Life with Gracie: How a dog was boy’s best friend in dealing with fetal alcohol syndrome


Iyal Winokur is 19, a mere shadow of the boy he used to be.

To look at him now, no one would ever guess the terror he wrought on his family; that he was once like a “bull in a china shop,” breaking the peace that rarely visited this piece of Roswell.

“From everything we saw, these were healthy children,” Donnie Winokur said recently.

But only one of them, their daughter Morasha, was healthy. Iyal was not.

He was just 3 when they sensed something wasn’t right. Their little boy was wreaking havoc often and everywhere.

If your child threw a tantrum, imagine him exploding into a storm that wouldn’t be tamed. That was Iyal. Not only were his parents unable to calm him, Iyal couldn’t calm himself.

In 2002, toward the end of his pre-K school year, the Winokurs contacted a developmental pediatrician. When they finally saw the doctor nine months later, the evaluation yielded bad news.

Iyal was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe expression of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a group of conditions that can occur in a person whose mother drank alcohol during pregnancy and may include physical, mental, behavioral, intellectual and/or learning disabilities.

To the Winokurs, the diagnosis was like empty words on a page.

“They didn’t mean much, but we knew it didn’t sound good,” Donnie said. “We had no idea of the battles we were facing.”

Rabbi Winokur said they tried one medication after another, but their son was disappearing in front of their eyes. Iyal’s behavior got increasingly worse. It wasn’t unusual for him to dart across the street in front of traffic or scream and thrash about for hours. Seeing Morasha play with her dolls brought on inexplicable rages. While she grew detached from her brother, the Winokurs’ marriage was crumbling under the weight.

It was as if their home had filled with constant turbulence. They were desperate.

Then in 2006 while browsing the internet, Donnie stumbled upon a bit of hope. Children living with autism, similar in behavior to fetal alcohol syndrome, were experiencing some success using service dogs.

Since 1999, 4 Paws for Ability had been training dogs. Donnie Winokur called the director and told her about Iyal — every embarrassing detail. Had she ever trained a dog for a child with fetal alcohol syndrome?

The director hadn’t but was willing to try. All the Winokurs needed to do was get a prescription from Iyal’s doctor. They filled out the application, and 10 months later, they and Iyal were introduced to a 90-pound golden retriever named Chancer. At 4 Paws, they went through 10 days of intensive training, learning commands, how to take care of the pet, and most importantly how to increase the bond between Iyal and Chancer.

Within two weeks of bringing Chancer home, the Winokurs witnessed a huge shift in Iyal’s behavior and personality. Before Chancer, he did whatever Morasha did. He ate whatever she ate. He rarely slept through the night but now he was. Not only did speech begin to replace nonsensical phrases and odd noises, he was making decisions. For the first time. For himself.

“Chancer grounded him and his rages became less frequent,” his father said.

And he knew instinctively when to disrupt a tantrum, descending on Iyal, forcing his kisses onto Iyal’s tear-stained face. Nuzzle became the most important and loving command, rescuing Iyal from the chemical storm he was drowning in.

Little by little, Chancer was bringing the whole family back to shore.

If the Winokurs’ story is starting to sound familiar, it’s because Donnie Winokur has spent the past decade crisscrossing the country raising awareness about fetal alcohol syndrome and Chancer’s impact on her son and family.

It’s a story that warrants repeating if for no other reason than fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are a devastating disability. And while no one knows exactly how many individuals are affected, the statistics are staggering. The prevalence of the disability is a public health crisis: Up to 1 in 20 U.S. school-age children may have FASDs, the effects of which will last a lifetime.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Seeing the impact Chancer was having on their son, Donnie realized she couldn’t keep it to herself.

“Without us knowing it, he was the anchor, the service dog for all of us,” she said. “He brought us back to one another.”

In 2015, Donnie went a step further and began writing their story. “Chancer: How One Good Boy Saved Another” is scheduled to hit bookshelves on Aug. 22. Donnie will share their story at a book launch on Aug. 23 at Temple Kehillat Chaim, 1145 Green St., Roswell.

Trust me, it’s worth hearing over and over again.

It confirmed my position that no amount of alcohol should be considered safe to drink during pregnancy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said as much last year in a report suggesting that since about half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned and most women do not know they are pregnant until four to six weeks into the pregnancy, women who intend to get pregnant or could get pregnant should not drink alcohol. Any kind or any amount. The recommendation was not received well by many women. That’s why this book is so important.

But I must warn you. There is a bittersweet ending to their story. Just as the book was being completed, Chancer was slowing down and nearing retirement. Another service dog named Quinn joined the family in 2015.

In February, Chancer passed away and was buried with other service dogs in the Garden of Honor in North Georgia just miles away from the boy and family he rescued.

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