by: Father, Damir and

Mother, Renata Fridrih

A PUBLICATION of buyhavanese.com



Renata Friedrich is a Professor in Special Education in Croatia, with a specialty in Speech Therapy.

Renata is the Project Manager of The Novelties in Teaching Project: The Role of the Trained Dog in the Classroom in Croatia, also found on buyhavanese.com.


We had communicated many times before but I had never known Renata's personal story about the life she had built at home with her husband Damir, and their small boy, Leo until I received the following email and we started talking about more personal things.  


Dear Barbara,

I have sent you photos of the Havanese in Schools Project.


Here is my home update: 

Evie, Heidi, Nia and Seviliana, his Therapy Havanese, simultaneously push together to help Leo and it's cheerful team. 


Leo will not go to school and he has only rehabilitation at home. It is only in our county that children like Leo do not go to school.


Still, he has his puppies to help him every day. Evie is the alarm dog. Nia is his emotional support after pain. Sevi lets him sleep and Heidi helps with his attacks. They are the best tools to help him with his problems.


Thank you for your understanding. A big hug from Leo and wuffs from all of the puppies. 


I began to understand that it was Renata's story of a mother's love for her child that had been the catalyst for so many other things in her life including her career - and it occurred to me that Leo’s Story must be told. Renata agreed so....




This is Leo's Story of a Little Boy with half a heart…a mother and father who have hearts big enough for all of them…and his special Therapy Helpers.


The Beginning

All stories, begin with no end in sight but they always start with many hopes for the future and challenges that come along the way. In life, we usually cannot choose what will happen with our children. However, regardless of what comes, Mothers choose with their hearts.


Our story is one of many trials, but still there has always been a lot of laughter. There has been less tears and more joy. And there has been less grief and more hope.  And certainly there has been no hopelessness, even though on some days we might have hoped to erase some of our pain.


This is our story about Leo ... Leo, our child. It is a story about a small boy with only half of a brave little heart. It is not a familiar story that you will hear every day because few speak out and tell similar stories to ours. This story is particularly unique because our brave little boy not only has half of a brave heart; he was also born with Down Syndrome.  When a child has both of these disabilities, the story takes on a whole other dimension.


Why us? Why him? I do not know. I thought from the beginning of our story that this would be the end of our life….and that was that. But today I know, from experience, that others with similar stories to ours have had a happy ending.


And so it all began…


The truth is that parents of "special children" are, nevertheless, surrounded with a lot of love and, I would add, happy kids with colorful childhoods in the town of Sisak, Croatia. The many restrictions placed on education for Special Needs Children in Croatia have always encouraged us to search out new ways of doing things and a need to facilitate dealing with problems that arise because of barriers that exist in order to improved Leo’s health status. 


The Catalyst that Changed Leo's Life

A critical change happened for me, as Mother, when I headed to Stuttgart, Germany to a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation course that would help to determine what the real possibilities were for Leo and what the best ways for helping him to acquire new skills and knowledge in the field of learning might be. I was introduced to diagnostic evaluation,  4D EEG, which is a test that has not yet found a place in our region. In Germany, however, it is a standard that helps to develop programming on a solid foundation right from the beginning, and deserves special credit in the field of psychology, neurology and speech pathology for children like Leo who have Downs Syndrome. The somewhat unusual 4D EEG search with multisensory stimulation results for Leo showed that the best medium for teaching him was through the use of dogs because, previously, Leo's experiences and talk had all been about a puppy Maltese called Aby. This, then, was the strongest argument for introducing Therapy Dogs to Leo as the best medium through which his learning could be accomplished. 

It was a completely new approach to the challenges my husband and I faced daily in trying to educate Leo, our half-a-heart boy that we loved with all of our hearts, but it was scientifically confirmed. And I was thrilled. Through this program, the story of the love people and dogs have for each other in learning to live, laugh and learn together was confirmed. 

After returning to Croatia, we began to search for inclusion in the program for Award Therapy Dogs, but it was in vain. There were opportunities, and with time it was possible, but we did not have time. Time is very valuable when teaching a Special Needs child like our Leo.  There was no room to grieve or abandon our hope.  We simply had to move forward.


We sat down and had a parent – child interview with Leo. I told him what was happening, and that we had started to put more heart into painting some new horizons for him, and looking for ways that would be new and positive. That new start would be with Therapy Dogs.

Leo chose the breed Bichon Havanese, and then he chose our first puppy from 

photographs and immediately gave her the name, Eva. Why not? Why not let it be Eva? 


I researched the breed Bichon Havanese and they had the important characteristics we needed. They did not shed and they did not cause an allergy to dog hair for Leo. As well, the Scandinavian countries had many Havanese therapy dogs. So we sent out a search for a puppy that was appropriate for our “special boy" who is full of love and tenderness.

But even the farmers did not know of such a special dog so there were no responses to our inquiries. We made calls to Germany, Italy, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia and even within our own Croatia. Finally, in 2012 we managed, with the help of registered breeders from Bosnia and Herzegovina, to bring home a four legged and playful sweet Havanese, our beloved Evie, into our lives. 

From the moment of first arrival, it was love at first sight. 

Evie knew why she had come. 

Immediately she went to Leo and gently greeted him with a kiss and a rub on each leg.  She slept on the bed with him and we recognized, when she gave barking signs, if something had happened to change his health (fever, spasms in the legs, vomiting ...).

Evie has enriched our lives and his life and life was good for us. Occasionally we included Evie in contact with other children who had difficulty speaking through speech therapy organized by DND Sisak, and the reaction of the children was so very positive. Evie became the biggest motivation for children to learn better, to feel more comfortable, always with a smile and a lot of affection for the dog.

And so in the role of the Mother of Leo, I learned that the most difficult routes in the life can be award winning when the joy of sharing with everyone became the end result.


Moving Evie into Schools to Help Others


So, in association with the Association of Our Children of Sisak, I made the decision to share Leo’s dog, Evie, with others by applying best practices in running a program that was different from all that had so far been implemented. The emphasis of this program was on the socially vulnerable groups of children. With all of the personal experiences I had had and all that I had studied from the methods of work that began with Sigmud Freud which took a holistic approach to the patient, our new way forward made and it was the best choice.


The first teacher to participate in this program was Kate Friš who is one of the best teachers of the 21st century and who has been working with children for more than 30 years. Kate enabled our dogs to go to Elementary School Galdovo in Sisak. She was the first - a brave teacher who loves challenges. (Kate Friš also has a story on buyhavanese.com in the Dogs for Schools Program in Croatia.)


But in the end...this all goes back to Leo and what a Mother will do for her child.

Life With Our Havanese Therapy Dogs Today


With us today, we now have Evie, Heidi, Nia and Sevi. These four special Havanese are the caregivers of Leo: 


Evie carefully monitors what is going on with Leo’s health - when he is happy and healthy and when he has a fever. She licks and stimulates his feet and the palms of his hands and his arms to reduce spasms and keep him happy. She plays the game of socks with him, taking his socks off amidst laughter and a sense of happiness. Evie knows our half-hearted boy intimately.


Heidi usually requires direct eye contact to become a different Therapy Dog for Leo. She helps him with salivation by touching her snout by his face and stimulating his facial muscles that usually end up with him smiling.


And how about Nia? Nia is the smallest of our Havanese. She knows, deep within her soul, when Leo is in pain, and then she asks to sit in his arms. She turns his attention from the pain and stimulates his palms by sniffing or licking. The pain becomes less and Leo’s play is more cheerful.


Sevi has discovered the most beautiful "music" in Leo's half-heart and the two of them prefer to fall asleep together. Sevi is Leo’s sleep partner.

We also have three puppies who are now being trained to work in the holistic method

Leo as Coach


Our Havanese dogs have found many friends and won many hearts. But their best friend and tiny "coach" is Leo who has aroused in them those primordial sentiments which define the love relationship between man and dog. In our case, for our Havanese, it is love, for all times, for our small brave boy, Leo, that has pushed them past being pets to being Therapy Dogs.

With love that fills his brave heart

from our hearts…

Father, Damir and Mother, Renata Fridrih

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