Susannah Charleson, author of Scent of the Missing, has done it again: Given us a page turner that is exquisitely written, and rich with both emotion and information related to working dogs. However, this time the dogs aren’t search and rescue dogs; although in some ways you could suggest that’s exactly what they do. The Possibility Dogs, just released a few days ago, directly relates to last week’s post about Psychiatric Service Dogs, because that’s what it is about: dogs who help people function, and in some cases, heal. Some of these dogs seem able to search out people in need as if following a scent trail, and “rescue” them by their insightful awareness of what a damaged person needs.
As in Scent of the Missing, The Possibility Dogs entwines incidents from her own life, insights into the struggles and triumphs of others suffering from a range of traumatic experiences, and stories about her own dogs. Starring roles go to a deaf, blind dog named Ollie that Susannah flew across the country to rescue, and a charming, young looker named Jake Piper, a dog who showed up on her doorstep when she was still raw from the loss of two of her beloved dogs. She was in no condition to take on a half-dead, needy pup, but of course, you know the rest of the story. Here is what she writes while at the vet clinic, leaving him there with only a small chance of making it:
“Almost literally fading before my eyes, the puppy is now too weak to sit up. I kneel down beside the metal table, and he lays his head on my open hand. He is ugly from neglect, patchy fur stretched taut over visible bones, but he is beautiful, nonetheless, all dark eyes and wonky crashed-kite ears.”
“Wonky crashed-kite ears?” This woman can turn a phrase.
Susannah, after years in Search and Rescue, knows as well as any that many wonderful dogs are not suited for work as a service animal. However, her book is a testament that the right genetics and the right environment and training can create a dog who does wonders with the right match. The genetics might be planned, as dogs bred for CCI work, or they might be a random set of chromosomes nestled inside a furry package abandoned in a shelter. What’s important is a dog who truly and deeply cares about people, and a handler who truly and deeply understands the responsibility they have for caring for an individual of another species.
Susannah and I talked recently during a short break in her busy book tour schedule; I thought you would enjoy hearing some of our conversation.
Trisha: I’ve done some book interviews myself, and sometimes I never get to talk about what I think is most important about the book. What would you like to tell us about your new book?
Susannah: Perhaps that the book addresses two sets of needs: dogs who need rescuing, and people who need a dog to help them function and, in some cases, heal. The book emphasizes that there are rescued dogs who can do this work and can do it brilliantly, but that choosing them has to be thoughtful, meticulous and just. In addition, the humans who take on these partnerships have the challenge of addressing their own conditions honestly and specifically, while training and working with a dog while respecting the dog’s needs at the same time. They need to be asking “What am I doing for the dog today?” When successful, I’d argue that part of the healing comes from the person taking that wider point of view, looking at the two of them as a team, always thinking ‘This is what we do to address me, and this is what I will give back to the dog in return.”
Trisha: Applied animal behaviorist and primatologist James Ha, wrote recently suggesting that shelter dogs aren’t good prospects for service dogs. However, your organization, Possibility Dogs, has many examples of rescued dogs being good therapy or service dogs. Any thoughts on that issue?
Susannah: Because Possiblity Dogs (the organization, not the book) works with a variety of dogs, from Assisted Animal Activities to Emotional Support Dogs to Service Dogs, our net is a wide one. I find a lot of hope in shelters, perhaps for one thing because the social network is now so good at getting the word out about dogs quickly. Of course, not all dogs are cut out for the work. One hears that 1/30 dogs might make it as a good service dog, although I’ve also heard 1/1,000. At Possibility Dogs, we have a strong focus on creating partnerships between rescue dogs and people in need, but the needs vary greatly. One dog might be a fabulous therapy dog, but not a service dog because she is party animal who loves everyone and isn’t able to narrow her focus. Some dogs with disabilities themselves can become calm, serene companions to someone with anxieties, although they don’t have to have physical capability to be a service dog. [Note from T: One of Susannah's dogs, and a star in the book, is Ollie, a deaf and blind cartoon of a dog with ridiculous ears, who makes miracles happen around anxious children.]
Trisha: What exactly does Possibility Dogs do?
Susannah: It is a 501.c3 “niche” organization that supports service partnerships of all kinds, particularly those requiring mobility and psychiatric service dogs. They support these partnership at any stage of the game, which is relatively unique in the field. For example, perhaps someone has had a service dog for 4 years and are now recovered enough to try flying for the first time since their illness. Possibility Dogs will help them understand TSA regulations, negotiate the airport, and use best practices at the gate area. They support the partnership for life, which other organizations that raise and place dogs often can’t. Not long ago a veteran with both psychiatric and physical conditions contacted us. His physical problems were serious, and he was most frightened about what would happen to his service dog when he died. Possibility Dogs is working with him to assure a good home for his dog, so that he can enjoy the remaining time they have together.
Trisha: You begin the book talking about your own experience with trauma, and being diagnosed with PTSD and what is called “critical incident stress.” I’m writing a memoir right now that includes some of my own difficult life experiences and their effect on my life. I find it both painful and liberating to write about them. How was it for you to write about your own trauma and recovery?
Susannah: It was excruciating–writing it down was like reliving it, and I had nightmares while doing it. BUT it was probably beneficial and hugely necessary for my work now with people in need of PSDs. One of the things critical to working with one’s own service dog is taking ownership of your condition. You can’t hide from yourself. I was one of those emergency responders who was ruled by (and in some respects probably still am), “it hurt, get over it, move on.” However, facing the truth of one’s condition is paramount to being a good partner in a service dog team, and so, to a degree, having to write about it made me a better collaborator.
Trisha: I’ve done my share of book tours, and they can be exhausting. I can’t imagine doing it with a dog. What is the hardest part of being on book tour with Jake Piper?
Susannah: No grass in New York City! My dogs are trained not to go on concrete but you can walk for miles in some cities and never find grass! I learned this the hard way on book tour with Scent of the Missing when I took Puzzle on tour. I had an early morning talk show, and had to get up at 3 AM to have time to walk her a million miles to grass, then walk back to the hotel, bathe and blow dry her! I learned my lesson, and on this tour I asked to be in hotel no more than 4-5 blocks from grass. So now I’m close to Central Park, but when we got there after 8 hours of travel, the heavens opened and it rained buckets. Just what you want right before making a public appearance! Traveling with a dog has made me appreciate how carefully people with service dogs have to pre-plan their trips, and constantly be an advocate for their dog.
Thanks to Susannah for taking the time to talk. I hope you enjoy the book. Here’s a schedule of her tour, just in case you are in the right city at the right time.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: The good news: I get to eat the Lobster Pasta In Cream Sauce tonight at my favorite, local restaurant. That is because of the bad news: Willie injured his Iliopsoas muscle and is back on leash. That’s a hard place to return to after 14 months of that a few years ago. I am relieved it’s not his cruciate, but don’t know if recovery is weeks or months. I’ll know a lot more next week once we get into UW PT. I also have a DVM, Chinese Medicine/Acupuncturist coming out, so cross your paws. He is already on some adjunctive, “alternate” supplements, perhaps those will help too. Because of his injury, I’ve been herding the sheep myself the last two mornings–thus the justification for pasta with cream sauce. Yesterday they were easy to move, I suspect they assumed Willie was somewhere in the wings. Today they had figured it out, and I regret only the slightest bit that you can’t watch a video of me working my tail off while herding them into their designated grazing area this morning. Let’s just say the Lady Godiva, bless her gorgeous little lambs, turns out to be the smartest of the bunch, and is faster than I am. But not smarter.
Nellie the barn cat has taken to walking up the hill with us everyday to pasture the flock. Perhaps I can teach her to herd? However she has avoided being in with the sheep around the barn ever since she arrived, but lately that seems to be changing. The cats love being in the barn when I am there, and always run over if they see me walking toward it. Polly sleeps on the hay bales often during the day, so it’s common for Nellie, Willie and I to enter the barn and wake up a sleepy Polly, who does everything but rub her eyes with her paws.
Recently Nellie has begun spending time in the pen with the sheep. The lambs are very curious, and follow her around, sniffing her whenever possible. Katie and I just happened to be taking photos of the bottle lambs feeding when Katie got these shots of two of the lambs investigating Nellie.
And here’s Poor Ralphie (that’s practically become his official name, “Poor Ralphie,”) who was rejected at birth by his mother, and is 100% imprinted onto me. The flock has just left the barn and gone up the hill to graze. Ralphie often ignores all the rest of the sheep, stands by me as if to say “And what are WE going to do today?” In this photo I am taking Ralphie up the hill, where he will eventually leave me and begin to graze beside his brother and sister. Once he’s busy grazing, I can slip down the hill and move on to other things. As bucolic as all this looks, you never know when things will get dramatic. I almost lost Ralphie on Wednesday; the sheep were let loose to graze areas where they usually don’t go (because of Willie’s injury), and Ralphie must have eaten something that none of the others did. Lambs pay careful attention to what their mother’s eat, and Ralphie has no role model, so who knows what he ate or how much of it. I walked to the barn to give the bottle lambs their second feeding, and Ralphie was bloated up like a Mylar balloon and frothing at the mouth. Those are the symptoms of bloat, and it doesn’t take long for them to die of it. (One website says the “symptoms of bloat are dead sheep.”) I literally ran to the house to get bloat medicine (which breaks up the bubbles of gas that can suffocate the victim) and poured it down Ralphie’s mouth. Whew. In 20 minutes he was ready to drink his milk. Whew again. Poor Ralphie.