogs. It is very difficult to pick through all the programs and discover which ones are providing quality dogs.
There are several things you can do to suss this out. You can search for reviews about the program. You can look up their BBB ranking. You can ask on service dog forums about people’s experiences or views on the program.
You can also ask for references from the program itself. When you talk to the references, ask them about the downsides of the program. No program is perfect, so if they can’t think of a single negative thing to say about the program, they may be an unreliable reviewer.
You do have to beware of scams as an owner-trainer as well. If you hire a private trainer to assist you, they may not actually be a good trainer.
But generally speaking, you will be investing less at one time with a private trainer than you will with a program that requires a lump payment to obtain their dog. Be more cautious of trainers that force you to buy large training packages with no option to try out the trainer first.
Do you want to learn how to train dogs?
No matter where you obtain your dog, you will need to learn the basics of training maintenance. But if you owner-train your dog, you really need to learn a lot about the methods and practices of dog training. It is a lot of learning, and sometimes can be difficult to comprehend. If you get a dog from a program, you won’t need to worry as much about doing a deep dive into dog training methodology.
That said, many owner-trainers find they really enjoy learning about dog training and how to communicate with their dogs, and their lives are greatly enhanced by it.
Many owner-trainers also report that they have had to learn more about their own disabilities in order to train the dog to help with them. This can lead to a greater sense of control and better management of your disabilities—all through the process of dog training!
Do you want to retain ownership/control?
Some programs retain ownership of their dogs, or try to enforce rules about the types of food you can feed or gear that you can put on your dog. Not all programs do this, so it’s important to figure out these requirements and whether you can live with them before you get your dog.
Unfortunately, there have been situations where programs have seized dogs that they had placed with people because they didn’t agree with how the handler was taking care of their dog. So just be aware of this possibility.
The only similar worry owner-trainers might have comes from unusual adoption or sales contracts. It’s rare, but some rescues or breeders may specify that their dogs cannot be used as working dogs.
There is a need for more hybrid offerings
There are a handful of programs that offer a hybrid between owner-training and program-training. They usually offer group classes with other service dog handlers to teach you how to teach your dog.
Sometimes these programs will source the dog for you, other times they will help you source the dog. Often they have a set curriculum of things to train with good instruction on how to train them and in what order.
We need more programs like this, as many people would benefit from the added support of a program while still keeping the benefits of training their own dog. It makes sense to allow room for dog training to be tailored to the dog and to the handler’s needs.
You can also obtain much of the same support by finding peer-based resources.
There are some Facebook and email groups for people training their own service dogs that provide a lot of education about how to find a dog, do the training, obtain gear, and follow the laws. Some social media groups can be negative and less than helpful, so it’s okay to shop around to find what kind of community you want to be a part of.
PSDP has a free online peer guidance group that has helped hundreds of people train their own psychiatric service dogs and supported people with program dogs. If you are owner-training, a resource like this can be the difference between success and struggle.
Figure out what’s best for you
Ask yourself the questions above and figure out which aspects are important to you. This will help you figure out whether you should go the program or owner-training route. It can also be helpful to talk with people who have used these different methods and learn about their experiences.
Most of the people in the US with psychiatric service dogs have chosen to owner-train for many different reasons. Some of these choices are due only to the cost and rarity of good psychiatric service dog programs.
Hopefully these factors will shift in the future. Maybe one day we can all make our decisions based on aspects other than cost and availability, with more hybrid programs arising that present some benefits of both methods.
For more resources to help on your journey, see the “Getting Started” section of PSDP’s website.