SPANISH FORK -- When Sawyer Hamilton gets off the bus on a Friday afternoon in November, he makes a beeline for his dog, Topper, waiting patiently on the sidewalk. Dropping his backpack to the ground, he excitedly calls Topper's name over and over, bends down to pet his companion and receives ample licks to the face in return.
It's certainly not unusual for a teenager to have a close relationship with a pet, but for Hamilton, an autistic ninth-grader in Spanish Fork, the bond he shares with his service dog runs much deeper. Diagnosed with autism at age three, Sawyer's dogs have opened up a world of possibility to him that seemed like a distant dream before.
"We knew something was up when he was little," Hamilton's mom, Kandace, said. She recalled that Sawyer didn't initiate play with other children and didn't play with toys the way other children did. Sawyer had no sense of danger, pushing the screens out of windows and running away outside.
"We went to Bryce Canyon and I literally caught him by the back of his jacket as he went off the edge," Kandace said. Sawyer would throw tantrums, vomit, bang his head.
Kandace would soon learn that these were not uncommon behaviors for an autistic child, and Sawyer was eventually diagnosed. She said she was, in a way, relieved just to have an answer, to know what her child was suffering from.
"At the same time, my thought was, 'is he ever going to go to school, is he ever going to get married, is he ever going to have a job, is he ever going to move out of my house?"' Kandace said.
The family noticed that Sawyer seemed to respond better to interactions with animals than with humans. Kandace started investigating different animal programs, but the options seemed out of reach. She found some service dogs that looked promising but they could cost up to $50,000, or the organizations wanted the owners to raise the dogs themselves.
"I was just overwhelmed," Kandace remembered. "There was no way I could raise a dog at that point."
Then she found Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit company in California that provides service dogs for people in need, free of charge. It took two years after initiating the application process before Sawyer received his first dog, a black lab named Hal.
The difference Hal made in Sawyer's life was immediate. Kandace said she gets asked all the time what a service dog does for a child with autism. It is harder to explain than a dog that serves a blind person or someone in a wheelchair, but the benefit is no less real.
"First of all, it solves a lot of his sensory needs," Kandace explained. Whereas Sawyer used to wander the house at night, unsure of how to process the dark, quiet space around him, with the dog in bed he slept straight through.
Tending to the chores of having a pet, letting him out to go to the bathroom, cleaning up after him and feeding and grooming him gave Sawyer responsibilities that helped "pull him out of his own little world," Kandace said.
"Most of all," Kandace explained, "it is just an unconditional friend and a companion. Because a lot of time when you get to Sawyer's age, in junior high, kids aren't nice." Simply knowing that his dog was at home waiting for him helped Sawyer get through the day.
Sawyer made huge improvements after getting Hal. His negative behaviors subsided and he developed mentally in ways the family didn't expect. Whereas doctors had said Sawyer might not ever be able to read on his own, he now reads above grade level and devours books, checking them out from the library 20 at a time.
The Hamiltons were so moved by the impact that Hal had that Sawyer's sister, Erica, and her husband, Charlie Forbush, decided to volunteer as puppy raisers. CCI relies on volunteers to raise their dogs, paying for food and medical care out of their own pockets, until the age at which they go off to "puppy college" and become trained service dogs. Erica and Charlie are raising their fifth puppy.
Hal had become a member of the family. Framed photographs of Hal sit on the top shelf of a bookcase in the living room and photos of him with Sawyer fill a photo album on the coffee table. He and Sawyer were inseparable. And then Hal died, suddenly and unexpectedly, last year. Sawyer was devastated and began to regress into some of the negative symptoms of his autism.
The Hamiltons applied to get a second service dog from CCI, and their request was granted. They flew out to California in September to pick up the new dog, a yellow lab named Topper.
"We walked in the door and they let Topper out of the kennel and he just started licking Sawyer's face," Kandace recalled, "and it was just like he was saying, 'There's my boy, I've been waiting for you!' "
Since bringing Topper home, Sawyer has regained the progress he made with Hal. He is calm when the family goes out to a busy place, he sleeps through the night, and he recently made a 4.0 grade point average on his report card for the first time.
"This has helped my son become who he is now," Kandace said. She said they have seen so much progress that it is impossible to imagine being where they are now if not for Sawyer's dogs.
"Sawyer can do the things he wants to now," she said, "and he's been able to move forward and onward and upward." She said he plans to go to college. "I think he's going to surprise everybody."
After Hal died, "I thought nothing would ever go good again," Sawyer said, "but now it has and it will probably just get better from this point, especially with Topper by my side."