As I sat on the cold, dew-covered grass at San Rafael field with my roommate passed out in my lap, and her service dog covering her body I became filled with fear and anxiety. I thought a trip to the Reno Hot Air Balloon races would’ve been incredibly fun and make the early morning rise more enjoyable. However, as almost ten volunteers whispered and snapped behind our backs as another balloon member yelled down at us to remove ourselves from the event I couldn’t help but shake and tear up with guilt.

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A decent morning

It was a quiet Saturday morning of a chilly Reno fall prior to the Negative excitement to follow. My three roommates and myself woke up before the sun around 4am to go watch the hot air balloons light up and take off in the air for a sunrise pleasantry.

One of those roommates has a service dog. Brutus is a massive lab mix assigned to my roommate, Sage, who has suffered from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) for over a year now. What this means is she has low tolerance for standing and other symptoms include incredibly fast heart rate, shortness of breath, tingling, lightheadedness, seizures, and fainting, to name a few. Brutus can alert her to an episode or calm her down if an episode were to get out of hand.

Since dogs are a regular occurrence at events such as the balloon races in Reno, Nevada we thought bringing Brutus would be a great idea; so we strapped on his service collar and gentle lead to help control any excited movements he may display. Although Brutus is a certified service dog with years of training, he is a doofus sometimes and picks and chooses when he wants to really service Sage.

He came along with us as a casual dog initially, but as we began to walk the field looking for a place to observe the balloons he began to service Sage, walking close to her without barking or sniffing around the area.

Because Brutus is a service dog he is protected by law under the ADA. By federal mandate he may accompany Sage anywhere she sets foot assuming she is in a public venue; such as a hot air balloon race. According to the service dog ADA workbook, “Under the ADA, State and local governments, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public generally must allow service animals to accompany people with disabilities in all areas of the facility where the public is normally allowed to go." Alongside that rule no one can ask Sage what her disability is, force her to show paperwork that proves Brutus’ status, or ask him to demonstrate his skills. They can, however, ask what he does to mitigate her illness if it becomes necessary.

I do recognize that I have a bias as I am very close with my roommate and her dog, and that there are people with fake service dogs with vests purchased online.

However, those with emotional service animals for people with mental illness especially within the youth population, and trained medical service dogs like Brutus are protected by law against the general public. Sage and I understood we might face some uncomfortable reactions towards Brutus considering his massive size and that he may not appear as professional as other service dogs in the area when we took him out of her car. However, that does not mean that we deserved the threats and treatment we received not an hour later after sitting down on the grass.

As the sun remained below the horizon and the balloons went through their light up show Brutus remained on Sage’s lap to keep her calm, ensuring her heart rate did not exceed a healthy 80 bpm. He was a model dog and was on some of the best behavior I’d ever witnessed from him in the few months I’d known him.

The first hour with this was pretty fantastic. We could feel the heat of the balloon fires on our faces as the announcer’s voice boomed across the field; “Twinkle twinkle” or “Glow” echoing in our ears. Brutus kept still by Sage, performing so well despite all the excitement of cooing audience members and squealing children around him. It wasn’t until the moment the sun rose and the field became encased in a golden light that things went downhill for everyone in our group.

Turn of events

“Excuse me but you’re gonna have to leave and get off the field." Her voice was that of an annoyed volunteer, her neon yellow jacket as obnoxious as her tone.

Now, I’ll need to point out how intense a goody-goody rule follower I am and always have been. As a child I never lied, as a teen I never snuck out of my house or stole a small bottle of beer from the fridge like my friends. If an adult who is much more adult than my twenty-year-old self comes and tells me what to do, I do it, no questions asked. However, I knew it was Brutus the woman was after and since he was Sage’s I opted to keep my trap shut.

The woman sneered down at our little group while we shot her puzzled looks in response to her statement. She waved her hand at us as if we were children or animals in something we didn’t belong around. “Ladies, you need to leave. That dog is not allowed here.”

My stomach was the tightest knot. I was feeling anxiety over the anger from the lady and guilt because I thought bringing Brutus would have been fun. Yet, when I looked over at Sage who was the direct target of the snapping words, she was calm and narrowly returning the glare to the volunteer. She had been treated this way before.

“Actually he’s a service dog,” she started. The volunteer cut her off right away, “I don’t care. No dogs allowed on the field no matter what. Now you need to go. Or should I call the sheriff over?” I couldn’t breathe. I could only imagine the cuffs getting snapped on our wrists and my mind was racing. But Sage just nodded, tears burning at the corners of her eyes. “Yes please."

Twenty minutes passed while the five of us sat in silence on the blankets. My anxiety was intense and I was shivering from the cold and fear instilled in me by the volunteer. But that was just me. Sage’s shoulders were tight and I could see her eyes turning red as she fought the tears that had begun to push in her eyes. Her hands shakily stroked Brutus to calm herself and I could hear him whining in front of her.

Almost half an hour later a second woman approached our group with the previous volunteer in tow; this woman was casually dressed and had a balloon lanyard around her neck. I assumed she was staff of some sort but I couldn’t read her identification, which I regret today as I wanted to have her reported. This woman had her hands placed solidly on her hips and her head bowing down as if we were lower than her. “Ladies, you’re going to have to go. No dogs. It’s for everyone’s safety and we have said multiple times that you cannot have dogs on this field, the balloons' sounds hurt their ears."

At this point I was tired of hyperventilating and my heart pounding deep in my chest and I wanted to go just to shut them up. Hurt their ears? Was she serious?

I could see Sage’s shoulders shaking from her wavering breath and nothing before mattered anymore. I kept my focus on her. My other roommate began explaining -- again -- that Brutus was a service dog and that he was allowed anywhere Sage was but the balloon staff woman refused to hear anything she had to say.

I was frustrated to say the least over the attitude being thrown towards us. I will admit, Brutus did not have his vest on that day (not a requirement by law) but he had his tag on, stating: “Brutus Service Dog Hearts of Gold." The women refused to look at his tag and demanded to see his paperwork (that was an ADA law being broken) to prove he was a service dog, insinuating that we were just making it up to simply stay on the wet grass, proceeded to repeat the same “no dogs allowed” mantra for several minutes.

Mind you, Sage asked for the sheriff almost half an hour prior and we were given some random staff person instead. So when this woman uttered her next sentence, all I wanted was a cop to come over.

“Okay, you know what, girls? The only dogs actually allowed on this field are the canines with cops that will sniff the drugs you have and attack you." I took the deepest breath and bit my tongue, ignoring the threat washing over us. I knew she was lying, aside from the fact that we didn’t have drugs on us, the cop canines only bark when they find drugs, they don’t attack you. I found it insulting that this grown woman would threaten four girls and their dopey dog simply because we were on her nerves.

“I’m going to call a sheriff on you girls,” she added.

Through her heavy tears and shaking breaths Sage glared past the yellow volunteer at the woman that just threatened us with attack dogs. “Please do.”

Terror in our midst

At that point I didn’t care if I got arrested for sitting down on some cold and itchy grass. My roommate, as collected as she had been acting, finally lost composure. She began to cry and her breathing was way too fast for her safety. Brutus was trying to relax her, nudging her and placing his head on her lap (a service he figured out on his own).

When the sheriff finally arrived, at first it was like a breath of fresh air. He was so understanding and knew that the two women had overstepped their bounds with all of us, especially Sage. He apologized for their attitudes and tried to keep the situation calm but it was too late in terms of personal tranquility.

Sage’s breathing hit a high and her heart rate jumped higher than 160 bpm, her body went limp, and her head fell into my lap as she fainted. The sheriff’s eyes bulged from his head at that point and he began stammering things like: “You’re okay, no need to get worked up, calm down now." It was sweet in a way, but for naught, and annoying considering my roommate was blacked out on my lap while I stroked her arms to both calm myself and wake her up.

At that point my other roommate and my friend grabbed Brutus’ tag to show the service dog label on it and explained that we would leave to shut the workers up in five minutes when Sage was ready to stand. While she caught her breath I took a glance behind us at the group of volunteers shaking their heads and sneering our way as if everything was a dramatic college girl show for attention. I rolled my eyes and helped Sage to her feet while getting our things. We thanked the sheriff for his kind nature and packed up our blankets and left the grass.

On our way to the car we passed two other service dogs totally dressed in vests and gentle leads that had also been banished from the grass; proof that we weren’t the only victims of cruel ignorance. Sage spoke to one of the other girls with her service puppy in training and learned that they had been treated the same cruel way and that it seems that the staff was not informed on ADA laws or how to handle the people paired with the dogs.