Review of “Scent of the Missing,” by Susannah Charleson

If you’ve ever wondered about what goes on behind the scenes leading up to a search and rescue mission, Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charleson, is the book for you.

Charleson tells her own story as a volunteer with a local canine unit.  Her narrative begins when she has already logged three years as a field assistant with a search-and-rescue (SAR) team and is thinking about taking the next step.

That step is to take “…the next open slot to train and run beside a search dog.  Having run with more than a dozen breeds and their handlers, having searched night into day for the living, and having knelt over the dead,  I’m aware how serious a proposition bringing a new dog to the team is.  Working search is not a hobby or a Sunday pastime.”  (p. 6)

As Charleson ponders what dog breed she’ll choose, there are more than enough suggestions from other members of her team.

“Maybe a Border Collie. Maybe an Aussie .. You give any thought to a Golden Retriever?”  (p. 7).

A Golden Retriever makes a good choice for search work, having “drive, stability, commitment to working with a human, congeniality, and nose.”  (p. 7).  It will take Charleson a full year of research before she finds her puppy.  The final decision as to the “pick of the litter” is made by the breeder and the team leader of Charleson’s SAR team.  They evaluate the puppies for evidence of all of the breed characteristics that offer the best indications of a good search-and-rescue dog.

Narrowing their choice down to a male or one of the females in a litter of ten, the female puppy makes the final cut.  Her name will be Puzzle.

“When she sees me for the first time, Puzzle’s expression is skeptical.”  As Charleson watches the puppies play, Puzzle exhibits an independent spirit.  “She moves about the x-pen with a bit of a swagger, boxing toys, taunting her siblings until they wrestle.  I see her swipe a stuffed duck from her sister and shoot a glance in my direction.  Puzzle drops the toy her sister wants and sits on it.”  (p. 28).

Is this belligerence or is this confidence?  At first glance, it’s easy to interpret Puzzle’s behavior as over-bearing.  Not so.  The breeder and the SAR team leader correctly assess this as a saucy, confident manner.

The challenge for Charleson will be to shape that confidence without damaging Puzzle’s spirit; to forge a partnership with this dog based on mutual understanding and trust.  For that to happen, Charleson will literally have to climb inside of Puzzle’s head to learn how she thinks … and a large part of this book will describe how this happens.

Along the way, we get to know the rest of the SAR team – both human and canine.

Max and Hunter.  Hunter, a German Shepherd,  is an experienced cadaver dog.  He “…has long been a hard-charger in the field, known for pushing through debris and digging out victims, if he must, to show Max where they lie.”  (p. 111).

Fleta and Saber.  Saber, a collie,  “…moves like the senior statesman of search dogs.  He is calm, methodical, and precise, and true to his breed’s background protecting sheep … known for an intense, protective victim loyalty at the point of fiind.  With Saber, there is no room for sloppiness or inattention.”  (p. 111).

Jerry and Shadow.  Shadow, a Husky,  “…is a dog of great presence.  Even strangers who meet her will mention the aloof carriage, the regal bearing … She works off-lead … enters an area and meticulously clears it with wide, confident sweeps.  She’s a talky girl who often discusses the find – in long strings of multiple syllables – with Jerry when he comes to reward her.”  (p. 109-110).

Cindi and Belle.  Belle, a yellow lab, “…is a dog of high energy and great dash, who quivers before her release and races into a sector at a speed even the most athletic of us could not match.  Her “…signals are broad – fast and muscular, a lot of motion, a snapping at the air as she narrows to the find, and a bark of excitement…”.  (p. 110).

Susannah and Puzzle.  It will be a while before Charleson learns to “speak Puzzle” (p. 111) and before Puzzle learns to decipher Susannah.  Theirs will be almost a two year journey of passion and hard work before they too, exhibit the well-coordinated movements of their teammates.

There is much to recommend this book.  In a world of instant gratification where the prevailing message is, “I want it and I want it now!”, Charleson reminds us that attention to detail and the day-to-day minutia of one step at a time are the true hallmarks to achievement; that true success marries itself to hard work.

What I love is the unbashed celebration of true communication between humans and their dogs that only happens with dedication and commitment to working hard.

That Charleson is a wonderful writer is an extra gift.  Her style is both straightforward and lyrical as she describes both the technical aspects of the science of search and rescue and tells her story.


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