Georgia author explores unconditional love between kids, service dogs

When best-selling Georgia author Melissa Fay Greene sat down for coffee with Donnie Winokur, the Roswell mother of an adopted child with fetal alcohol syndrome, Greene had no idea she was about to take a journey into the complex world of families who have children with disabilities.

"(Donnie Winokur) contacted me and said that she would like some advice on getting published. Well, I usually handle that type of thing with a phone call, but I clicked on her website and read what she had been through," Greene said.

Greene, who was born in Macon and now lives in Atlanta, learned that the Winokur family had adopted two children from Russia in the 1990s, and their son turned out to have intellectual disabilities as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome.

"Their son had a lot of emotional, cognitive challenges, and this was a family in crisis, in disarray, in panic," Greene said. "This was nothing (like) what they thought parenting would be. They couldn't really enjoy family life, and so the mom, Donnie, got online and was looking for any kind of solution.

"She was just desperate," Greene said. "There's not much out there for FAS, but she learned about this service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, in Ohio that was actually training for autism assistance.

"I thought, this family has been through hell, I can at least meet her for coffee," Greene said.

Greene met Winokur and service dog Chancer at a Starbucks. Winokur began by asking Greene for tips, but the author decided she would like to tell the Winokurs' story. Winokur agreed.

Greene wrote a feature article for the New York Times Magazine.

"It was incredibly interesting to research. The article just focused on this one family, but there were lots of families with so many different issues. It was one of those (times) that you feel, this could be a book," Greene said.

The book proposal was in the mail when the article published.

"The publishers had it on their desk, and they were like, 'Oh my God, yes,' " Greene said, laughing.

And, so, a book was born.

"The Underdogs" shares the stories of families who have children who are isolated because of illness, disability or some kind of calamity, and are deemed unreachable.

"For many of these children, the dogs are the children's first friend — ever. It's their first love," Greene said.

The book explains the process every family must go through to qualify for a service dog.

"The family had to provide hours and hours of videotape," Greene said, so the trainers get a clear picture of the child — what time he wakes up; what time he goes to bed; how he goes to the school; how he goes to the bathroom; pretty much everything.

"The dogs get 500 hours of training. The last 100 hours are for an individual child [and focus on] the way the child smells, the way the child acts ... , so that the dogs are prepared," Greene said.

"So (the Winokurs) got a dog, and they brought home this golden retriever named Chancer, and their lives started to turn around amazing quickly," Greene said.

Chancer had been taught to respond to the boy's outbursts by snuggling in close and licking him. The boy would open his arms to the dog, and the outbursts — which would sometimes last for hours — would end.

Greene warned that families shouldn't fall for "the Lassie myth," which she said is "the notion that a brilliant dog is going to gallop into their lives and make everything straight."

But that often happens, she said. "The experts, now, are sort of looking back at Lassie and thinking that maybe that could have happened."

Greene also warned that not all service dog training academies are equal. "It's not a regulated industry. People really have to do research," she said.

In April, for example, a Henry County family was accused of running an unlicensed service dog business out of their home.

"The Underdogs" is available on a number of websites, including