Friday, May 3, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Possibility Dogs

Those of you who know me know that I am legally blind. I was born with cataracts and have had deteriorating vision ever since. At some point, I will need a service dog. My eye doctor made the suggestion last year and I just have not had the courage to follow through yet.

I've been told that a service dog would grant me better access and I would be more approachable than I am carrying my cane. The one friend I asked about this said: "I'd be more interested in the dog than the person with it."

Was it her?  Is this everyone?  I would like to think not, but that gave me pause.

My lifelong dream has been to work with dogs in some way to do service work. I've never been in a position to be a puppy breeder as I once hoped, but I'm wondering if organizations are going to stop using purebreds and start taking shelter dogs.

Why?  Not every puppy--even those from a solid lineage, makes the cut for service work. From birth, dogs bred for service work, are socialized and trained. Then they go to a puppy raiser who works with them for months before they ever reach the training facility for service dogs. 

And there is a greater need for service dogs now, particularly with our soldiers coming back from Afghanistan with PTSD.Many organizations have applicant waiting lists that are literally years long.

But--some groups are going a more direct route. Instead of making more puppies, they are going to shelters and picking dogs who show promise for the task. This may well be the best way to find homes for the massive overpopulation of strays--quote from the book:

"A 2009 National Public Radio story underscored what most of us who work with dogs already know: the homeless animal population has long existed, the Great Recession has made things worse for American pets recently. In some areas, intakes have increased annually up to 400%. Surrendered dogs are often have healthy pets that are up-to-date on their vaccinations and have been neutered or spayed but have to be given up because her owners have lost jobs, homes, or both, and they need to find safe places for their dogs to go. It's a desperate choice made with loving intentions, but for surrendered pets, too often there are not enough adoptive home to go around. Rescuers have had to work even harder than usual, trying to maximize adoption events and social media exposure to give more homeless pets some kind of hope."

Susannah Charleson is noted for her work with search and rescue dogs. In her first book, "The Scent of the Missing," she talks about finding and training Puzzle, a Golden Retriever, to do S&R work. While "The Possibility Dogs" does not contain as gripping material as her first book, the situation is still compelling.

Patients needing service dogs are often just as lost as a child or an elderly patient who have wandered away from home. Depression, trauma, physical illnesses, put these people at risk. Often, "invisible illnesses" make it doubly hard because the general public does not understand and cannot empathize with their need.

Ms. Charleson well understands that need. A debilitating kidney ailment may well necessitate a service dog for her in the future. Having found and trained a search and rescue dog, the natural extension for this skill-set would be to locate a shelter dog with service dog skills and train it. The following is advice from Paula, a dog evaluator who finds animals for therapy, et cetera. She says: "any dog can be surprising. Before you can find many dogs for this work, find one."

"The Possibility Dogs" is interspersed with Ms. Charleson's experiences with folks and their service animals and her own quest to find some trainable dogs for this work. The stories will make you laugh and shed more than a few tears.

This book is not just for people who are interested in service dogs and therapy work. The stories are riveting enough to keep you reading even if you never plan to use the knowledge. But, if you are considering therapy dog work, either getting a dog for yourself or a family member, or training one, you should add this book to your library. "Possibility Dogs" may well open some possibilities for you.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, May 2013