Ready for a tearjerker? The NY Times Magazine article “Wonder Dog” could be just what the doctor ordered. The story of Iyal Winokur, a Russian boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome adopted by American parents (a rabbi and his wife, in fact), it’s an extremely moving example of one-way love accomplishing what restraint couldn’t, an animal reaching through emotional and physiological defenses that had frustrated all human patience and compassion. You might even say the dog in question, Chancer, is conditioned for the sort of unconditionality that you and I could never muster (I want one!), whose object has done nothing to deserve it – in fact, who does everything he can at first to fend it off. Like all instances of Grace, Iyal’s case is both surprising and risky, about as good an illustration of Vertical love as one could ask for, not to mention the fruit such (literally) superhuman compassion can produce when unimpeded by fear. I won’t give away the ending, except to say that it’s a beautiful, unexpected marriage of Ray Bradbury’s “The Dog in the Red Bandana” and episode 317 of This American Life (featured in our upcoming publication This American Gospel!). I’ve pulled out the relevant sections, and while still pretty long, it’s very much worth your time. Just be sure to have a tissue at hand:
“Sometime after their 3rd birthdays, our wonderful fairy tale of adopting two Russian babies began to show cracks,” said Donnie Winokur, who is now 55. She is pert and trim, with cropped brown hair and a pursed-lips, lemony expression softened by wearying experience… Iyal grew oppositional and explosive… He threw tantrums that shook the house. He stuffed himself at mealtimes with an inexplicable urgency. In a fast-moving car, he unfastened his seat belt and tried to jump out. He awoke every night in a rage. “I had panic attacks in the night when I heard him coming,” she said. “I assumed everything was my fault, that I was not a good-enough mother.” In preschool, Iyal plowed his tricycle into other children without remorse, or maybe without awareness.
“Iyal’s disabilities began to define our family’s existence,” [Rabbi Harvey Winokur, Iyal’s father] told me. …The doctor’s conclusion was a blow the Winokurs had not seen coming: Iyal’s brain and central nervous system had been severely, irreversibly damaged in utero by the teratogen of alcohol, resulting in an incurable birth defect.
Iyal Winokur was intellectually impaired and at high risk for a range of secondary disabilities, including poor judgment, impulsive behavior, social isolation, limited academic achievement, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, imprisonment, mental-health problems including suicidal ideation, inability to live independently and inappropriate sexual behavior. Few medications or therapies could be recommended as truly effective.
At 7, 8 and 9 years of age, Iyal often babbled a nonstop stream of senseless chatter and baby talk. He required a full-time aide at school and his mother’s undivided attention in the house. Donnie put aside her production career. Harvey juggled the needs of hundreds of congregants while facing escalating mayhem at home. But if their friends wondered what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t adopted Iyal, the Winokurs would have reacted with horror. “It’s unbearable to imagine our child growing up without us,” Donnie says. “We never considered dissolving the adoption! We fell in love with our son.” Still, she admits: “Staying in love with him has been trickier. People with brain injuries aren’t able to reciprocate love in the ways you expect. You’re struggling with this cluster of emotions toward your child — love, but also anger, bewilderment, resentment, frustration and yearning.”…
“The dogs are nonjudgmental,” [specialized dog trainer Jeremy] Dulebohn tells each class. “You’ve got a kid who’s picking his nose? The dog isn’t thinking, That is gross. He’s thinking, Save one for me! Or your child has disappeared and you say: ‘Find Jeffrey.’ The dog isn’t thinking, Jeffrey’s in danger! The dog thinks: Game on!”
Dulebohn and [Karen Shirk, founder of 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that matches dogs with cognitively disabled children and adults] try to discourage clients from engaging in “the Lassie syndrome”: the belief that a devoted, sensitive and brilliant dog will gallop into their lives and make everyone feel better. And yet, sometimes, that’s what families get.
[The Winokurs] were in a hard stretch with Iyal. He was throwing tremendous rages daily, and instantly did it [at the 4 Paws for Ability introduction class]. “I’m so sorry,” Donnie said, mortified, unable to budge the explosive boy from the dog-training circle on the very first morning. But she was among friends; special-needs parents all, they patiently waited for Iyal’s tantrum to die down. Unfortunately, on a lunch break in town, Iyal lost control again and threw a fit in the drive-through lane at Wendy’s. He crossed his arms, sat down hard and bawled. The backed-up drivers looked at Donnie with less empathy than had the 4 Paws parents. Shirk says, “Iyal really needed a dog.”
At the conclusion of the second day’s class, the families were invited to keep their dogs overnight for the first time. At the hotel, Donnie’s cousin took Chancer outside for a walk while Donnie supervised Iyal and Morasha in a hot tub in the indoor pool area. “When they came back from their walk,” she says, “Chancer looked around, and then broke away! I thought: Oh, my God, he’s escaping. We’re going to lose him. He streaked past everybody in the solarium and took a flying leap into the hot tub. He was saving Iyal!”
Chancer had not been trained to do water rescue. Why he leapt unnecessarily into a hot tub is hard to know. Shirk thinks that after 36 hours, Chancer had bonded to Iyal. The reverse, though, may not have been true yet. Part of the havoc wreaked by alcohol on a child’s brain is to scramble the emotional pathways. The routes to friendship, fun, intimacy and love are underdeveloped or buried under cognitive roadblocks. But Iyal’s burst of laughter when the big yellow dog came sailing through the air and clumsily exploded into the hot tub was the greatest sound his mother had heard out of him in a long time.
The morning after Chancer’s first night in the house outside Atlanta, the Winokurs woke up after a full night’s sleep for almost the first time since 1999. They looked at each other in semihorror: was Iyal still alive? They found him snoozing beside the big yellow dog, the latter hogging the mattress. Since Chancer’s arrival in the house, they’ve rarely been disturbed in the night. Iyal may still wake up, but he’s evidently reassured by the dog’s presence and returns to sleep.
“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.”
When Iyal is distressed, Chancer is distressed. Unlike Iyal, Chancer knows what to do about it. Iyal rages by crossing his arms, sitting down hard on the floor and screaming and kicking. Chancer unknots the crossed arms by inserting his wide muzzle through the locked arms from below, opening them up and nuzzling toward Iyal’s face, licking and slobbering, until the boy’s screams turn to tears of remorse or to laughter.
Donnie says: “Lately, and this is the best yet: if Iyal gets distressed, he goes to find Chancer, and he curls up next to him. He picks up Chancer’s big paw and gets under it.” It’s the closest the boy has come to mood self-regulation.
Two weeks after Chancer’s arrival, Iyal startled his parents by using multisyllabic words. He was suddenly possessed of opinions, judgments and important questions, and he expressed them.
B.C. [which is how the Winokurs cleverly refer to life “Before Chancer” – nudge nudge wink wink – ed.], Iyal never mentioned his disability, although we have educated him about it. A.C., he suddenly started asking things like, ‘Did Chancer’s birth mother drink alcohol?’ and ‘Does Chancer have a boo-boo on his brain?’ and ‘Why did my birth mother drink alcohol?’ ”
Before Chancer, Iyal didn’t seem to possess “theory of mind,” the insight, usually achieved by age 4, that other people have points of view different from your own. But Chancer has inspired him to think about what Chancer likes and what Chancer wants and what Chancer thinks. Only since the dog’s arrival has Iyal shown sheepishness or regret following a tantrum, signaling a new awareness that his outbursts may affect others. “Is Chancer mad at me?” he asks his parents. “Mommy, tell Chancer I love him, O.K.?”
There is a real bond between children and animals,” he told me. “The younger the child, the greater the suspension of disbelief about what an animal understands or doesn’t understand.” According to Beck, more than 70 percent of children confide in their dogs, and 48 percent of adults do. “The absolutely nonjudgmental responses from animals are especially important to children,” he says. “If your child with F.A.S.D. starts to misbehave, your face may show disapproval, but the dog doesn’t show disapproval. The performance anxiety this child may feel all the time is absent when he’s with his dog. Suddenly he’s relaxed, he’s with a peer who doesn’t criticize him.”
Iyal will never drive. He will never hold a regular job. He doesn’t understand money or time. Experts say that the transition from adolescence to adulthood is particularly difficult for individuals with F.A.S.D. And Chancer won’t be around forever. For as long as they live, the Winokurs hope to make sure there is a 4 Paws dog at Iyal’s side; for now, they cannot conceive of a life without Chancer.
Chancer doesn’t know that Iyal is cognitively impaired. What he knows is that Iyal is his boy. Chancer loves Iyal in a perfect way, with an unconditional love beyond what even the family can offer him. Chancer never feels disappointed in Iyal or embarrassed by Iyal. Beyond cognitive ability or disability, beyond predictions of a bright future or a dismal one, on a field of grass and hard-packed dirt, between the playground and the baseball diamond, you can see them sometimes, the two of them, running, laughing their heads off, sharing a moment of enormous happiness, just a boy and his dog.