Campus policy outlines differences between ESAs and service animals

By Cassy Sottile

News Editor

The Office of Academic Skills is outlining the emotional support animals (ESA) and service animals guidelines at Washington College.

According to Disability Access Specialist Liz Shirk, the broad campus policy is that pets are not allowed on campus.

“ESAs are approved accommodations for disabilities. But they are not approved to be in class, only in the student’s dorm room,” Shirk said. “They are animals that provide comfort just by being with a person and are not trained to perform a specific task.”

The differences between ESAs and service animals were outlined In an email from Shirk on Feb. 18, identifying service animals as individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability and must be housebroken and under control, whether harnessed, leashed, or tethered.

In order to bring an ESA to campus, students must fill out the form on the disability access webpage and meet with the OAS about why an ESA would help with symptoms of a disability, according to Shirk.

Service animals, however, may accompany students to class and other locations around campus. OAS does not require any registration of the service animal with them, nor are service animals required to wear any type of identifying items, such as vests, ID tags, or harnesses.

Fetching Freedom, a student club of the parent organization Fidos for Freedom that promotes service dogs and service dogs in training, had to negotiate legal terms and documentation to ensure the safety of the students, dogs, and College, according to club president and senior Shannon Finnegan.

“The goal of the club is to shape WC into a supportive learning environment for service dogs in training by teaching members how to properly advocate for service dogs and people with disabilities, as well as allowing students to partake in the service dog training program,” Finnegan said.

The dogs that Fetching Freedom trains are going through a multistage training process that begins with the student handlers, eventually progressing to a training at a minimum security men’s prison and working with someone through Fidos for Freedom who will house and train the dogs for their match processes.

The dogs in the program will receive training for either Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) assistance, mobility assistance, or hearing assistance.

“A service dog is classified by their ability to provide specific aid to their handler. Since we do not yet know who the dog will be matched with, our job at the puppy training stage is to teach mannerisms and socialization, along with a few helpful commands that will be refined further on in the training process,” Finnegan said.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service dogs are the only animals that carry public access rights, and within the state of Maryland, this extends to include service dogs in training as well.

Regarding the College, the only animals allowed in academic buildings, upstairs in Hodson Hall Commons, in Clifton Miller Library, and in offices, are service dogs and service dogs in training.

“If anyone is unsure whether an animal is an ESA or service animal, there are two questions they can ask: is the dog a service animal required because of a disability and what work or task has the dog been trained to perform,” Shirk said.

Students, faculty, and staff are not allowed to ask about the person’s disability or require any medical documentation, training documentation, vaccination information, or ask that the dog demonstrate its ability to perform the work or task.

Only Residence Life is allowed to ask for vaccination information, which is required for all animals approved for campus.

“Since my secondary trainer and I began bringing Autumn around campus and specifically to class, we have noticed a substantial increase in the number of ESAs in academic buildings,” Finnegan said. “I feel it is incredibly important to ensure that students and faculty understand the distinction between the roles of service dogs and ESAs, and the respective legal rights afforded to each of these types of animals.”

If anyone has any questions about the differences between ESAs and service animals, or the campus policy, email Liz Shirk at

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