CLINTON, Ia. — The boy lay on the green grass and clutched his dog, stroking the canine’s black and tan fur.
The dog, a 70-pound German shepherd with copper eyes named Hugo, stay curled next to his master.
Both the boy in his red track suit and the dog in its bright red vest dozed before their run. They were an oasis of calm on a blustery autumn afternoon as fellow athletes swirled around them.
The calm is sort of the point of this special relationship. But the boy and dog have gotten noticed above all for their bursts of activity.
This unique pair has become a hopeful symbol far beyond Davenport and this 3.1-mile course in Clinton that wound through a city park at a conference cross-country track meet Thursday.
We’re talking Huffington Post, People magazine, Runner’s World.
That’s right: They run races together, blazing a trail for students and service dogs as full participants in competitive sports.
Tyler Gerdts, 17, and Hugo, who turns 2 in January, are unlikely teammates from Davenport West High School.
Hugo is Iowan by way of North Carolina, where he was raised and trained as a service dog to help Tyler cope with his autism.
Tyler leads Hugo with a leash attached to the dog’s vest. But the boy also carries a remote in his pocket that sends signals to an electronic collar to help reinforce his commands.
When the starting gun fires, Tyler (in a pair of gray Nikes) and Hugo (the only runner with paws) hang back for 30 seconds before they take off, so they don’t get tangled in the first, dense pack of bodies.
According to the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), Hugo is just the second canine nationwide to compete in high school sports. A dog a few years ago helped guide a blind female runner in Ohio.
Tyler tends to be the last across the finish line. But he never has quit a race.
Not that his family — mother, Kelley, dad, Scott, and younger siblings Cassidy, 10, and Henry, 9 — and teammates would let him stop. You should hear them cheer on the six-legged duo throughout the course.
“We’re that type of family,” Kelley said, “we’ve had so many lows that we believe that everything must happen for a reason.”
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