“The Possibility Dogs,” by Susannah Charleson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.
What would you expect from a flight instructor, service-dog trainer and a canine search-and-rescue team member? Oh, and an author, too!
For starters, plenty of action, persistence and challenge. She delivers on all counts in this crisp, personal narrative of service/shelter dogs and how these partnerships blossom into a win-win proposition for all – a life saver for dogs facing euthanasia and a confidence builder for their needy owners.
Charleson takes the reader through the rescue process, followed by a work in progress (Jake Piper, a pit bull, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever she rescues as a starving puppy) aimed at training him to be her psychiatric service dog as well as a co-teacher with which she could help others train their own dogs for service.
Jake Piper – named Piper “because his ears look like the gull-winged version of that airplane, and Jake because it’s strong” – comes with plenty of medical challenges that prompt days of hospitalization, massive antibiotics and IV fluids with no guarantee he will survive.
The process starts with pound evaluations, since the focus here is to save shelter dogs’ lives while uncovering those with the potential to become psychiatric service partners. “Evaluation of dogs,” emphasizes Charleson, “for any reason is not an absolute science,” but she notes an assortment of responses and stimuli that factor into the equation of determining each animal’s propensity for service-dog demands.
While Jake Piper is the center of attention, Charleson owns a household of others, including search-and-rescue trained Puzzle, a Golden Retriever featured in her earlier best-seller, “Scent of the Missing,” and a passel of rescued Pomeranians and terriers.
Charleson segues to an assortment of psychological service-dog vignettes throughout the volume, but her vibrant, detailed portrait of a 15-year-old blind, arthritic, deaf neutered terrier mix named Todo in a Huntington Beach, Calif., shelter whose time is almost up after two months, is the most gripping.
Todo is a social-media personality that owes his life to Twittersphere. “Pleas can be disturbing . . . I’ve been involved in rescue through the internet for more than 16 years,” says Charleson,” but I still haven’t been able to harden myself to them, and on days when I am already overwhelmed with the saving – or the failed saving – of one dog, to face the unending stream of pleas on the social news feed every time I log on is almost more than I can bear. For every dog saved, so many are lost. Social media brings hope and breaks hearts with every post. The urgents are always with us. Compassion fatigue is real.”
Todo is one of those that links Charleson in Texas with others in Toronto and California, eventually freeing Todo (later renamed Ollie) to a new life with Charleson and her pack. The psychological mosaic between all of these rescues figures prominently in this montage of commitment.
“The Possibility Dogs” is both sensitive and intuitive, accented with lovingly goofy and soberly reflective lessons throughout an emotional but empowering bumpy ride.