Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
By: Susannah Charleson
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: April 2010
Reviewed by: Deb Fowler
Review Date: May 12, 2010
It is a common misconception that those who choose to become members of a search-and-rescue team (SAR) would be highly paid individuals. In actuality, most pay for the privilege. The thorns from the underbrush rip at their skin and embed themselves in the pads of their dogs' paws. The dogs follow "rafts," or clouds of scent that can find those wanderers afflicted by Alzheimer's, a missing child, or one who has had the misfortune of drowning in a lake after falling from their boat. The teams, from all walks of life, are ready to head out to disasters and catastrophes of all sorts on a moment's notice, but the preparation that leads up to that moment is all but simple or fleeting.
When Susannah Charleson went in search of a new Golden, dogs known in the field as "high-drive dogs," she had to make agonizing decisions to find just the right puppy. She already had "three elderly cats and six dogs" and she had to know for sure that this pup was the right one. When she found Puzzle, she knew that the puppy had scrutiny and intelligence and she began thinking about the future where those qualities would be sorely tested. From the moment she first held Puzzle her training began. The SAR teams were a special breed and as Susannah aptly states, " . . . we share a deep sense of responsibility toward our fellow human beings, driven by an impulse to serve that intensifies during training and completes in the search field through training and testing." (pg. 68) Would Puzzle and Susannah be able to create that bond and embrace the extreme dedication that they would both need to be successful SAR members?
Susannah quickly discovered the learning curve would be steep when Puzzle began to terrorize the entire household with her antics. Maddy, the cat, soon leapt for the back of the couch and Puzzle terrorized each of the Poms in turn, who looked "like they've been to a horror show." Susannah began to learn things from the SAR members that she had to learn to "trust the dog." She learned how to conduct a search, scent-traps, the difference between trailing vs. tracking, and she learned the signs of defeat in a dog. They quickly learned by watching Saber, Hunter, Max, Johnny, Buster, Shadow, Mercy, Misty, Belle, Hoss, and other dogs working with their trainers. They were going to have to work in the wilderness, urban environments, and would be called on when there were disasters. Eighty percent of all teams washed out, but they were determined to make it. They were going to be tested and they could not fail.
This was a fascinating look at the special relationship between a dog, her "partner" and their work as a SAR team. The writing was exquisite and so comfortable I felt as if I were sitting in an overstuffed chair listening to someone talk about her experiences. The flow of the book wasn't such that I couldn't put it down, but rather one that I savored and looked forward to picking up each opportunity I got. The reader will quickly develop an affinity for Susannah, Puzzle, their rambunctious household, and several SAR teams. The most fascinating part for me was when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas. No spoilers, here, but you're going to be riveted! The poignant, unexpected ending made me realize this tale was as much about a woman as it was about a search dog named Puzzle.