SALT LAKE CITY — Perfect strangers used to ask Maria Tello what was wrong with her.
Because she is oft accompanied by a service dog and "because I have an invisible disease," she said, referring to Type 1 diabetes.
Getting proper certification for her black Labrador, Malachi, has helped curtail the questioning. And it protects the dog.
"He's such an integral part of my life," Tello said. "He's so important to me. I wanted to make sure he'll be OK if anything were to happen to me."
Tello is hoping Utah lawmakers will adopt a resolution that creates a voluntary service animal registration program and encourages city officials throughout Utah to take note of the animals helping people in their communities.
In addition to protecting the animals, Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake City, who is sponsoring the resolution, said it would help business owners whose hands are often tied from restricting access to patrons with animals because of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Seeing an official and locally distributed service dog tag might help retailers feel more comfortable about animals frequenting their establishments, as the businesses walk a fine line between ADA compliance and health code violations.
People are calling just about anything a "service animal" these days, Chavez-Houck said. Individuals are left to their own honor — even so, identifying vests, patches, cards and other items are available online for easy purchase.
"It's mostly lap dogs, but it could be a pig or a (Doberman) pinscher or pit bull," Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, joked.
Though any animal can be called a therapy animal or an emotional services companion, service animals are restricted to certain dog breeds and, in some cases, small horses, according to the ADA.
"We end up doing a lot of work around service animals, comfort animals and emotional support animals," said Andrew Riggle, public policy advocate for the Disability Law Center. He said different classifications provide different protections for animals.
"Both classifications provide extremely valuable services to their owners and people who take care of them," said Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, who works in mental health care.
Redd said he allows comfort animals into his clinic, as they sometimes help "provide emotional stability in a person's life."
But such an emotional companion, he said, should not be confused with service dogs, which provide guidance and medical alert services.
"These dogs are extremely important," Redd said, adding that both classifications provide necessary functions.
An animal must receive extensive training to become fully certified as a service animal, which is covered under the ADA, but certification isn't mandatory. Training includes typical obedience school, but also public access training and then medical specialty training for whatever condition, disability or disorder for which the animal will be assisting.
"A lot of owners just want to take their pet everywhere, so they purchase the identification," Tello said.
Malachi is registered in Tello's former town of Ventura County, California, as Utah doesn't have its own registry. The registration includes contact information for the animal's veterinarian and for potential caretakers should something happen to the Tello.
"You just never know," she said. "If I get separated from my dog, I don't want him to go to a pound where he could get adopted out or catch a disease."
Tello said she likes knowing that someone familiar with Malachi could end up taking him in, allowing her the time to heal, should she need it. With his training to alert when her blood sugar gets too high or too low, she estimates the 7-year-old dog is worth about $100,000.
"He's a very good dog," Tello said. "He ignores other dogs and he ignores other people. He is very focused on his job."
At first, Malachi listened to the beeps on Tello's insulin pump and would bark for help. But from a young age, the dog recognized there was a bodily scent to the condition and will now alert Tello up to five minutes before the pump even registers a problem.
"He's saved my life several times," she said, adding that Malachi has even helped diagnose diabetes in other people he meets.
Tello said she worries that other animals disguised as service animals but have not had the proper training will disrupt her dog's work in certain circumstances, but mostly she'd just like people to know the difference.
And one of the main aspects of the potential local registry proposed by HJR16, Chavez-Houck said, is education.
"This would help to educate the community about what service animals are, what questions can be asked and how it all rolls into the Americans with Disabilities Act," the creator and sponsor of the resolution told the House Health and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.
The committee unanimously supported the resolution and pinned it to the House's consent calendar.