Scent of the Missing:
Love and Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog

by Susannah Charleson


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. ISBN 978-0-547-15244-8.
Reviewed by Martha Meacham
Posted on 05/21/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir

If you have noticed a dog suddenly turn nose up into the wind and focus on an air-borne scent, you are observing the basic skill of "air scenting" in action. This innate ability of dogs to discriminate and discern smells makes them vastly superior to humans in blind searches.

A Search and Rescue dog team is often a person's best chance at being found alive when their whereabouts is unknown. Sadly, sometimes the missing are found dead.

Susannah Charleson's memoir, Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search and Rescue Dog begins with an urgency similar in feeling to the command given to the Search and Rescue dog to go "Find!"

The reader is pulled into the drama of Charleson.s story immediately, as a missing person's case unfolds in the first chapter. Charleson has raised a Golden Retriever puppy with the intention of becoming a Search and Rescue (SAR) team of dog and handler. In this book you will learn how Puzzle, Charleson's dog, is trained to find people, and how Puzzle helped the author find herself.

A good deal of public interest in SAR dogs has been generated in the last decade, due to large-scale natural disasters making headline news. This book is wonderfully informative about the dedicated dogs and handlers who respond after earthquakes, floods and even man-made disasters. Readers from dog lovers to dog behaviorists will find this book's writing style accessible. I would advise parental discretion and discussion if this book is read by teenagers. There are graphic depictions of the real outcomes of too many missing person cases including cadavers and crime scenes. What may begin as a search for a live person may end in recovery of a body or human remains.

The intensity of the job in which the author and her dog engage is reflected in this narrative, not only by her accounts of tricky situations, but in her skillful writing. Her style is clean, clear and compelling. At the same time, Charleson describes the technical aspects of the job with exactness; her verbal images are masterful literary artistry. Here's an example:

Other nights a blanket of stratiform clouds stretched wide above the little Cessna, and I flew, small and secret, like a child with a flashlight under the blanket, flying beneath an eiderdown beautifully uplit at its edges by the lights cities on the horizon.

A writer, dog-lover and flight instructor who flew search disaster searches, Susannah already knew about the behavior of air currents. This book is a perfect melding of her passions and skills.

The background knowledge that SAR volunteers bring to the search scene are many. Handlers need to be able to read their dog's signals, know about dog behavior and enough about navigation and emergency response in order not to become a victim themselves.

Though she treats her main subject of SAR with gravity and the respect it deserves, we get insight into how she can go about this volunteer job day in and out by her use of humorous musings.

The way she describes her precious dog, Puzzle, is endearing. As a dog enthusiast who has trained dogs to air scent to find people, I know that reading the dog's cues and signals are key to successful SAR teams. Susannah's keen observations of body language and sounds, lead to her deciphering her dog's unique utterances that each convey different meaning. Huffs, woops, woos, pffts, snuffles and waffles dot the pages so that we almost hear Puzzle's voice.

Susannah's reflections about her childhood and personal life give insight to her character, since the reader often wonders why a person could volunteer to do what she does. Through this memoir, we come to understand that regardless of past and present fears, she musters courage to pursue her passions, accompanied by her beloved companion, Puzzle. Where would we be without our faithful companions in times of trouble? This is a story of a journey where the author learns a most important tenet—"Trust the dog."


Susannah Charleson is a member of the Metro Area Rescue K9 unit in Dallas, Texas. Join her on Facebook or visit her website.

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Stories From the Heart IX

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