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Boy and his service dog at the river

Does Your Child Need a Service Dog?

what you need to know about the benefits, process and cost

Taking a bathroom break is risky when your son is a chronic wanderer. “We were at a house in Colorado, and I just ran to the bathroom real quick,” recalls Pantego mom Jill Sapp. “I heard the front door open and shut, and he was three houses down along the river. It was terrifying.”

Even locks and fences don’t thwart Andrew, an expert escape artist—he once climbed on the roof in order to get out of the backyard. “It was really scary, just constantly trying to figure out ways to keep him safe,” Sapp says. But that day in Colorado, the family had a trained tracker on-site. “I didn’t panic—I just got Nora, and she found him right away.”

Nora was Andrew’s autism service dog. She could track him by scent, and in public he was sometimes tethered to her in case of bolting; Sapp also taught Nora to bark if Andrew tried to leave the backyard. After six years of service, Nora died of cancer this spring. “I haven’t slept as well without her,” Sapp reveals. “I need my tattle-tale back!”

RELATED: 3 Questions to Ask Before Getting a Dog for Your Child with Autism

Different Types of Service Dogs

Even though people often use the terms service animal, emotional support animal, and therapy animal interchangeably, they don’t mean the same thing. Therapy animals are trained to comfort other people (like nursing home residents), not their handler. Emotional support animals calm and comfort their handler, but aren’t trained for any tasks related to the handler’s disability.

In contrast, service animals (legally, only dogs and miniature horses) perform specific tasks for people with disabilities, mental health disorders and some medical conditions.

For a person with a physical disability, a service dog might open doors, tug off socks or pick up things that get dropped. Meanwhile, psychiatric service dogs mitigate symptoms of mental disabilities by, for example, lying across their person like an interactive weighted blanket, or pawing impatiently when their person needs an excuse to exit a stressful situation. And the pups are just nice to have around.

Service and Companionship

“I find that [for psychiatric dogs], the mere presence of the dog tends to be as valuable if not more so than the tasks that you’ve trained,” says Laurel Summerfield, executive director of Aretas Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit based west of Fort Worth.

Maureen Bennett, president of local nonprofit IDEA Service Dogs, gushes about her own mobility assistance dog. “They’re always caring for you, they’re always watching you, they’re always aware of what’s going on with you,” she says.

A dog might enable an adult with disabilities to live independently, or a parent to sleep soundly.

“Having an autistic child that doesn’t sleep is like having a newborn for decades,” Sapp says. “The sleep deprivation was really getting to all of us.” She feared that Andrew would wander out of the house in the middle of the night, so Nora provided peace of mind simply by alerting Sapp if her son left his bed. “That right there, just the fact that I knew she would come and get me if he got up, was priceless.”

To many families, a service dog is worth the four- or five-figure price tag. 4 Paws for Ability, the organization that trained Nora, has a $17,000 fee that clients pay by fundraising. Sapp admits, “The tracking and the tethering alone—I would have paid double for that.”

The Process of Getting a Service Dog

Just about every service dog organization does things a little differently. Some work with breeders; others adopt shelter dogs. Some assign a puppy to you; others help you select a puppy (or let the puppy choose you—an integral part of Summerfield’s process). Some give you a fully trained dog; others work with you to train the dog yourself.

Summerfield recommends calling organizations you might be interested in to get the detailed scoop on their dog selection process, training philosophy and background. While there is no “right” way, there are a few things you want to avoid. One is getting a dog before you consult a trainer, as most dogs just aren’t suited to service work. “Getting help from a qualified person to select the right dog is so incredibly important,” Summerfield says. “We would love to never hear from anybody who’s already bought a puppy.”

Also steer clear of punitive training methods like choke collars, prong collars or shock collars. Summerfield says, “We want a dog that will try any behavior that comes to their mind, and we can then reinforce that behavior, or not reinforce that behavior.”

Finally, beware of scams, as well as folks with good intentions but little experience. The last thing you want is to waste thousands of dollars on a poorly trained pup.

Then expect to wait months or years until matched with a dog. (It was about a year after fundraising that Andrew met Nora.) And you’re not done when the dog finally comes home. “Even if you get a dog that’s already trained, you have to train your dog for its entire life,” Bennett says. “They get out of practice.” Plus, as your child’s needs change, you may have to teach your dog some new tricks.

Is a Service Dog Right for You?

That’s why getting a service dog isn’t a cure-all. “I talk as many people out of service dogs as anything else, because it just isn’t the right solution for everybody,” reveals Summerfield. “A lot of parents are really looking for a dog to ease some of the burden at home, but they don’t always realize that before it gets better, it’s going to get worse, because now you’ve got a whole other living being to take care of.”

Whether you should invest in a service dog depends on your child’s needs and your family’s capacity to care for the dog. Would a dog fit into your family’s lifestyle? Does your child even like dogs? Some children with autism, for example, are scared of animals; if they’re not already accustomed to a family pet, they may be frightened of a furry new housemate.

And, of course, the money: Can you afford dog food, regular vet bills and unexpected expenses—on top of that pricey initial investment? Bennett did a rough estimate of the cost four or five years ago. “I figured that it costs probably between $2,000 and $3,000 a year easily to support a service dog,” she says. “A service dog needs equipment. It’s like having a pet, and then maybe even more money than that.”

Exposing your child to therapy dogs (who are typically well-trained) may help you gauge whether a service dog—or just a pet dog [link to other article]—would be a welcome addition to your household. In fact, it was Andrew’s kinship with a couple of therapy dogs at school that prompted his mom to start the service dog search.

For the Sapp family, getting a dog was the right call, and still is: Andrew’s hoping to bring home a new companion by next summer.

3 Service Dog Training Organizations

These organizations all have different processes and pricing for training service dogs; call to learn more about their methods.

Aretas Assistance Dogs trains dogs for children with physical, developmental and psychological disabilities. Families get “weekend visitation rights,” if you will, while the dogs are in training with the pros before transitioning to full-time care. 817/330-9495

4 Paws for Ability, based in Ohio, trains all kinds of service dogs for children, including autism dogs, hearing and guide dogs, mobility dogs and medical alert dogs. The dogs are delivered to owners fully trained during a two-week orientation. 937/374-0385

IDEA Service Dogs has a rigorous owner training program for mobility and medical alert dogs. IDEA helps clients (must be 18 or older) choose a puppy, then teaches them how to train their new companion in a small group setting. 817/437-3181

National Service Animal Registry helps people by providing information and services regarding registration of emotional support animals.

Photo courtesy of Jill Sapp.