A Dog's Devotion Brings Healing

A Dog's Devotion Brings Healing

A mother's prayers for an angelic friend to help her special-needs son are answered.

Donnie's son Iyal and his dog, Chancer

Dogs. That was the smell permeating the classroom at the 4 Paws for Ability service-dog facility. I took a deep breath, wanting to take it all in.

We’d driven 500 miles from our suburban Atlanta home to this former VFW hall in Ohio to pick up the dog the trainers here had spent the better part of a year readying for us. More specifically, for my 10-year-old adopted son, Iyal, who has fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), leaving him with a constellation of developmental disabilities.

My husband, Harvey, and I loved Iyal as if he were our own flesh and blood. Possibly more. Yet that love seemed powerless to stem his extreme impulsivity, his lack of a sense of consequences, his irrational thinking and explosive rages.

He was besieged with night terrors. He couldn’t communicate beyond the level of a preschooler or explain what he was feeling, his grammar rudimentary at best. He struggled to connect with others, even those who loved him.

Yet I saw how desperately he wanted friends. I ached for him. I’d tried everything to reach Iyal, offer him some understanding of the world outside himself. Daily, the strain tore at our family, unraveling the safety net we tried to weave around him.

This was my last resort. I drew the doggy odor into my lungs. Hope, I tried to tell myself, it smells like hope.

I crouched by our dog’s crate, flanked by Iyal and my daughter, Morasha, two days younger, both adopted from Russia when they were 14 months old. An enormous golden retriever peered out at us, with an expectant smile.

“Hey, Chancer,” I whispered. He looked happy, friendly, eager to please. But could even the most perceptive dog understand Iyal’s anguish? What if Iyal hit Chancer when he was upset? Even for 4 Paws this was new territory, Iyal their first client living with fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Okay, let’s meet your dogs,” the head trainer, Jeremy Dulebohn, announced to the class, all families whose children had special needs. We’d come for 10 days of training, required before we could take our dogs home.

I slipped the crate latch. Chancer bounded out, tail wagging exuberantly. Morasha got down on his level. “He’s beautiful,” she said. I stroked his head and he licked my hand. “Good boy,” I offered. Iyal patted Chancer’s side, then wandered out of the classroom.

“Iyal! Come back,” I called. He didn’t even turn his head.

“I’ll get him,” my dad said. “Focus on Chancer.” 4 Paws required two adults to attend the training, and I needed someone to help watch Iyal. My dad and cousin had flown in.

Harvey wanted to come, but as the founding rabbi of a smaller synagogue, he felt his extended absence would be a hardship on the staff.

“Dogs don’t judge,” Jeremy said. “They don’t see a person with disabilities. They see someone who can give them love. They think, ‘What can I do to get a treat?’ Right now it seems overwhelming, but once you learn the basic commands, you’ll be able to relax and let your dogs do the work. Remember, we’ve done ninety percent of the training for you.”

Since receiving Iyal’s FAS diagnosis in 2002, I’d tried various therapies and medications for him, structured his days, changed his diet and reframed my thinking. After five years of little progress I wasn’t looking for miracles anymore. A good night’s sleep would be a gift.

But for Chancer to bond with Iyal, to think of him as his boy, wouldn’t they actually have to spend time together? “Stand in front of your dogs,” Jeremy instructed. “Using their name, tell them to sit.”

“Sit, Chancer,” I said. He settled on his haunches inside a circle on the floor, eagerly watching my hand. “Good dog!” I held out a treat. Chancer inhaled it.

“Let’s do it again,” Jeremy said. “Dogs respond to one of three things—food, toys or praise. They learn through repetition and positive reinforcement.”

Chancer liked food. That was clear. And repetition? I knew what that meant, all too well. Iyal had trouble remembering instructions from one day to the next. Don’t squeeze the cat. Don’t go out of the house. Don’t crowd your sister.

No matter how I repeated myself, I couldn’t seem to make the world understandable to him or convey that there were basic rules. In truth, it was equally hard for us to understand what was swirling through his mind. The slightest change in routine or simply telling him no could spark an uncontrollable outburst.

Yet Harvey and I were certain Iyal and Morasha were meant to be in our lives. We’d struggled with infertility and were in our forties when we saw them on a referral video from a Russian orphanage. It was divinely ordained destiny. Beshert, in Hebrew. God’s will.

Our first two years as a family were a time of joy. Then shortly after the kids’ third birthday we noticed disturbing changes in Iyal. He couldn’t fall asleep or stay asleep. He became agitated at the smallest things. He threw a chair at a classmate in preschool.

“It’s just a stage,” friends at temple said. But we knew something was very wrong.

Pediatricians and child psychiatrists couldn’t agree on a diagnosis. Finally a developmental pediatrician noted Iyal’s small head, the thin upper lip and lack of crease between his mouth and nose, the wider space between his eyes.

“Your son has fetal alcohol syndrome, the most severe expression of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” he told us. “When a mother drinks during pregnancy it can cause irreversible developmental and neurological damage. While largely invisible to others, the behavioral effects will become more challenging as he gets older. This is a lifelong birth defect.”

It’s common for kids from overseas orphanages to have developmental issues, but irreversible brain damage? I was devastated, engulfed by grief.

Spurred on by my maternal instinct and a need to do something, I devoted myself to Iyal’s care, shedding activities from my former life. I consumed research on FAS D, spent hours online with other moms whose kids had experienced prenatal alcohol exposure.

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