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Scent of the Missing: Love & Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26

In a dog book, I look for great information, a wonderful story about the relationship between humans and dogs, and anecdotes that are funny, insightful and memorable. Rarely do all three components come together, but Susannah Charleson’s memoir has the whole package. Beautifully written, informative, charming in every detail that chronicles the life and work of Susannah and her dog Puzzle, and laugh-’til-you-snort funny, it’s a magnificent work.

Charleson reveals the physical, mental and emotional challenges of search and rescue through her relationship with Puzzle, whom she raises from puppyhood to be her partner. People in this line of work must be able to handle challenging physical and emotional situations — think extreme heat, harsh cold, sleep deprivation, enclosed dark spaces, endless waiting, dense thorny vegetation and biting insects. Extensive navigation and orienting skills (which Charleson retains from years of being a pilot) are essential, as is an understanding of the behavior of missing people and the physics of scent. Dog handling skills and knowledge of the differences between distracted behavior, alerts and finds are, of course, necessary. As a biologist and trainer, I find fascinating the subtle yet extensive communication between dog and handler.

Though most of us have not raised and trained a search and rescue dog, it’s easy to relate to Puzzle’s puppy antics, which will amuse anyone who’s ever been exasperated by a puppy’s behavior. Similarly, Charleson’s descriptions of Puzzle’s fears ring true and contain great wisdom. Many readers will also recognize the growth of the relationship between these two main characters. Puzzle’s bond with Charleson is slower to form than she would like.

Many great relationships take time to develop, and this one continues growing to the point that Puzzle’s preference for searching with Charleson, as compared to another handler, becomes obvious to the entire team. Once, when Charleson blacks out on a walk and drops the leash, Puzzle stays with her despite her usual tendency to exploit every opportunity at freedom.

Reading this book is like eating from a delicious buffet. The following is an example of Charleson’s wordsmithing:

“Puzzle, just a few months shy of two, is in that marvelous place where puppy energy and adult strength and coordination intersect. This is a happy time for her, and it shows. After training with the team or after training sessions at home, she is talkative and cheeky, full of dog mutters for me and play-bows for the Poms, tossing toys their direction for a game. Her engagement with the world is a pleasure, her energy a challenge.”

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for forensic drama. As for dog lovers, none among us will resist a tale with such descriptions as this: “I stroke my newly-certified Golden, who has wasted no time going belly-up beside me in the deep shade of pecan trees. Any celebration worth doing is, apparently, worth doing upside down, unconscious, teeth bared.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 60: Jun/Jul/Aug 2010

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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