Service Dogs 101

Fall at UMass is my favorite time of year. Some of my favorite things about the season include the feeling of coming back to school and seeing your friends after a long summer, the trees changing and the air getting crisp, and basically everything they sell at Atkins Farms. However, one thing I’ve noticed this fall is that there have been a lot more dogs on campus wearing “service dog” vests than usual, and it is pretty clear that a lot of them are not real service dogs.

I don’t want to assume anything or call anybody out because I don’t know the personal situations related to those who have new service dogs on campus. However, I have recently noticed a trend both online and in person, which is that a lot of people are not familiar with the laws and regulations associated with service dogs and their rights, as well as how service dogs differ from Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). Since a lot of people are not familiar with the difference, consider this a basic run-down on service dogs vs. ESAs.

An easy way to think about it is as if service dogs are a step up from Emotional Support Animals. While both are to help people with either physical or mental disabilities, service dogs have many more public rights than ESAs.


1. It is illegal to deny a service dog access to a public establishment.

If someone with a service dog goes into a store or a restaurant, their dog will go with them. Denying someone’s service dog is like denying someone’s wheelchair; when working, a service dog is qualified as necessary medical equipment. On the other hand, ESAs do not have any more legal rights to be in public places than an ordinary pet does, but since a lot of people don’t know this, they often get away with public access.  

2. Service dogs are held to a higher standard of training than ESAs.

Service dogs usually go through a training program, where they begin as puppies and learn everything from the basics to specific behaviors they may need for their clients, depending on what their disability may be. Some of the basics are learning to heel, sitting under chairs and tables (ex. when in a restaurant or classroom setting), and ignoring any other dogs they may come across while working. Since just about anyone can go to their doctor and register their pet as an ESA, there are no training standards for them. This can often be an easy way to tell the difference between an ESA and a service dog. Dogs that haven’t had such strict training often will be pulling on their leash, not listening to their owner, or whining and begging for food.

3. A service dog should not be pet while working, and will know it.

During its training, a service dog will learn that when they have their harness on, they are meant to be behaving a certain way. This means that they do not get to say hi to the strangers they come across, and that they have to stay focused on what their owner is doing and asking them to do. An ESA will often not understand this difference and may go up to strangers asking for their attention. The owner of an ESA will usually let you pet the dog if you ask, whereas if you ask to pet a service dog, you will probably get a more mixed response. Depending on the context of the situation and the environment you are in, the owner of a service dog may let you pet them with permission, or they may say something along the lines of “No, sorry, my dog has to stay focused on doing his/her job at the moment.”


These are just some basic ways of telling a service dog from an Emotional Support Animal. ESAs and poorly trained dogs can be problematic for service dogs, especially when they are in the process of being trained. You need a doctor’s note for both service dogs and emotional support animals to be considered legit, so any online registrations where you pay to register your dog as either a service dog or ESA is a scam. This has led to a lot of “fakes” being out there.

Many of the service dogs on the UMass campus are part of the ‘Diggity Dogs Service Dogs’ program, and they are puppies and young dogs that are in the training process of becoming a service dog for a client. So keep in mind that if you see any of these dogs around campus, you shouldn’t distract them in any way by taking photos of them or calling them to get their attention since they are learning how to do their job. I hope that everyone who reads this is somewhat more informed than they were, as it is a topic that not many people know about.


Image credit: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5