BOOKS: The Possibility Dogs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013:

The Possibility Dogs   by Susannah Charleson Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (222 Berkeley Street,  Boston, MA 02116),  2013.  260 pages.  $27.00 hardcover,  $9.45 Kindle.

The Possibility Dogs is a sequel to Texas search-and-rescue dog handler Suzannah Charleson’s 2010 hit,  Scent of the Missing:  Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog.  The Possibility Dogs follows a turn in Charleson’s dog-handling career and interests,  after an especially gruesome search-and-rescue job stresses her so much that she struggled afterward with post-traumatic stress disorder.  “Anxiety disorder began for me as a series of small nuisances months later,”  Charleson recounts.  She describes herself as having become “perpetually cranky.”  In hindsight Charleson believes it was “inevitable that I’d become interested in dogs who serve the human mind.”  Thus began her exploration into the use of dogs to help people with psychiatric disabilities,  also called invisible disabilities,  because they are not as readily apparent as blindness or paralysis.  Dogs trained to heal human hurt are more common today than a decade ago.  More is known about outcomes. Organizations have formed to train such dogs,  augmenting self-training,  which has both critics and supporters. The Possibility Dogs introduces the reader to a cast of canines offering emotional support,  many of them rescue cases who might understandably suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome themselves.  For example,  Merlin is believed to have been stuffed into a trash bag with seven littermates and tossed over the side of a bridge in Connecticut.  Found by someone whose own dog sniffed out the still breathing puppy,  Merlin eventually became a psychiatric service dog for a young man in a wheelchair.  As the young man eventually needed Merlin less,  Merlin helped his father,  described as a recluse.  The Possibility Dogs discusses the difficulty of finding and training psychiatric service dogs.  Some psychiatric service dogs come from breeders ,  but hopeful service dog evaluators often visit shelters,  seeking potential candidates,  and often leave with broken hearts,  because many friendly dogs who need a home lack the attributes to become service dogs.  “You have to learn how to grieve and get over it,”  says a service dog evaluator named Paula.  But,  Paula adds, “Any dog can surprise you.  Before you can find many dogs for this work, find one.”  Among Paula’s successes was Jasper, who failed in two homes before succeeding as a psychiatric service dog.   ––Debra J. White

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