I absolutely adore Elf and for the most part he fits in well with our chaotic household---Maizy, the beagle, is still grumpy and grouchy about his presence but really it’s only a big issue for her when he has taken up the entire couch and she can’t find a place to sleep. Everyone at work looks forward to seeing him and I’m pretty sure that I have students who only come to one particular class because they are hopeful that he’ll be there. Even the cats have decided that they accept him and you can frequently find them sleeping together.
Honestly though I have been wondering what role Elf really plays in Caden’s life. Thankfully we haven’t had to worry about seizures for a few years so he doesn’t actively alert like those dogs on a regular basis although he does tend to let us know when Caden isn’t feeling well. Given how quickly Caden throws up, I’m thankful for any advance warning that we can possibly get so if Elf starts licking Caden’s mouth, we grab towels STAT. Although it only takes once, Caden hasn’t really gotten away from us or out of the house since Elf has come home so other than practice hide and finds Elf hasn’t had a “real” search and rescue to deal with.
Behavior disruption hasn’t gone exactly the way we hoped either. Elf definitely knows when there’s a problem (then again the entire neighborhood probably knows given how high pitched Caden’s screams and cries go when something isn’t right in his world and lately there hasn’t been a lot going right given the sheer number of meltdowns we are dealing with) and he tries everything he knows—lap, licking, pawing, nudging, etc. But Caden doesn’t seem to respond to any of those; in fact if he’s truly melting down (and not just having a kid moment of let’s see if crying gets me anywhere) Elf’s efforts tend to upset him even more. I’m hopeful though that over time Caden will start to realize that Elf is trying to help him and he’ll be more receptive to Elf’s efforts.
Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely amazing how Caden immediately grabs ahold of Elf’s harness when we are in public and he usually doesn’t let go unless we tell him that he can. Of course we’ve told him that he’s helping us keep Elf from getting lost but he takes the task very seriously and whatever works, right?!?! And I think having a service dog is like a neon flashing sign for most folks that there is some reason why Caden must need a service dog so people seem to be a bit more accepting of “odd” behaviors. Of course they also move out of our way because you’d only have a service dog if you are blind….heck everyone knows that!
But is any of this worthy of us having a service dog? Are we “wasting” Elf’s training and talents? Are we keeping another child waiting for a service dog just so that our son can have something that he enjoys holding onto in public? These plus many more are the kinds of questions I’ve thought about over the last few weeks. Then……
I started to notice a few things such as Caden isn’t only holding onto Elf in public but he’s running his hands through Elf’s fur to calm himself down when he’s nervous and would probably otherwise try to flee public interactions or situations that make him nervous—this might be why we haven’t had to utilize the search command yet. When Ryley had a friend over to play a few days ago, Caden wanted to play but he didn’t know how to inject himself into the game so he used Elf as his social bridge. Caden is practicing so hard on some of his commands because he wants Elf to go with him and show others his “tricks” and be able to tell Elf when he wants him to come upstairs or downstairs or outside. They sleep together every night and if for some reason we put Elf in his kennel during the day Caden wants to know why. He tells us when he thinks Elf is sad which is pretty huge for a child who can’t recognize emotions in other people. He even drew a picture of a bone so that Elf could have it without any prompting from us.
And then there was the deal clincher…… Caden announced to me that “Elf is the very bestest friend that he’s ever had.” I can’t think of any better explanation or reason for them to be together than for a child with autism to know and be confident in the fact that he has a very best friend who is always there for him---this become more and more every day the true story of a boy and his dog.