The Possibility Dogs is Susannah Charleson's account of rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be service and companion animals, matching them up with the visually impaired, soldiers, and others. Here, Charleson recounts the story of matching a nurse with a little Maltese-poodle mix.
If you’d dropped two pins on a virtual map, you could have marked the two of them—dog and human—exactly a thousand miles apart. They were strangers separated by a mountain range and several rivers, but their lives in those opposite points were remarkably similar.
The woman, on the east end of their geography, was a retired nurse who’d left behind a long career in pediatric oncology. It was work she had valued, a retirement she’d resisted. How many little ones had she attended through happy outcomes and tragedies, alike? Thousands, she guessed, and what she didn’t know was if she’d been suppressing hard losses all this time, covering everything up with activity, or if some part of her retired self now felt spent and useless. Whatever the cause, some of those sick children were etched so terribly in memory that they began waking her up a year ago. Her “quicksand nightmares,” as she called them, were terrifying and almost impossible to escape. She grew afraid to sleep, numb from insomnia, and reclusive; she hid in the house, often leaving the phone disconnected. She said she sometimes stared whole days away, watching the light shift the color of her kitchen wall.
Far to the west of her lay a little Maltese-poodle mix, a former puppymill breeding dog from the Heartland. She had also had a rough time of it, lately. Exhausted from pregnancy-after-pregnancy, the dog too had lost scores of little ones, hers to early sale or haphazard care. Lucky or unlucky?—somehow she was sold as a “retired” designer dog. She ended up a stray, struck by a car; survived that, with losses, her back legs paralyzed. In an under-funded, over-crowded shelter, she had time enough for her owner to come claim her, plus two days to get adopted if no one did.
The retired nurse told me that when she was recommended an Emotional Support Animal to help alleviate the depression into which she had sunk, no part of her liked the idea. Yes, she understood the reasoning. A dog would provide companionship, comfort, affection. A dog would need activity that would get her out of the house. Her therapist, a retriever owner, had recommended a big dog that might bring a sense of strength. But she was feeling overwhelmed. It was not the best frame of mind to bring in a pet that would need far more than she could give. Even at the point she contacted me at Possibility Dogs, she was unsure. We spoke by phone a couple of times; she stood me up for phone appointments (unplugged) a couple of times, too. She apologized. See? She said. I’m just not fit for responsibility. But she crawled out of the house to the library and studied page after page of needy dogs in rescue, and she was smart enough to recognize that there was hope buried under all that misgiving.
Hope surfaced in the form of the paralyzed Maltese-poodle mix of sweet temperament and urgent need a thousand miles away. This was not going to be an easy dog. She would need diligent care and assistance with bodily functions. In time, she would need a wheeled cart to assist her mobility. She was not going to quickly be the dog smiling at the door, bounding for the dog park. She was not the kind of dog recommended by the retiree’s therapist at all. But something in her resolute, wistful photograph stirred the retiree. This one, she told me on the phone. This one.
The little dog’s rescue was achieved through a network of willing volunteers and the nurse’s own nephew, recovering himself from wounds in Afghanistan, who offered to drive the last leg of the transport to help her meet her dog. He was the one who handled all the emails for her, and she coasted beside him on the tide of rescue goodwill. She realized that in the process of just wanting and committing to this dog, she reconnected with her family and talked with more strangers than she had in a year. That was purposeful and positive.
That felt scary as hell.
When she and her nephew met up with the transport volunteer, the man opened the door to a dog much more damaged than the nurse had realized. Her experienced gaze swept over the numerous sites of injury. This dog had had broken bones, an eye stitched back in. Who had financed saving her? How had she survived the car strike at all? The nurse reached her hand toward that frailty, and the dog, trembling and drooling from carsickness, kissed her palm. It would be lovely to say that in that moment clouds parted, birds sang, and angels came down with a bottomless bank account for the retiree and power tools to build a wheeled-cart for the Maltipoo. Not so. But that first touch confirmed it. The nurse says she felt absolutely certain that she and this dog could help each other. The little dog’s greeting seemed certain, too.
It’s slow going, the retired nurse tells me some months later. Dog Zoe has nerve damage on one of her front legs, too, and her progress on the new custom-built cart is hesitant. The nurse says it’s tough to want so much good for a loved creature. We all want the happy ending now. She has laid a course from her kitchen to the living room in masking tape. She marks Zoe’s progress by cart in points along that line. Two feet yesterday. Two feet, six inches, today. That kind of thing.
“And what about you?” I ask the nurse. “How are you doing?”
The question surprises her; she’s been that focused on her dog. She’s improved, she thinks, sleeping better beside Zoe, who’s brave, who’s cheerful, who snores. Sometimes there are still terrible days, but this dog is so worth the struggle. We’re fighters. We are strong for each other, she says. Beside Zoe, she’s making progress by inches, too.