When Tyler Auten was little, he ran away often and had trouble sleeping at night. In school, he might yell or cry, or rock his body and flap his hands.
Tyler did those things because he has a developmental disorder called autism. People with autism can also have trouble communicating and forming relationships with others. At school, Tyler had to be in a special classroom all day. His parents worried about him getting lost or hurt.
Then, in kindergarten, Tyler got a service dog named Zephyr who’d been trained to provide comfort to people with autism. His first night with Zephyr, Tyler slept through the night for the first time in his life.
For a while, Tyler was attached to Zephyr’s leash by his belt. If Tyler tried to run away, Zephyr would lie down. If Tyler tried to go outside, Zephyr would bark. Tyler stopped running away, and his behavior changed in other ways too. If he got agitated, Zephyr would come over for a pet and Tyler would calm down. Soon Tyler was able to transition to classes with kids who don’t have autism.
Then, when Tyler was 8, he was watching TV when Zephyr started barking and licking Tyler’s face. All of a sudden, Tyler’s arms and legs started jerking uncontrollably. He was later diagnosed with epilepsy, a disorder that causes seizures. But Zephyr had been able to sense the change in Tyler’s body chemistry before anyone else understood what was happening. Now, if Zephyr alerts him, Tyler knows that a seizure is coming, and that he should lie down on the floor so he doesn’t hurt himself.
Last year, Zephyr turned 8. He was having trouble keeping up with Tyler, now 14, so Tyler got a new service dog named Disney. (Don’t worry: Zephyr’s still the family pet.) Disney can detect seizures hours before they happen, giving Tyler time to take a medicine that can prevent the seizure from happening at all.
Tyler says his dogs have changed his life. “They make me always feel safe,” he says. “They’re my best friends.”