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We Use Service Dogs

For most of us, a dog is a friendly pet. But for more than 500,000 Americans, service dogs—dogs specifically trained to assist people with disabilities or medical conditions—are pets and much, much more. (You can recognize service dogs by the vests they wear to indicate they’re working.) Read on to learn about some canine companions who help their young owners fight loneliness and gain independence. These truly amazing dogs can even mean the difference between life and death.

Cameron and Morris

Seattle, Washington

Morris is a diabetic alert dog who detects life-threatening changes in Cameron’s blood sugar.

 

Cameron and Morris are all smiles with each other.

Cameron Hendry was playing soccer one day last year when his yellow lab, Morris, started going crazy in the stands. He pawed at Cameron’s mom and his sister, Kylie. Finally, he jumped up, put both paws on Kylie’s shoulders, and barked in her face.

He wasn’t being a bad dog. He was trying to tell them something important: Cameron’s health was in danger. “He couldn’t get to me, so he was trying to tell them,” Cameron says.

Cameron, 15, has type 1 diabetes, a disease that affects his body’s ability to regulate his blood sugar. If he doesn’t constantly monitor it, he can get really sick or even die.

 

Morris got his picture in Cameron’s yearbook.

Before he got Morris, Cameron would check his blood sugar many times a day. He also had to check it during the night, which made him exhausted all the time. He couldn’t predict when his blood sugar level might drop: If it dropped in school, he had to leave class. If it dropped while he was playing soccer, he might forget to run after the ball. This happened once and his coach had to yell for an emergency substitute. Cameron was mortified.

All that changed when Morris arrived. Morris can smell changes in Cameron’s blood sugar levels. He’s so good, he can even detect changes in his sleep. (Cameron doesn’t wake up if his blood sugar drops, but Morris usually does.) If Cameron’s levels drop too low, Morris gets Cameron’s parents. Everyone sleeps better knowing Morris is on the job.

Cameron has more energy for sports, thanks to Morris.

Morris usually alerts Cameron before he has any symptoms. If Cameron does start to feel bad, Morris helps him stay calm. “He really snuggles in,” Cameron says. “I pet him, and I feel better.”

Morris goes everywhere with Cameron. When Cameron wakeboards, Morris rides in the boat. When Cameron plays in pep band, Morris sits next to him in the stands. At school, Morris is very popular. “He’s helped me make friends,” Cameron says. “Everyone loves him.” Morris was even on 11 pages of the yearbook!

“Morris helps me do all the things other kids do,” Cameron says. “I don’t worry as much because I know he’s always looking out for me.”

Gabby and Ollie

Riverside, California

Ollie is a mobility assistance dog who keeps Gabby safe and helps her be independent.

 

Gabby and Ollie share a quiet moment in the grass.

Gabby Jones used to hate when people looked at her. She knew they were staring at the electric wheelchair she uses to get around. Making friends was hard because kids rarely looked past Gabby’s chair to see her. “I think they stayed away because they didn’t understand,” Gabby says. “It got a little lonely.”

Gabby, 11, was born with a genetic disorder called muscular dystrophy that makes her muscles weak and affects her balance. She can walk short distances, but she falls easily, and if she falls, she can’t get back up.

Ollie, who’s been with Gabby for a year and a half, helps Gabby stay safe and be independent. When she’s out in public, he pushes the handicap button with his nose to open doors for her. If she drops her phone or the TV remote, he picks it up for her with his mouth. When she’s getting ready for bed, he pulls off her socks with his teeth. He knows more than 40 commands. If Gabby falls, she can tell Ollie to “speak,” and he’ll bark until help arrives.

But Gabby says Ollie’s cool tricks aren’t even the best thing about her animal companion. “If I’m feeling sad, he’ll come over and put his head on my lap or lie on my chest,” she says. “He distracts me from my loneliness.” When Gabby lies on the floor for virtual school, Ollie stretches out next to her, putting his paws close to her keyboard. He knows when school is done, it will be time to play.

He also helps her feel more confident in social situations. “It’s easier to talk to people with Ollie by my side,” she says. Kids, especially, feel much more comfortable approaching her. “Ollie’s an icebreaker,” Gabby says. “He makes me feel more confident and not self-conscious.”

“People used to stare at me in my wheelchair,” Gabby adds. “Now they look at Ollie.”

Tyler and Zephyr (and Disney)

Normal, Illinois

Zephyr and Disney keep Tyler calm and alert him when he’s about to have a seizure.

 

Tyler, Disney, and Zephyr pause for a snuggle.

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.”

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