CARLSBAD, Calif. – The community of Carlsbad is rallying in support of an autistic teenager who recently lost his best friend, a service dog, to cancer.
Duke, the Labrador Retriever, wasn’t just any dog -- he was a lifeline for Caleb Strachan.
“Dog Duke, he just changed my life. My boy was very special to me,” he said.
In 2013, Caleb’s family bought Duke to help him cope with autism.
“He was in middle school and really having problems,” said Iris Strachan, Caleb’s mother. “He was lonely. Kids with autism get isolated.”
From the day Duke arrived at the Strachan home, Iris and her husband Jeff knew immediately life would be different for their son.
Iris said her son told her, “Mom, the dark days are over.”
“Duke actually bridged a way for Caleb to have a conversation with somebody else,” said Jeff. “Duke brought people into his space.”
Duke and Caleb became a team. At school, they were well-known and popular.
“Duke was mostly a chick magnet,” said Caleb. “The guys loved hanging with Duke.”
When Caleb was once nearly failing, his grades soared.
“He was a D, F student. Duke shows up and now the joke is how are we going to pay for a college education,” laughed Jeff.
Caleb even tried out for sports and ran for school president.
“He came home from school one day and said, ‘I’m running for ASB president,’” said Iris. “I was shocked. I said, what? He says, 'yeah, I’m running for ASB president. I want to be ASB president.' You see, Duke unlocked the potential that is Caleb.”
“He was my mascot during the campaign,” said Caleb.
In July, Caleb’s mascot got sick.
“It was a type of tumor Duke was too young to have,” said Caleb.
At just 5 years old, Duke developed cancer.
“I asked the doctor what to do. He said we would extend Duke’s life by three weeks if he had surgery,” said Jeff.
The family chose to have surgery.
“It cost about a small car, but when I asked Caleb he said ‘No, Sage Creek [High School] has to say goodbye to Duke,’” said Jeff.
After Duke recovered from his surgery, he went to school with Caleb once last week.
Iris was there when he told Duke goodbye.
“He was saying to Duke, 'Duke, I’ll never forget you, and I know you’ll never forget me,” Iris said.
Duke’s loss was one felt by the entire school.
“The school principal had a moment of silence for Duke over the school PA. Who does that?” Jeff said.
Since then, the community has rallied around the Strachans. A GoFundMe page set up has raised $15,720 in less than a month, surpassing the goal of $15,000.
But even with the funding, it could be years before Caleb gets a new dog.
“These dogs have to be bred for temperament. Then you have to train them,” said Iris. “It took us two years to train Duke. More importantly, there has to be the connection. The dog picks the person and the person picks the dog.”
For Caleb, he already knows a new dog won’t replace Duke.
“No one can. No one will,” said Caleb.
But, he’s willing to try.
“I’m still encouraging myself to get a new service dog," Caleb said. "My boy Duke, he was just my companion, my soul mate throughout my life.”
Iris said Duke didn’t just change Caleb’s life, but her entire family.
“For a mom and dad to see what that dog did for your child, you know, just the miracle of it? It’s something we can’t explain until you experience it,” said Iris. “It has been eye-opening.”