ALBANY, Ga. -- Melinda Husted was shopping at a local retail outlet recently, her trained service dog Padme -- an adorable shorthaired Chihuahua -- in tow.
A woman walked up to Husted and, without a word, reached over to pet Padme. When Husted turned her body to block the woman's access to her service dog, the woman dropped a "B" bomb on Husted and angrily walked away.
"I've gotten that a few times, and I've been told that I can't bring my dog into a number of places," said Husted, who suffers from diabetes, events known as "absent seizures" and panic attacks. "And even though I'm not required by law to have a vest and tag that identifies Padme as a service dog, I almost always put them on her when I go anywhere with her.
"I want to educate the public so that they're aware that when they deny access or otherwise interfere with a person who has a service dog, they're breaking the law."
The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 states that businesses may ask only two questions of individuals utilizing service dogs: Is this a service dog? What tasks does the service dog perform?
Business representatives may not ask the nature of the disability of a person with a service dog; require identification or certification of the service dog; charge additional fees because of the dog; or refuse entry, isolate, segregate or treat the person less favorably than other patrons.
And unless a dog is out of control or becomes a direct threat to the health and safety of other patrons, businesses cannot require that the handler leave the premises. Failure to comply with these dictates could lead to monetary fines and jail time.
"People typically think of service dogs as 'seeing-eye dogs' for the blind," Husted said. "But service dogs do so much more. And since the services they provide come from some unexplained, innate ability, any breed of dog has the capacity to be a service dog."
Service dogs may be trained to recognize low and high blood-sugar issues in diabetics, pre-empt the onset of seizures, give advance notice of behavioral episodes in autistic children, provide allergy alerts and help war veterans deal with the affects of post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The only way I know to explain what these animals do is to say they have a gift from God," Husted said. "There's no way of knowing how they have these abilities, but it's something instinctual with them."
Husted said her doctor suggested she train Padme to provide diabetic alert when he noticed the dog "going crazy" when she came in for a routine appointment.
"I had blood-sugar issues, and she recognized that," Husted said.
Padme also inexplicably leapt in front of Husted as she was cranking her vehicle for a recent return trip home from a shopping outing, blocking Husted's vision and keeping her from pulling the vehicle out into traffic.
"Within two minutes I had what the doctor says is an 'absent seizure,' which is an episode that has all the symptoms of a seizure without the neurological impact," Husted said. "When I have them, I lose track completely of where I am for a period.
"Padme saved my life that day."
Keisha Covington of Cedar City, Utah, met Husted online through a service dog group, and when Covington planned a trip to Indiana to pick up an animal last week she decided to continue her trip southward to meet her newfound friend.
A former professional dog groomer, Covington said her toy poodle Tigger alerts her to diabetes-related blood-sugar issues and also gives her advance notice of the pending onset of a migraine.
"Research I've done indicates dogs can smell chemical changes in the body or even detect changes in a person's aura before alerting them to the onset of health issues," Covington said. "Tigger licks my nose incessantly when I have blood-sugar issues and bops me lightly on the forehead when I have a migraine coming on.
"I can't explain how he does it, but I've never known him to be wrong. I'm amazed at what he can do; it's been a lifesaver for me. Tigger is a legitimate piece of durable medical equipment."
After several incidents in the community, including those in which business personnel "go from professional to completely unprofessional," Husted has taken it upon herself to try and educate the public about the dos and don'ts of dealing with service dogs and their handlers.
"I've offered to hold a teaching session with employees at some of the places where I've had issues, but so far nothing's been worked out," she said. "What I'd like to do at some point is meet with students in the Dougherty County School System, teach them about service dogs at a young age. I think this is something that's needed in this community. I know I'm not the only person here with a service dog."
When Husted takes Padme for an outing, she gives her companion a bath and grooms her thoroughly. She dresses her tiny cohort in an attention-getting brown and pink vest adorned with a clip-on warning sign that reads "Working: Do Not Touch."
"I hope people start to understand that, yes, I really have a medical handicap, and, yes, Padme is really working when she's with me," Husted said. "Just as there are laws to protect the rights of those who utilize service dogs, there are laws that prohibit people from claiming their pets are service dogs just so they can take them with them everywhere they go.
"Padme and other service dogs are doing a job when they're with their owners. Yeah, she's cute, but she's also potentially saving my life."
(Persons wanting to know more about service dogs can e-mail Husted at email@example.com, while information about the Americans With Disabilities Act is available by calling the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division at (800) 514-0301 or going online to www.ada.gov.)