HALLIE EPHRON: Susannah Charleson visited us before with Puzzle, her golden retriever. She wrote the best selling "Scent of the Missing" about becoming a dog-human search and rescue team. When she toured the book, Puzzle toured, too.
With her new book, "The Possibility Dogs," she shifts from search and rescue to psychiatric service dogs. The book is gritty, funny, and poignant. She write about "unadoptable" dogs she's adopted who perform miracles for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, acute panic attacks, or obsessive-compulsive disorder -- and how one of them helped her.
I am so happy to welcome Susannah back! Susannah, your book is about matching dogs who need rescuing with people who who are desperate for help. Gorgeous symmetry! Can you give us some insight into how that works?
SUSANNAH CHARLESON: This work is all about finding homeless dogs with talent for service, then training the dogs to serve their human partners in life-changing ways. It summarizes so simply, but it is tricky stuff.
I spend a lot of time walking shelters and pet adoption fairs. That can be tough, loving dogs as I do. There are a lot of sweet, sweet dogs out there in rescue that might make the greatest companion dogs in the world (and there are matches we can help make for those dogs, too), but the dogs with drive, eagerness to learn, universal friendliness, and confidence--the true service dog candidates--are harder to find.
We are looking for the dogs who prefer human interaction to almost everything else, are hungry to learn, and have a drive to do a job because they enjoy the mental stimulation. Those dogs are out there, but the evaluation has to be extremely thoughtful.
The amazing thing about working with dogs that serve the human mind--the so-called "psych service" or "mental health assistance" dogs--is that there is no one prototype dog that is perfect for the job. Even the same diagnosed condition can present in two people in very different ways, and where one person might need a 75-pound Labrador retriever/German shepherd mix to help stabilize the symptoms of a panic attack, another person might be better served by a smaller, shaggy, poodle-terrier cross that can sit on the lap and put its paws directly on the partner's chest.
HALLIE: Was there a first dog that showed you the way?
SUSANNAH: There was Haska, an Aussie shepherd mix that I met with her firefighter partner in Baltimore in 2007.
Haska was one of those sweet shelter dogs I described above, who connected immediately when she met Bob, who was at that time simply looking for a companion dog to ease his own transition back to life. Bob had survived a building collapse that killed everyone beside him. He could have easily died, himself, and like many first responders who survive beside colleagues who perish, he emerged from that with both physical disabilities and post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the time that I met him, he said he was always, in some way, still fleeing the wall that came down on them, and he found himself reliving it over and over again, wondering if there was some something he could have done, should have done differently that would have saved them all. Sometimes memory would overcome him where he stood, and at such times he might become disoriented, crumpling where he stood or freezing in the middle of a street.
His psychiatrist had recommended the assistance of a service dog, and he was fortunate--extremely fortunate--that Haska, his own dog, was the kind of smart, trainable dog that could learn specific tasks to help him. At the time we met, Haska had been trained to recognize the symptoms of his panic and flashback episodes and could lead him to seating, block him from stepping out into a street or nudge him out of a street at such times, alert family for help in the house, and so on. When we met, I watched her watching and listening to him; she had a lovely diligence.
HALLIE: Tell us about your own experience with trauma, and what you learned from it. It must have been excruciating to write about and, in the process, relive.
SUSANNAH: Well, I had certainly been trained to recognize symptoms of Critical Incident Stress and PTSD as a K9 search-and-rescue handler, but I was not prepared to recognize those symptoms in myself. Denial, you read, is one of the symptoms, too.
Emergency responders gear themselves up for what's coming, every single time, but sometimes it's the unexpected that gets to us. I think of the phrase from Hamlet's soliloquy: "The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to."
That's emergency response, the thousand natural shocks. We're prepared for 999 of them, and it's the thousandth one that can leave a mark.
Among the situations that can trigger PTSD in emergency personnel is a situation called "failure to save" -- and that seems to be a situation I'm particularly vulnerable to. Something I found in the woods in 2003 and a terrible choice I had to make at the same search shortly afterward lay dormant for nine months, then erupted in troubling symptoms.
I felt a terrible need to protect my dogs and developed a compulsion about checking that the door was locked every time I left the house. And I don't just mean checking it once--sometimes ten, fifteen, twenty times before I could actually leave.
I was lucky that when the condition was at its worst, I was training my search-and-rescue dog, Puzzle, who at the time was just a puppy with a puppy's impatience and lack of obedience, and it was actually her frustration with my door-checking before we headed out on our walks that helped me get free of it.
I recognized that to train her, I had to let my own stuff go. It wasn't easy, but she helped me make myself do it (she actually howled her impatience), and in time the symptoms disappeared entirely. Puzzle in her way also led me to the concept of psychiatric service dogs. I could believe that dogs could be trained to intervene in anxiety disorders because I had experienced help from a canine partner completely by chance.
Writing about the working through disorder wasn't too terrible, but writing about the events themselves--reliving that search, brought some nightmares. What I do find is that writing about it sort of puts paid to denial. Now that it's part of the dialogue I have with readers, I can talk about it much more easily.
HALLIE: Thanks, Susannah!
This leaves me wondering if any of our readers have had a dog that could have been trained for psychiatric service? How did you know??