More Than Man’s Best Friend: How a Service Dog Saved This Disabled, Transgender Model’s Life


On a summer night in 2019, I stumbled to the bathroom after feeling a ping of excruciating pain in my abdomen. I shut the door behind me, which, for safety reasons, I never do, and I suddenly collapsed to the floor. When I came to, I felt incredibly weak and disoriented. I heard my service dog, Atlas, sniffing at the door and whispered, “Help.” A few seconds later, I heard him barking like crazy. He was alerting my wife that I was in trouble.

They both came rushing in, and we frantically made our way to the emergency room. It turned out that my feeding tube had wrapped around my intestines, and if I hadn’t gotten emergency surgery to undo the damage, I very well could have died. That night, Atlas truly became my savior and protector, but we didn’t start out so in-tune.

I am 24 years old, and I have had Ehlers Danlos Syndrome for my entire life, but I wasn’t diagnosed until my early adulthood. Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a genetic connective tissue disorder that essentially impacts all parts of the body. For me, EDS has caused a multitude of gastrointestinal issues, chronic fatigue, hypermobility, and neurological issues. Growing up, while I was chronically ill, I was not disabled, and I lived a very active life. My neurological damage progressed rapidly in my teens and early twenties, eventually resulting in me using a wheelchair most of the time. As my condition progressed, I began requiring a lot of help from friends and family. As I started needing more and more assistance with everyday tasks, I began researching how to apply for a service dog.

Related: Woman Who Lost Both of Her Legs Trains Disabled Puppy to Be a Therapy Dog

In early 2017, I submitted an application to New Horizons Service Dogs. After completing a number of forms, phone calls, and interviews, I received the news that I had been paired with a dog. About six months later, I was off to the training “bootcamp” to meet my new companion.

Before meeting the dogs, everyone in the group had to spend the first few days of the two-week program filling out paperwork and going to classes. Then the day finally arrived: We were going to meet our dogs! I was bursting with anticipation. Everyone in our training group patiently waited as beautiful, snow white, graceful golden retrievers pranced into the room one by one. I watched as the handlers introduced each dog to their new owner. Finally, the last handler walked out, leading a chunky, pumpkin-orange, drooling mess. The handler walked straight to me, gave me the leash, and said, “This is Atlas.”

My shock and horror only escalated as Atlas greeted me by spewing a huge glob of slobber into my lap. How come I had to get this handful?

Julian and Atlas

The rest of the program was painstaking. I knew that Atlas had graduated at the top of his class, but his attitude and stubbornness made training with him nearly impossible. Every day, I struggled to keep his attention and to get him to complete the tasks I knew he was capable of. I started doubting my ability to get him under control. Could we ever make this work?

Related: Supreme Court Rules in Favor of a Disabled Girl and Her Service Dog Wonder

Atlas looking up at Julian

Things settled down when I brought Atlas home, but he was still hesitant to help me. I would tell him to bring me something. He would stare at me. I would tell him to sit. He would walk away.

A few weeks after returning home, I had a pretty bad fall. I had just stood up out of bed and fainted straight into Atlas’s dog bed. Atlas ran to me and nudged my face until I started to stir. When I fully woke up, he greeted me by holding a smelly toy inches from my face. This was the first time I saw how much he truly cared about me. As time went on, our bond only grew tighter.

Julian and Atlas

Over the three years we’ve known each other, we’ve certainly had our ups and downs. There are still some days that Atlas refuses to behave. He still eats my socks and tries to steal my food. (And no, the drooling never ceased.) However, Atlas has become my best friend and so much more. He continues to help me with so many everyday tasks and the amount of emotional support he has given me is immeasurable. With his help, I was able to gain a new level of independence and continue my education. I’ve never been so close to an animal, and I’m convinced we can speak telepathically. He would do anything for me, and I would do anything for him.

Atlas, you hold up my world.

As told to Schuyler Wojcik.

Related: Here’s What Not to Do When You See a Service Dog at Work

By Julian Gavino

Julian Gavino is a trans and disability advocate who spreads his message through writing, modeling, art, and content creation. He became passionate about trans and disability representation when he realized he never saw anyone in mainstream media who looked like him. His dream is to normalize and destigmatize trans and disabled bodies in the media. Schuyler Wojcik is a writer, editor, and advocate for true diversity in the media. She is passionate about helping to amplify the voices of creators of every size, shape, color, class, sexuality, gender identity, and ability.

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