Service Dog Trainer Susannah Charleson: Dogs Provide ‘Comfort, Peace, Empathy’

Bob Woodruff, Mary-Rose Abraham and Brian Fudge

Through her years as a canine search-and-rescue handler, Susannah Charleson unexpectedly came upon a grim scene in 2003 that left her emotionally scarred.

“I believe it may have been the remaining remnants of a dog-fighting ring, with evidence of tremendous cruelty and great suffering,” said Charleson. “As many first responders report, it’s the things you don’t expect that actually get to you.”

The discovery so affected her that for about a year she began fearing her own five dogs would be harmed. She became very anxious whenever she had to leave home and checked her locked door repeatedly and obsessively. Charleson was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

What ultimately brought her out of her trauma was her own dog.

“My search and rescue dog Puzzle was an extremely forceful personality,” said Charleson. “She could actually intervene and redirect the emotions I was having.”

Her experience inspired Charleson to train rescue and shelter dogs for service to people with mobility disorders and psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, trauma response disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and disorientation.

Each dog she trains is tailored to the particular need of the client. In every case, though, the dog’s job is to focus on and be reliably responsive to his human partner.

It’s not every dog that can be trained for this type of service, with estimates varying from one in 30 to one in 1,000 dogs that can be trained.

The training itself can take as long as two years.

The first dog Charleson trained was born to it, though his beginnings were less than promising.

When Jake Piper came into Charleson’s life, she remembers him as little more than jutting hipbones and ribs, starving to death. A neighbor had found the white-coated puppy and brought him to Charleson.

He endured a harrowing few days at the veterinarian's office and then returned home, where he gradually became stronger. Charleson initially thought to train the German shepherd-pitbull-poodle mix for arson detection.

“But he demonstrated such willingness to be this kind of stable, reliable, partner,” said Charleson. “Typically, what the dog has to have is a willingness to work with his human, a willingness to give up certain doggy instincts to maintain that partnership, and a high level of empathy, I think - a high level of responsiveness to a partner.”

Jake Piper – named, in part, for the way his long ears resembled the wings of a piper airplane – is now a demonstration dog for the other service dogs that Charleson trains. Their story is chronicled in her book, “The Possibility Dogs.”

Service dogs like Jake Piper can be prescribed by a mental health professional, and they assist people during nearly every minute of their day.

Charleson said an example of who might benefit from service dogs are people diagnosed with PTSD who may have a situational fear that make them constantly anxious about someone behind them. In that case, the dog tails the person to act as eyes in the back of his head.

In other cases, PTSD may manifest itself as extreme sensitivity to sound.

“They hear certain sounds and it triggers the flashback episode,” she said. “So the dog can have a task that actually supports and embraces them until the clients will crumple, and the dog will actually stabilize them when they crumple.”

Regardless of the person’s particular mobility, psychiatric or emotional issue, every companion service dog provides a reassuring presence.

“I think a dog provides a constancy and a lack of judgment,” said Charleson. “I think one of the psychiatric benefits is that a dog is here for you and they don’t have a human level of expectation. They’re not going to be the one who says, ‘Snap out of it,’ or roll their eyes and say, ‘Oh it’s going to be another bad day with you.’ A dog is just here where you are, in the moment, and they don’t have that level of expectation, that level of judgment, that level of attitude that we sometimes give each other as humans.

“So I think there is a comfort, and there is a peace in that relationship - that I can develop, that I can heal at my own pace, and I think my dog will support that.”