From two-time National Book Award nominee Melissa Fay Greene comes a profound and surprising account of dogs on the front lines of rescuing both children and adults from the trenches of grief, emotional, physical, and cognitive disability, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Underdogs tells the story of Karen Shirk, felled at age twenty-four by a neuromuscular disease and facing life as a ventilator-dependent, immobile patient, who was turned down by every service dog agency in the country because she was “too disabled.” Her nurse encouraged her to tone down the suicidal thoughts, find a puppy, and raise her own service dog. Karen did this, and Ben, a German shepherd, dragged her back into life. “How many people are stranded like I was,” she wondered, “who would lead productive lives if only they had a dog?”
A thousand state-of-the-art dogs later, Karen Shirk’s service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, is restoring broken children and their families to life. Long shunned by scientists as a manmade, synthetic species, and oft- referred to as “Man’s Best Friend” almost patronizingly, dogs are finally paid respectful attention by a new generation of neuroscientists and animal behaviorists. Melissa Fay Greene weaves the latest scientific discoveries about our co-evolution with dogs with Karen’s story and a few exquisitely rendered stories of suffering children and their heartbroken families.
Written with characteristic insight, humanity, humor, and irrepressible joy, what could have been merely touching is a penetrating, compassionate exploration of larger questions: about our attachment to dogs, what constitutes a productive life, and what can be accomplished with unconditional love.
Expanding on an article written for the New York Times Magazine in 2012, Greene (Praying for Sheetrock) shares uplifting stories from families who have benefited from service animals provided by 4 Paws for Ability, a nonprofit dog training academy. The Ericksons were in terror over their autistic son's disappearances before acquiring Juke, a Labrador trained to track him. When a golden retriever named Chancer is placed with the Winokurs to help their emotionally unstable son, he becomes the first dog ever assigned to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. The Millards were denied dogs by other agencies because of son Connor's tracheal tube and ventilator; then 4 Paws brought them Casey, a devoted goldendoodle who helped the six-year-old come out of his fearful shell. Green profiles 4 Paws founder Karen Shirk, who started the organization after overcoming a debilitating neuromuscular disorder with help from her German shepherd, Ben. She also outlines the organization's current training regimens, including a program with a local prison where inmates train dogs with rehabilitative benefits for all involved. For the most part these are feel-good stories about the overcoming obstacles, but there are moments of heartbreak as well, and Green relates these in unsparing detail. She astutely sums up the relationship between humans and canines: "There are... reaches of the human psyche accessible only when accompanied by dogs."