Manitoba·First Person

My service dog changed my life, and then the unthinkable happened

"Fanta, my service dog, filled my soul with optimism, happiness and independence. And then the unthinkable happened: My dearest Fanta got sick," writes Alex Lytwyn.

During our final walk together, her energy level was low but she was still wagging her tail at me

A man sits in a motorized wheelchair next to a black dog in a red vest.
Alex Lytwyn says his service dog, Fanta, brought love and care into his world. (Submitted by Alex Lytwyn)

This First Person article is the experience of Alex Lytwyn who lives with cerebral palsy and is an ambassador for Manitoba Possible. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Cerebral palsy makes small tasks turn into enormous challenges. How, for example, can I enter a store when I can't access the automatic door opener from my wheelchair?

This question used to overwhelm me.

On that particular day, a few customers walked by me, but just as I built up enough courage to ask for help, they were gone. 

To complicate matters even further, I was embarrassed and unsure of myself. With a disability that confines me to a power chair, a speech impairment that at times sounds odd even to my ears and hands that (I think) look like lobster claws, speaking up and asking for help is not easy. 

Simple life aspects, such as having to wait for store doors to be opened, felt like I was just floating through the air and nobody saw me. My disability put a shield over me. Watching the world go by was common. 

But not anymore. Four years ago, I applied to get a service guide dog through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides.

If I dropped an object, Fanta was right there to pick it up.- Alex Lytwyn

The process of getting matched with a dog is extensive. A dog's personality has to be the perfect fit for the person's needs. Each dog's particular set of skills can be customized to a certain extent. The trainers do their best to maximize the amount of independence that the dog can provide.

I was matched with a service dog named Fanta. With a wag of her tail, my life was enhanced from that moment on. 

A man sits in a motorized wheelchair. A black dog in a red vest sits in front of him.
Fanta spent four years as Lytwyn's service dog before she got sick. (Submitted by Alex Lytwyn)

If I dropped an object, Fanta was right there to pick it up and place it on my lap. She'd pull the coat sleeves and help me get my arms out. I wasn't stranded outside any type of establishment. Fanta would either open the door or bark for help to get someone's attention. 

This was simply amazing. 

Having cerebral palsy, there are a lot of times when my soul felt lonely. But then, Fanta filled my soul with optimism, happiness and independence.

And then the unthinkable happened.

It's not too often that this can be said, but I experienced a living nightmare. My dearest Fanta got sick. Up until this point, to me, Fanta had been bulletproof. 

Despite countless trips to the vet, Fanta got sicker by the day. She became weak to the point where she could not get up herself. This did not stop her from wanting to help me as best she could. When we would get home from the vet, she would get out of the van and then, with all her energy, she would wait for me to come down my van ramp and then heel beside me as we'd walk into the house together.

With Fanta's memory, I'll build myself back up.- Alex Lytwyn

One day, while lying in her bed beside me, she looked at me with her playful "I want to go for a walk" look. After the intense process of helping her stand up, we slowly walked to the door and went for a walk around the yard.

During that walk, Fanta and I could not take our eyes off each other. It felt like we were reminiscing about all the happy and helpful times over the last four amazing years. Her energy level was extremely low, but she was still smiling and wagging her tail at me. 

Later that night, Fanta got even weaker and went downhill even faster. She put her head on my arm, gave me a kiss, and while we were both looking into each other's soul, Fanta took her last breath. 

Since Fanta's passing my life has been turned upside down and I have been an emotional wreck. Slowly, I know, with Fanta's memory, I'll build myself back up.

In the meantime, Fanta, this message is for you: Your endless love and caring opened my life doors and gave me access to endless possibilities. Thank you for helping me achieve freedom. I'll cherish and miss you forever. Love, Dad.

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Alex Lytwyn

Freelance contributor

Alex Lytwyn is a Manitoba business owner and hockey video co-ordinator who lives with cerebral palsy. He is also an ambassador with Manitoba Possible, which provides programs and services for persons with disabilities in the province.