Autism service dog helps protect boy

LA CRESCENT, Minn.– Taking care of an autistic child will never be worry-free. But one local family is sleeping a little easier with the help of a service dog.

You’ve probably heard of a seeing-eye dog before, but what about a dog trained to watch over a child with autism? Well that’s exactly the kind of helping hand– or paw, more accurately– a La Crescent family is getting from a black lab named Elf.

Elf is a dog on a mission.

The Butler Modaff family runs through an exercise called “hide and find” every week.
Five-year-old Caden and his mother Jennifer leave the house to hide. Then it’s Elf’s job to find the boy.

“Elf is trained similarly to the way search and rescue dogs are. Except that instead of searching for anyone, he is trained specifically to track Caden,” said Jennifer Butler Modaff.

In front of Caden, his parents call it a game. But someday it could save his life.

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“It’s bittersweet though in that you realize you’re practicing for the time that you look around and realize your child’s gone. And that’s hard,” said Butler Modaff.

When Caden was two years old, he was diagnosed with autism. And sometimes that means he can get overwhelmed and run off.

“Caden had gotten away from us a couple of times, and never gotten far from us, thankfully. But it still scared us. Enough that we realized we needed another– we needed a little bit more help. And that’s where Elf came in,” said Butler Modaff.

With a special second buckle on his harness, Elf can act as an anchor in case Caden tries to take off.

“It attaches to Elf, but it also attaches either to a belt buckle, a backpack, something that Caden’s wearing so that if we’re in public and Caden gets overwhelmed and tries to take off, Elf is actually trained to sit or lay down,” said Butler Modaff.

Caden’s dad wasn’t sold on the idea at first. It took some convincing from his wife. But when he actually saw a photograph of Elf, it sealed the deal.

“I was sold first when we got the e-mail with his picture and saw him and we both started crying. And said yeah, that’s him. That makes sense. He’s going to do it for us,” said Dan Modaff.

And after just two weeks in their home, this family already can’t imagine life without Elf.

But service dogs aren’t cheap. 4 Paws for Ability–the training center in Ohio where the Butler Modaff’s got Elf– charges $13,000 to $22,000.

It took them a year to fundraise for it but they say the security they get from having him around is worth every penny.