The Winokur family, with Iyal and Chancer (far left). Photo: Ashley Gilbertson
Donnie and Harvey Winokur adopted two children from Russia in 1999. One was a boy Iyal, the other a girl, Morasha, born of different parents, who came to live with the couple in Atlanta, GA. When Iyal turned three the family began to notice he displayed odd and disturbing behavior. He began to have explosive tantrums. He awoke every night in a rage. He tried to kiss strangers, or feel their toes. One time he unfastened his seat belt in the back of the car and tried to jump out. It was apparent to Donnie and Harvey that something was wrong with their little boy.
Donnie Winkour told the New York TImes Iyal was taken to doctors and specialists for a year, until a he was finally diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (F.A.S). As result of F.A.S., he had developmental and neurological damage that brings with it a range of intellectual and emotional disabilities that affect every aspect of daily life. F.A.S. individuals are at high risk for unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, mental-health problems and more. Unfortunately, few medications or therapies are truly effective.
Between the ages of seven and nine, Iyal required a full-time aide at school, and full-time attention of his mother at home. Like it or not, the Wintours were a special-needs family. At age nine Iyal’s mental and emotional health was deteriorating and it was affecting the family deeply. Donnie began to research outside solutions, after the 20 medications Iyal was prescribed did nothing to help him. She discovered a nonprofit service-dog agency in rural Ohio called 4 Paws for Ability. The organization placed autism assistance dogs with children. She wondered if a service dog could help Iyal and the family. At first her husband was resistant to the idea, feeling a dog would be too much work and a waste of money; money and time better spent towards getting a nanny or respite care. But Donnie persisted with the idea, believing a service dog could provide the help they needed.
So she approached the group in 2007 and spoke with the founder Karen Shirk. Shrik asked questions about how Iyal was likely to behave around a dog. Would he verbally abuse a dog? Physically abuse one? Bonnie answered ‘yes’, certain her request would be met with a ‘no’. Instead Shirk agreed and requested a video that recorded all of Iyal’s daily interactions, his tantrums and noises to be used for training a dog for Iyal.
Donnie was ecstatic. A year later the Wintours traveled to 4 Paws training facility in Xenia, Ohio for a 10-day class with other special-needs families and their new dogs. A dog called Chancer was matched with Iyal. Chancer is a big, good-humored golden retriever with “high self-esteem” who wouldn’t be hurt or insulted by the boy. Chancer had been purchased from a kennel but the family returned him a year later after loosing interest in the dog. He was donated by the kennel to 4 Paws.
Like all 4 Paws dogs, he was shown kindness and affection in the course of his training, but he was not offered a long-term close human friendship. That one-on-one bonding is reserved for the families the dogs are homed with. Chancer didn’t know what he was missing. But his trainers knew. They knew Chancer really needed a boy.
When he was introduced to the Winokurs, he was greeted warmly by their daughter Morasha. Iyal was briefly interested but then wandered off. Iyal was going through an intense, hard stretch at the time having violent rages daily. He had one on the first morning of dog-training. It was apparent to Shirk, "Iyal really needed a dog."
A day later, families took their dogs for an overnight stay. Iyal was in the hot tub with his sister and mom, while Chancer was coming back from a walk and suddenly broke away. He ran past everyone and took a giant leap into the hot tub to save Iyal from the water! Iyal burst into laugther. After less than two days, Chancer had bonded with Iyal. And Iyal was on his way to bonding with the dog.
The first night Chancer was home with the Winokurs in Atlanta, was the first full night of sleep the family had had in almost 10 years. When they went to look in on Iyal, he was sleeping peacefully beside his new friend. And since Chancer’s arrival in their home, they’ve been able to sleep undisturbed in the night.
The positive changes continued. Harvey noticed right away. "The moment he walked in the house with Chancer, I knew something had changed,” Harvey says. “I could feel it instantly, the magnetism between Iyal and the dog...Chancer was an emotional and physical anchor for a kid who was pretty lost in the world."
The changes just two weeks after Chancer arrived, startled his parents. Iyal stopped mumbling unintelligibly and was able to express his thoughts and ask questions. He also appears to have more awareness of how is behavior affects others. After a tantrum he’ll ask his parents, “Is Chancer mad at me?” and “Mommy, tell Chancer I love him, O.K.?”
When Iyal is distressed, Chancer springs into action. If Iyal is in a rage with is arms crossed, screaming and kicking, Chancer, nuzzles between his locked arms, pries them open and gives Iyal big licks on his face until Iyal laughs. Chancer will sometimes head off tantrums before they even start. He’s so finely tuned in to Iyal’s emotional state that if he senses Iyal is about to have an outburst, he tracks him down and playfully head-butts and pushes him down to the floor. He then “smothers” Iyal, stretching out and relaxing on top of him. Helplessly pinned under Chancer, Iyal resists at first and then relaxes too.
Chancer’s sensitivity and ability to disrupt tantrums was something he was trained to do. The dog may be reading Donnie’s body language or facial expressions, or he may be smelling some chemical changes in Iyal or hearing some noises from him that predict a tantrum. When Iyal stabilizes, Chancer feels rewarded. Donnie says even better than Chancer finding Iyal to comfort, is when Iyal goes to find Chancer to get comfort himself. "He picks up Chancer’s big paw and gets under it."
Chancer has not cured Iyal, but he brings a trust and comfort that lowers Iyal’s anxiety and the chaos of the world for him. “He has neurological and psychological damage Chancer’s paws can’t reach. But Chancer mitigates the disability. It’s like we have a nanny,” says Donnie.
"B.C., Before Chancer, which is how we refer to our life then,” explains Bonnie. And life now? As Iyal grows into adulthood the challenges will continue. But for now, with Chancer around the Wintour household has a calmer atmosphere. For Chancer, he doesn’t see Iyal as a boy with disabilities and impairments. He just knows he’s supposed to help and protect Iyal get through a day and be his friend.