Seventeen-year-old Tyler Gerdts, a junior at West High School in Davenport, Iowa, just logged a personal best during a challenging cross-country meet. His pointy eared pup, Hugo, ran alongside him for the entirety of the five kilometer race.
Together, the pair made Iowa history: Tyler, who was born with a brain injury and has autism, is the first student-athlete to compete in cross-country with a service dog. His two-year-old German shepherd was trained to be an autism service dog specifically for Tyler and accompanies the teen everywhere he goes, from the classroom to the track field.
The high school student says his service dog makes his life much easier. "I have a lot more people talk to me. And Hugo is my first real best friend. He is my number one friend," Tyler told The Huffington Post.
His mom, Kelley Gerdts, said her son has gone through a noticeable and touching transformation since Hugo entered their lives. "Tyler and Hugo have a connection that Tyler hasn't really been able to make with anyone else," she said, noting that one of her son's biggest struggles is feeling empathy, a commonly described trait in children with autism. "But with Hugo, we see him change his tone of voice to communicate different feelings to him," she said. "Somehow he knows that Hugo will understand him better if he does that."
The dog organically brought out Tyler's capacity to show love in a different way, Gerdts said.
"He does little things for Hugo that family members do for each other, but that Tyler doesn't do with other people," she said. "He helps Hugo when he gets something on his face by wiping it off for him and will hold his face and talk gently to him while he does it to reassure Hugo that Tyler is taking care of him and helping him. Nobody told him that, but he's figured it out. "
While Gerdts explained it can be "heartbreaking" for her family to watch her son interact with Hugo in a way that he can't with his parents and siblings, "seeing him interact and so obviously feel those feelings we worried he wasn't experiencing is very settling for us," she said. "It makes us feel better to know that he gets to experience those things in his heart."
Trained at Highland Canine Training in Harmony, North Carolina, Hugo has been disciplined to cater to Tyler's needs in many domains. The dog is trained to track and trail, in case Tyler ever goes missing; provide deep therapy pressure that's "soothing to Tyler when he gets anxious and is struggling to cope," Gerdts says; and detect natural gas, smoke and propane, because Tyler does not have a sense of smell.
And, of course, Hugo runs with his human pal. The dog attends all cross-country practices and performs every training drill that Tyler does. Tyler, who's been running since the seventh grade, said that he feels "really good and calm" after he runs. His dog doesn't pace Tyler or help him run faster; instead, Hugo makes the activity more comfortable for him.
Gerdts said that's one thing that's often difficult for onlookers to understand, but she puts it in perspective: "It is really no different than someone with glasses wearing their glasses during a race, or someone with something like an insulin pump wearing that during a race."
While Tyler is the first athlete in Iowa to run with a service dog, he's "not the first athlete with a disability to run a high school cross-country race," Kelley noted. "We hope that more kids with service dogs will compete and that because of Tyler and Hugo paving the way for them, it will be an easy process for them."
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