Visiting a hospital is frightening for any child, but it’s even more stressful for 9-year-old James Isaac, who has autism. Fortunately, though, he has his therapy dog by his side to help him through it.James, who lives in Wellington, New Zealand, does not speak and refuses to be touched or make eye contact with anyone, including his family. His mother, Michelle Isaac, told “” that even the simplest tasks used to be extremely difficult with her son.”We couldn’t even go to a cafe as a family,” she said. “James would get very anxious and want to leave immediately.”She also added that he’d often get overstimulated when in public, which would sometimes cause him to run away and get into dangerous situations. So, because she was worried about his safety, Michelle decided to look into getting him a therapy dog.

She worked with the Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust to find the right dog for James, and about two years ago they brought home Mahe, a black Labrador who has been specially trained to help children with autism.Michelle said that although James is often uncomfortable with people, Mahe is his best friend. He will make eye contact with the dog and happily cuddles with him, and having Mahe by his side helps calm him down in stressful situations.Mahe also helps keep James safe while they’re outside together. The dog wears a leash attached to James, and Mahe will plant himself on the ground if the boy ever tries to run into the street or away from his mother.

Mahe recently went above and beyond to help his best friend when James had to stay in the hospital. When James started suffering from frequent seizures, his mother took him to the Wellington Children’s Hospital for an MRI to try to determine what was causing them.Mahe stayed near James the entire time, lying in bed with him to calm him down and refusing to leave his side. Even while the doctors put James under anesthesia, Mahe watched over him to make sure he was safe.”He was just looking at James, and looking really worried,” Michelle said.

The only time Mahe couldn’t stay beside James was during the scan, so the dog waited outside with Michelle. And because he could sense that she needed him, Mahe comforted her like he had comforted James.”I was really shaken,” she admitted. “It was pretty stressful watching James struggle.”She also added that if her son’s seizures continue, Mahe can be trained to detect the warning signs early and alert her so she can help James.

Regardless of what happens after James leaves the hospital, though, he’ll always have Mahe by his side.”There is such a magic that happens between a child with autism and the dogs, they just calm the kids down,” said Wendy Isaacs, the funding development manager of Assistance Dogs New Zealand Trust. “The kids will maintain eye contact with the dog, but often not with their own parents and siblings.”