Service dogs are trained to help, protect, and even rescue their guardians. Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertson, The New York Times

Adrianne Gallatin, Global Animal

A service dog can do so much more than guide us. Service animals can be trained to open doors, turn on lights, answer phones, and even put laundry in a hamper. 

The Winokur Family and Chancer. Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertson, The New York Times

But for people with mental disabilities, there is much more required from a service dog than just to help someone get through a normal day. They have to be a therapist, a protector, and, most importantly, a friend. 

Melissa Fay Greene wrote a touching piece for the New York Times about the Winokur family and the service dog that changed their lives. Their adopted son from Russia, Iyal, presented behavioral problems some time after his third birthday, and the family soon found out that he most likely had been born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Iyal’s nervous system had been irreversibly damaged, and he would never be able to function as a normal adult. He lived only in his emotions, experiencing fits and tantrums that were draining on the family, and he could barely communicate verbally. 

Getting a service dog is both difficult and time consuming, and even more so for young children. Most agencies will not give service dogs to children because they can’t be the dog’s primary caregiver. When you add a mental disability to the application, getting approved is virtually impossible. Knowing the difficulties, the Winokurs decided to apply to 4 Paws for Ability.

Iyal with Chancer. Photo Credit: Ashley Gilbertson, The New York Times

Karen Shirk runs 4 Paws, an organization that tries to place service dogs with people who would be unapproved elsewhere. She started the agency when she was denied a service dog because she was living on a ventilator and couldn’t leave the house. After this disappointment, she rescued and trained her own service dog to help her around the house, a black German Shepherd named Ben. Ben helped Shirk leave the house eventually, and even helped her gain the confidence to become part of society again. 

One night, Shirk passed out from a deadly mix of medications. Ben could sense something was wrong when she didn’t respond to the phone ringing. He answered the phone and barked into the receiver, getting someone to come and help her.

Later, Shirk wondered why so many people should be denied something that had ultimately saved her life.

The Winokur’s never expected an agency to place 8-year-old Iyal with a service dog, but Karen Shirk and 4 Paws gave them a chance with the aptly named Golden Retriever, Chancer. After spending one day with Iyal, Chancer had connected with the boy. He would lay on him to stop his tantrums, lick his face to turn his screams into laughter, and he would sleep with him every night. 

With Chancer, Iyal began to communicate using multisyllabic words. He started to think analytically, and he could even ask questions. Doctors said the dog was giving Iyal the opportunity to use use his brain for thought and communication rather than rage and fear. Chancer was freeing Iyal’s mind, calming him down and giving him stability. Chancer could even stop Iyal’s tantrums and night terrors before they began. He could sense the stress from rooms away, and would run to his side to keep him calm. The Winokur family could finally sleep at night. 

You can’t question the obvious strength of this connection between Chancer and Iyal. Although service dogs are trained to follow commands, to answer the phone or to bark for help, it is ultimately the psychological connection with a dog that is most beneficial for disabled people. Without Chancer, the Winokur family might never have heard Iyal utter a complete sentence. 

Chancer first met the Winokur’s in a group setting at 4 Paws for Ability. After being with the Winokur family for only one day, Chancer saw Iyal swimming in a hot tub from across a hotel yard. He broke free from Mr. Winokur, launched across the pool area, and dove into the hot tub—swimming straight towards Iyal. He was rescuing him.

Global Animals could learn a lot from Chancer. If we could live our lives with the devotion and care he continues to give to Iyal, if we could take the time to connect with animals in a way that frees our minds from stress and frustration, the world would be a much better place. 

Watch the video about 4 Paws and their incredible service dogs here.  

Read Melissa Faye Greene’s beautiful NY Times article here: