Friday, September 6, 2013

Susannah Charleson writes about Possibility Dogs

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??


  1. What a special gift to be able to find these dogs and train them to help others who are hurting and in so much need. Susannah, I am in awe of your accomplishments. The bond between dogs and people is truly an amazing thing . . . .

  2. As I was posting the book cover, I wanted to know about the charming dog on the cover. And his turquoise vest signifying...?? Susannah?

  3. Wow, sounds like you've written another amazing book. Congrats Susannah!

    My current dog, Tonka the Aussie, is very very tuned into me. so I'm sure he notices lots of little tics and changes in mood--if the right trainer had him, he's smart enough to learn:).

    What do notice in a dog that pops out at you when you're looking at them in a shelter?

  4. Wonderful column. I had a dog that I believe would have been a wonderful service dog. She was attuned to my every move, and she was loyal and devoted. She nearly died from a massive infection and went on to lose a leg to cancer. Throughout her ordeal, she never lost her cheerful demeanor. I salute you for doing so much to help people and dogs! Molly Campbell

  5. The dog on the cover is Jake Piper, and he *is* a charmer -- a stray brought to my front door as a dying puppy. Jake is a pit bull/Lab/German Shepherd / Standard Poodle (!!!) cross, a "G.S. Pitbullteroodle," I call him. He was the first homeless dog I identified as a strong service candidate and the first dog I trained to do that kind of work. Eager, intelligent, confident Jake Piper showed me what dogs can offer if given a chance.

    While he is the dog I try out training techniques for new service tasks on (I use him to figure out what works best, what less so), he is also my service partner. A search-related injury has led to my own right side numbness/weakness, and there are some days when I cannot feel my right foot when I step down on it, and down I go. (Hallie, you may remember that fall I had in Boston a few years back that led to the bad ankle sprain; that was the first time the numbness really showed how bad it was, getting up from a restaurant table on Boylston).

    On the worst days, Jake Piper wears a full mobility harness and helps me balance and get footing when rising from a sit and up stairs. That's where I have the worst problems, and his kindly support was easily given. He understood pretty quickly what was needed and trained easily to that. The turquoise vest he's wearing on the cover of the book is his organization vest. Possibility Dogs, Inc.® is the nonprofit service dog organization that emerged from the writing of the book, and he was the first rescued dog to earn its credentials.
    When meeting shelter and rescued dogs, the first things I look for are:
    1) friendly eye contact coupled with
    2) an equally friendly wag (there are unfriendly wags, so you have to learn the difference!)
    3) eagerness to engage when hearing the human voice
    4) interest in learning a small task, like sit or stay or touch or pick up something on cue
    5) friendliness to humans of all shapes and sizes
    6) friendliness with other dogs and cats

    If those early criteria are met, it's a great first step toward more formal evaluation. The beautiful thing is, some dogs who aren't necessarily task driven may make the most wonderful emotional-support dogs for the chronically ill/homebound or terrific comfort dogs in the community. So there's a lot of opportunity for some very sweet, deserving dog souls.

    Thank you all so much for hosting me here!

  6. By the way, Molly-- that "attuned to every move" is right on with regard to service aptitude.Some dogs just naturally bring it; sounds like your sweet girl was one of those.

    Roberta, I remember some of your stories about Tonka. Aussies have a lot if gifts for this, bless 'em!

  7. There's lots more about the nonprofit Possibility Dogs, Inc.® and how you can help at

  8. SO fascinating...thank you Susannah!

    The Thousandth Shock --is that a good title?

  9. I have a couple of dogs who meet that description of the good candidate. One's a border collie, and one's a border collie mix. I'd like to train one or both of them for some kind of community work, but have no idea how to start. Any suggestions?

  10. Great question, Gigi - I was wondering the same thing.

  11. Best way is to connect with a local Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society) or Therapy Dogs International group. Google one of the above + your area, and up local groups should come. Both groups offer training and testing: the obedience standard is almost as rigorous for comfort dogs in the community as it is for service dogs, but groups help potential teams train to that standard for testing, which typically must be done every two years. There are also smaller, local teams that Google would bring up. (Try just "therapy dogs"+ your area.) The large organizations offer liability insurance for qualifying teams, which is important. Even a dog that simply gets up at the wrong time and causes someone to fall can bring on a lawsuit, so insurability is key. Hence, the high obedience standard and re-test requirements, too.

  12. A lot of towns have classes for canine good citizen training. Tonka and I went for a while, but we washed out because a big German shepherd had it in for him:). And he was just too antsy...

    So sorry to hear about your condition S, but Jake is there to support you!

  13. This is so wonderful. We need to realize more that humans are only one small part of creation - and not as gifted as many of the others... Thelma in manhattan

  14. Hank, I think "The Thousandth Shock" is a great title, as long as you're not writing about shady home contractors. Well, maybe even if you are. :D

    So now I'm going to post this and "prove I'm not a robot," which always makes me think of Sean Young in Blade Runner or Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica.

  15. I have Power Paws Kendall. U..U He went with me to physical therapy today and braced my legs, so I could do a new exercise.

    Written with the help of my service dog Kendall
    And iMac Dictation

  16. Susannah, I'm so sorry I missed this post today. I was very busy with Kendall and would much have enjoyed taking a little more part in this conversation.

    I got Kendall from Power Paws of Arizona in Scottsdale. He was trained for almost 2 years before I was able to attend Power Paws Boot Camp. There were twice as many dogs as candidates. We practiced with each of them for one week before we were paired as teams. It was very rigorous but very worth it.

    Kendall accompanies me everywhere he knows over 100 commands. My dentist loves him so much she brings him homemade treats. He has been a lifesaver for me. Truly.

  17. What a fascinating topic and discussion. As someone who has a TBI (the result of several concussions) and PTSD, I've followed the stories about the use of therapy animals. Did you know cats are also used in this capacity? Fortunately for me, I was already owned by the most loving kitty in existence, Willy Nilly, a rescued tuxedo boy who was so sweet he actually smelled like honey. Willy seemed to have a sixth sense, and always understood when I was in trouble. He'd allow me to hold him on his back, cuddle and rock him like a baby, while he purrrrred and blinked like crazy. I'd talk to him, huff his sweet aroma, walk around the house with him in my arms and do my best to slow my breathing down. That worked almost every time to bring me out of my bad place.

    We had to have Willy put down in 2005, but since then have had Dashiell, Spenser, Maren, Mick and Keith. Dash, Maren and Keith are all very much like Willy, and provide me with more comfort and stability than I can possibly say. We're big supporters of therapy animal programs, and deeply appreciate the folks who do the work of developing and training the amazing critters who change so many lives for the better.

  18. Reine, Lynda, love your stories - thanks for sharing.