Service Dog Helps Autistic Teen Run Cross-Country

To Tyler Gerdts, Hugo is more than just a running buddy. He’s a best friend, a teammate, and a life changer.

Hugo, a German Shepherd Dog, is a service dog to Tyler, a high school student who was born with a frontal lobe injury, which has required 15 surgeries in 10 years, and who has autism. Together the pair runs cross-country at Davenport West High School in Iowa.

As the first dog in the state to compete in a high school sport (and the second dog to ever do so, according to the Iowa High School Athletic Association), Hugo has gained national attention, from Runner’s World magazine to Huffington Post, USA Today, and more. Hugo also has his own Facebook page, where videos of him and Tyler running together are posted. Tyler doesn’t earn points for the team—rather he competes against his own record, one of several stipulations the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) made when Hugo was approved to participate with the team, Runners World explained. (Others included: The pair must give the other runners a head start, they can’t interfere with other runners, and Hugo must run at Tyler’s pace, not above it.)

The family raised the $15,000 to $20,000 they needed to acquire and train Hugo through several organizations and GoFundMe.

“Tyler is a huge-hearted, kind, caring, loving young man who has overcome more in his life so far than most ever will in a lifetime,” his mother, Kelley, wrote on the GoFundMe page.

Huffington Post explains that Hugo is trained to track and trail Tyler in case he wanders from home, help comfort him during meltdowns, and sniff out dangerous situations (e.g., gas, smoke) the teen's lack of sense of smell would cause him to miss.

His coach, Marty Leal, told Runners World that he’s seen an improvement in the young athlete’s performance and focus. And Kelley reported to Huffington Post that Tyler has shown more empathy and communication skills while working with Hugo than she’s seen in him before. Studies have shown that dogs have many positive effects on children with autism, specifically that they can increase social skills, especially independence, assertiveness, and confidence.

Having Hugo by his side seems to have helped Tyler in this regard, making him more personable to his teammates and schoolmates.

"I have a lot more people talk to me,” Tyler told Huffington Post. But at the end of the day, Hugo is who he turns to. "He is my number-one friend,” he says.

See the pair in action in this touching video: