Tyler Gerdts’ companionship with his service dog, Hugo, has helped him with running and at home.
By Alison Wade THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2015, 3:26 PM
Davenport West High School junior Tyler Gerdts is the first person to run high school cross country in Iowa with a service dog.PHOTO BY CASSIDY GERDTS
He’s new to the sport, but Hugo, a 20-month-old German Shepherd, has quickly made a splash as the first service dog to run high school cross country in the state of Iowa. The dog accompanies Tyler Gerdts, a junior at Davenport West High School, during all of his daily activities. Cross country practice and meets are no exception.
Tyler has a brain injury combined with autism, which led his family to look into getting a service dog to improve his quality of life. The Gerdts family welcomed Hugo to their home in April, but acquiring him was a multiyear process, which included fundraising and training for both Hugo and the family.
Since seventh grade, Tyler has been running cross country for Davenport West and his coach, Marty Leal. Since Hugo became a part of the team, Leal said he’s noticed that Tyler has been more focused. Tyler’s performances are also improving, and he’s already broken his 5K personal best this season, running 28:11, according to his coach’s watch.
At the end of Tyler’s first race of the season, the meet’s public address announcer called out that Tyler was becoming the first high school runner in Iowa to run a race with a service dog.
“It was one of those things that just gives you goose bumps and makes you cry because it didn’t matter which team they were there to cheer for that day, [people] were all standing on their feet clapping and cheering for Tyler,” Tyler’s mother, Kelley Gerdts, told Runner’s World. “It was a pretty cool thing.”
Kelley Gerdts said she’s noticed positive changes at home, too. While Tyler used to have meltdowns or occasional outbursts, he’s had very few since Hugo became a part of his life.
Tyler opted not to speak directly to Runner’s World, but he told his mother privately that being the first cross country runner in Iowa to race with a service dog was really exciting for him and it made him feel like a winner.
Hugo has also taken on the new challenges with pleasure. He participates in all of the team’s practices and rides on the team bus, under Tyler’s seat.
Kelley Gerdts said that it was a given that they wanted Tyler to be able to do all of his activities with Hugo, but it took some work to make that completely possible.
She reached out to the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) early on. While it didn’t immediately have answers for them, she was pleased that they listened and asked questions.
“We were really happy with how they handled this,” Kelley Gerdts said. “They didn’t just jump to say, ‘No,’ which is something we’ve encountered from time to time.”
The IHSAA came up with a set of rules for Tyler and Hugo. One is that they must give all of the other competitors a lead at the start of their races. Leal said as his coach he’s been sending Tyler out once his competitors get 30 to 40 meters into the race.
Another rule: If Tyler and/or Hugo impedes another competitor on the course, Tyler is disqualified, similar to the rules in place if one runner impedes another. Tyler is also a non-scoring member of Davenport West’s team.
“[The IHSAA] did a really good job of listening, communicating, doing their research, and making this situation good for everybody, not just Tyler and Hugo,” Kelley Gerdts said.
The only rule Kelley Gerdts said she doesn’t fully agree with is the fact that Tyler is a non-scoring runner. She said it’s a moot point at the moment, since he doesn’t finish high enough to score for his team, but she said she mentioned in the meeting she’d like the right to revisit that at some point down the road.
In researching if and where this had been done before, the closest example, geographically speaking, anyone could find was in Ohio.
Gerdts and Coach Leal said that everyone they’ve encountered so far has been supportive of Tyler and Hugo. The IHSAA sent out a letter at the beginning of the season, making schools aware of the situation, and Leal said he brings a hard copy of the letter with him to meets in case anyone needs additional information.
Tyler is also a member of Davenport West’s marching band, but for now, Hugo sits on the sidelines while Tyler marches. Gerdts said Hugo is capable of learning formation marching.
“That’s next,” she said.