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‘Tu is Better Than One’ in documentary of a boy and his dog

Contributed photos
Contributed photos

By Kate Hayden


A good friend never lets go.

Tu, a black labrador retriever, lives that out better than anyone as she takes care of her charge Tristan Kuhn, 8, grandson of Mark and Denise Kuhn of Charles City. This spring, journalism and communication seniors from Wartburg College turned their documentary camera lens toward the two, exploring autism and Tu’s unique training.

“This was such a unique story on not only the relationship between a boy and his dog, but also the service aspect that the dog provides for the autistic child, Tristan Kuhn,” senior Jeanne Edson said.

When Tristan was a toddler, doctors diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder. With the help of extended family, parents Mason and Lori began searching for a way to calm their active son as he grew older and started running  away from caretakers at will –– into often dangerous obstacles, like the streets of his Cedar Falls neighborhood.

“Tristan is very active and moving,” Denise Kuhn said. “Tristan is known as a runner. He doesn’t understand that it’s dangerous to take off. They couldn’t go to many places.”

Change started happening for the family in 2012 when Denise noticed Tristan interacting with her sister’s dog, a yellow labrador.

“He has settled down and is sitting with this dog,” Denise recalled. “It was like a lightbulb went off. ‘Oh, Tristan really likes dogs.”

Through her Charles City veterinarian, Denise learned of trainer Scott Dewey of Retrieving Freedom Inc. in Waverly, known best for training veteran service dogs. Dewey was just beginning training programs for autism service dogs, and had not yet placed a companion to a family yet when he brought three dogs to meet with Tristan that September.

In a cellphone video Denise took of the encounter, Tristan immediately settles down next to Tu, rolling around with her and snuggling for a few minutes on the grass. This was his dog.

“He was just so much calmer,” Denise said. “She’s just calmed him, he can go into a store and he’s just fine. It has helped a lot.”

Edson and six other Wartburg seniors followed Tristan and Tu for two months, shooting scenes of their daily life. Tristan wears a harness with a tether on his back that clips him to Tu’s harness, and he holds on to a handle as an adult holds Tu’s leash. When Tristan drops his handle and tries to take off running, Tu lies down on the ground, serving to anchor Tristan and keep him from running away.

The film debuted at Wartburg’s annual RICE Day, a student research symposium, on April 7, with Mark, Denise and Mason present. The film was also shown on Monday in the Floyd County Courthouse, at the FMC Early Childhood Iowa Board’s regular meeting.

“They get to view this as part of a furthering (of) education and awareness,” Edson said. “Autism service dogs are kind of a new development. Tristan is the first child to receive a service dog from Retrieving Freedom.”

The film, which is 17 minutes long, is available in full on the YouTube account of Wartburg’s Department of Journalism and Communications (DJC Wartburg). The documentary follows Tristan, his parents and siblings with interviews with autism specialists on the challenges facing kids like him.

Autism continues to be an unknown road. Tu has made that road a little smoother for Tristan.

“They are beyond best buddies. It’s a working relationship and he has changed so much,” Edson said.

The change is most evident to his family.

“He hugs her and kisses her, lays around with her,” Denise said. “‘Tu’s my dog’. He’ll say that.”