Susannah Charleson Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Susannah Charleson. Susannah is the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Scent of the Missing. She’s also a service dog trainer and canine search-and-rescue team member. Susannah is actively involved in rescue work with her partner, Puzzle, a golden retriever who is certified for the recovery of missing persons. Susannah recently established the nonprofit organization, The Possibility Dogs, which rescues, trains, and places dogs with people of various disabilities. The Possibility Dogs is also the title of her newest book. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of The Possibility Dogs, simultaneously with the hardcover on June 4, 2013. Welcome Susannah. Thanks for joining us today, and congratulations on the release of The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of ‘Unadoptables’ Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing. What motivated you to write this book?
SUSANNAH CHARLESON: Well, I’ve always been interested in working dogs, and of course I’ve been working a search-and-rescue canine for the better part of nine years. So I’ve always been attuned to what dogs have to tell us. But I was at a conference involved with my search-and-rescue training when by happenstance I met a firefighter from another conference in Baltimore—we met in the same restaurant. He had been the victim of a terrible fire with a wall collapse, resulting in severe physical injuries, traumatic brain injury, and subsequent PTSD. He struggled and struggled trying to reframe a life where he could no longer be a firefighter, and reframe a life really changed by this event. I think it was pretty much a despairing situation for him until he was recommended a psychiatric service dog. The presence of that dog, trained to intervene in the conditions he now had, made all the difference for him. His approach to his own recovery and his faith and trust in a dog that you could see was completely bonded and responsive to him was really an amazing and pivotal moment in my own understanding of that connection with a dog. I knew immediately that I not only wanted to get involved in that kind of work, but I also wanted to write about it.
MH: That moment of serendipity then just triggered this whole series of stories that you relate in the book. Why don’t you share some of them in terms of these special dogs?
SC: There are some funny dogs, and I think the amazing thing about psychiatric service is that there is no single type of dog that does the work. We so associate labs and German shepherds, and occasionally golden retrievers, with service dog work. But in psychiatric service different conditions demand different kinds of needs. In some cases some partners need small dogs, lap-size dogs that can do certain things, and other people need very big, very strong dogs because they may have balance issues as well or they need the tactile sense of a dog that’s got a very good center of gravity. So you never know. You can have anything from a five-pound poodle to a hundred and thirty five-pound Great Pyrenees. So I loved that. I think one of the most interesting dogs out there doing the work is now the companion for a child with a terminal illness. This dog ended up in a shelter three times, through no fault of his own—a series of deaths of his previous owners. He was maybe a day or two before his euthanasia when he was plucked from a shelter. It turned out that this little dog was completely person-oriented. Gave great eye gaze, great eye contact, was very empathic, and he’s funny. When music is on he not only sings to the music, he not only howls, but when he inhales he whistles. So he’s a very musical, funny, clownish little creature, very trainable, and ultimately he has become not only the companion but the joy for this child who will do these things—little tricks and joyful things—for a child who really can no longer can even get out of bed. That’s a pretty powerful gift that a dog on death row, plucked out of obscurity, is able to contribute, and I think it’s really powerful for the dog too, because he’s the kind of little guy who knows he’s doing something well.
MH: Now you were describing what we usually associate with dogs and humans, that sort of intense companionship, but in the character named Bob, what his dog does with him seems to me on a different order and the way the dog can respond to his tendencies to start an episode or something like that and redirect him, I think is the way you call it in the book. That’s a different sort of thing than we normally associate with dog-human relations.
SC: Right. The dog that I had originally been talking about is what we would call an emotional support animal. The dog you’re indicating, which is another point on the scale of this kind of service, is literally a psych-assistance dog. Those kinds of dogs, and Haska, the one you’re talking about with the fallen firefighter, she can not only recognize when his PTSD is about to bring on an acute panic attack, but she can ground him in reality. So he hears a sound, he thinks it’s the same event that nearly killed him, and she can lean into him or if he starts to hyperventilate she can lead him to a place to sit down. She can do all those things. He has night terrors as well, I remember he said, and she can recognize them before they actually begin to present. I met him six years ago, but I remember him saying that he had done some sleep therapy work and people were amazed to realize the dog could predict his night terrors before they would even begin to show on the sensors he was wearing. Could she smell it? Was she hearing something?
MH: What is it about the physiology of dogs that gives them this sensitivity, especially with humans? It seems it’s a unique relationship anyway. We’ve covered a broad spectrum of these types of dogs and what they do. What are the commonalities? Certainly when people try to train them they have to have some sort of coherent, consistent approach to doing it. So what are the things they look for and can recognize? Or is it just purely individual with each dog?
SC: I think in working breeds, one of the things is a real willingness to work with a human, an interest in learning tasks, a pleasure in working consistently with a human, pleasure enough that they will give up other dog things to do it. You really know when a dog loves to work with a human. When the dog prefers the work to a squirrel running by, for instance. So that is one of them, but I think with psych service there is a close relationship between the dog’s ability to do this work and their ability to scent and to pick up the nonverbal cues a human is giving. So I think part of it is sight, part of it is sound, and I am just sure that part of it is scent-driven. I think we are chemical beings and when we are happy we flush one thing, and when we’re unhappy, when we’re grieving, we flush another, and I think the dogs can sense those changing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and oxytocin and all those things that are the chemistry of us. You asked the question that I think even though we train these dogs; it’s still a mystery to many of us. People who train seizure response dogs, there are a lot of hypotheses out there about what the dogs who can pre-alert to a seizure before they happen, what the dogs are picking up. But none of the dogs so far are talking (laughs), so we can’t be absolutely sure. But the dogs who do it, do it really, really well. I know in the case of the child that’s sick—that the little whistling dog attends to—when the child has very bad pain episodes, the dog seems to know when they’re going to happen before the child does. So it’s almost like these dogs that can predict a diabetic condition or a seizure. It’s something.
MH: Your first book was Scent of the Missing, which was about your work with search-and-rescue dogs. Contrast that sort of work and how is that different from dealing with possibility dogs.
SC: In both cases you’ve got a dog that’s very driven to work, but a search dog has to be in many cases fiercely independent, super confident, super able to make directional choices on their own, very comfortable walking off lead or moving off lead away from you, and reliable about communicating back. But these are dogs that walk into highly charged environments, often in the dark, very unstable footing. They’ve got to have that sort of innate body confidence to do that and to do that not necessarily connected to you or looking to you like “Am I safe or not?” Now I think service dogs have to have a super level of confidence too, but service dogs innately like to be very near people. A service dog typically works attached, on a lead, and I know my search dog, Puzzle, is a beautiful, reliable, wonderful search dog, but if she had to be on a leash beside me 24/7, she would lose her mind. (laughs) She just would not be happy at all because she’s a dog born to work wilderness. She’s a dog who can run and come back and communicate to me. Whereas Jake Piper, the service dog I have in training now, really loves to work but he likes to work a hand’s breadth away. He just wants to be right there. That’s the magic of a service dog. They like working nearby. They like that touch, they like that companionship, they like that service that’s really at a very short range.
MH: Now, with your dogs, did you go find those dogs with the intent of hopefully training them to be a certain thing, or did they reveal themselves to you?
SC: Puzzle, the search dog, actually I got her with intent. I had passed the test with our search team to be the next new handler in training, and actually I found the breeder who bred working dogs, but the breeder and my team’s head trainer chose Puzzle for me. It was an arranged marriage, totally. They looked at her aptitude test and they said that’s the puppy out of this litter of ten. With Jake, I was already looking for a rescue dog, a homeless dog, and looking for aptitudes that might be appropriate for service, but Jake was dumped on my front porch. I mean he was completely an accidental connection. And I knew when I saved him because he was starving—he was dying when he came to us. I mostly wanted to save his life because he was terribly ill—but as he got stronger and he was so bonded and so engaged and so willing to learn, I first thought I would teach him to be an arson detection dog because he’s very nosy. But then he gave me that eye gaze and he demonstrated a real compassion for the human condition and that’s when I saw the potential service dog. That’s how that exploration began, but I started off thinking he was going to be an arson dog.
MH: Were you always interested in working with dogs? I noticed from reading your bio you’re a flight instructor—you seem to have done a lot of different kinds of creative work and writing work. Was this always the sort of thing that came along or was it the dominant thrust of your life up until you began writing?
SC: It’s funny. My first dog, which I didn’t even have until I was 28, was a Shetland sheepdog—super high herding drive—living with a husband and wife in an apartment in Dallas. I noticed that he would herd us into the kitchen at meal times. If we had a party, he would go around and around my guests and herd them into (laughs) a little small circle in the living room. So a dog’s innate working instinct was always interesting to me, but I actually began search-and-rescue as a search-and-rescue pilot. I just knew from the incidents that I flew that there were times that rescue and recovery situations needed air support, but almost always they needed dogs. I remember thinking, “That has got to be such tough work. I think I can bear it, and so if I think I can bear it I probably ought to do it.” And so I did. I joined a team in 2001, and as it happened it was a completely serendipitous and prophetic move because 2001 really rewrote our recent history of disaster and we had so many in a row, from 9/11 to the space shuttle, to Katrina to Gustav and Ike. And even recently. So it was a move the universe led. From there it’s not a long step moving from search-and-rescue to this as well, because I see search-and-rescue dogs and especially these kinds of service dogs with psych service as being dogs serving both ends of a line of the human condition. My search dog finds people who have often wandered because of conditions they can’t control, and a service dog can actually help mitigate those conditions so the wandering never happens. So I’m just so engaged by them and I learn so much from them.
MH: What made you decide after leading this life which I would call active, and writing is by definition more reflective, make that transition? What drove you to start to write these things down?
SC: My background is in radio and I’ve always written for radio in the main, a little bit for television, but as I was doing the work of search-and-rescue, I knew this was a world that had been hinted at in media but never truly explored. I knew also it’s not the life—it’s not the work that we think it is. We have Lassie, we have Rin Tin Tin, we have all these iconic figures of these dogs doing glorious things and they are important icons. But the real dogs, the real flesh-and-blood dogs that get out there and trudge through the mud and risk harm to do this work. They’re funny, they’re unpredictable in some cases as pets, but their resilience, their ability to challenge us when we are almost ready to fail because the burden is that heavy, their ability to keep us going is not a story that was commonly told. So as I did the work, I knew immediately I would want to write about it. Then once you start writing this kind of friction, this kind of challenge, you can’t stop. The radio’s going in the head all the time, and I appreciate that opportunity.
MH: So now here you are at Blackstone. You’re reading your second book. You’ve read both of your books in audiobook. What’s that like? What’s that been as a process for you?
SC: I love it. Coming from radio it’s so fun for me because radio typically is done in short bursts and this is a chance to explore vocal narrativity at length. This is a stamina test. A five-minute newscast and you get to rest the voice, but this recording is really I think a fascinating exercise in voice. Not only an authorial voice, but also in the ability to communicate that meaning. I feel blessed and fortunate to be here, and I enjoy the work.
MH: Did you find it changed the way you wrote after narrating the first one while you were writing the next one? You can always tell authors who read their work aloud. There tends to be a more natural flow to the prose, and I wonder if there’s been sort of a feedback loop at work there for you?
SC: It’s funny that you would say that because again I came from radio, so I always wrote with the voice in mind. And yes, the first book I intended for radio. It was going to be a series of radio essays, as was the second one. So I tended to write it like I was hearing it, and that’s how I write. I think the experience at Blackstone only made that more acute. It just potted it up a little bit. (laughs) I think that’s a really useful process. Garrison Keillor is a really good example of a writer who uses orality and that storytelling moment, that oral storytelling moment, to shape his prose, and I’ve always found that a fascinating process.
MH: You mention Garrison Keillor. Are there other writers or possibly narrators who’ve been a profound influence on you in terms of your writing style? You clearly have a sense of performance kind of built right into it.
SC: I’ve listened to Keillor a long, long time. I very much enjoy Ira Glass’s narrativity. I think he’s got a very distinctive and literate voice. I like Michael Perry, Mike Perry, very much. And he too, now I think he has a radio show as well as his narrative nonfiction writing. He’s got a very distinctive, very regional voice, but it is extremely listenable and extremely literary at the same time, so I admire his work. There are so many voices that I love, I love to hear, and I would love to write for (laughs) I think quite often. Sometimes I hear a voice and think, “Oh, I would love to direct that. I would love to direct that voice reading X,” because I think the pairing is magical.
MH: This has been a great glimpse into your process and your writing work, and hopefully it will be a treat for everyone when the audiobook of The Possibility Dogs comes out. Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Susannah Charleson. You can find The Possibility Dogs, Scent of the Missing, and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The Possibility Dogs
From the author of the critically acclaimed bestseller, Scent of the Missing, comes a heartwarming and inspiring story that shows how dogs can be rescued and can rescue in return.
For her first book, Susannah Charleson was praised for her unique insight into the kinship between humans and dogs, as revealed through canine search and rescue. In The Possibility Dogs Charleson chronicles her journey into the world of psychiatric-service and therapy dogs trained to serve the human mind, a journey that began as a personal one. After a particularly grisly search led to a struggle with PTSD, Charleson credits healing to her partnership with search dog Puzzle. Inspired by that experience and having met dogs formally trained to assist in such crises, Charleson learns to identify abandoned dogs with service potential, often plucking them from shelters at the last minute, and how to train them for work beside hurting partners, to whom these second-chance dogs bring intelligence, comfort, and hope.
From black Lab puppy Merlin, once cast away in a garbage bag, who stabilizes his partner’s panic attacks to Ollie, the blind and deaf terrier who soothes anxious children, to Jake Piper, the starving pit bull mix who goes from abandoned to irreplaceable, The Possibility Dogs illuminates a whole new world of canine potential.