Thursday, May 27, 2010

Scent of the Missing

Publisher's Summary. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson clipped a photo from the newspaper: an exhausted canine handler, face buried in the fur of his search-and-rescue dog. A dog lover and pilot with search experience herself, Susannah was so moved by the image that she decided to volunteer with a local canine team and soon discovered firsthand the long hours, nonexistent pay, and often heart-wrenching results they face.

Still she felt the call, and once she qualified to train a dog of her own, she adopted Puzzle, a strong, bright Golden Retriever puppy who exhibited unique aptitudes as a working dog but who was less interested in the role of compliant house pet. Puzzle's willfulness and high drive, both assets in the field, challenged even Susannah, who had raised dogs for years.

Scent of the Missing is the story of Susannah and Puzzle's adventures together and of the close relationship they forge as they search for the lost--a teen gone missing, an Alzheimer's patient wandering in the cold, signs of the crew amid the debris of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. From the earliest air-scent lessons to her final mastery of whole-body dialog, Puzzle emerges as a fully collaborative partner in a noble enterprise that unfolds across the forests, plains, and cityscapes of the Southwest. Along the way Susannah and Puzzle learn to read the clues in the field, and in each other, to accomplish together the critical work neither could do alone and to unravel the mystery of the human/canine bond.

Review. You’ve seen them on the six o’clock news and in the newspapers: search dogs and their handlers. 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, and virtually every high profile tragedy, the dogs in their colorful vests are on the scene – sniffing for victims. They also perform the more “routine” emergency searches including drownings, missing children, teenage runaways, and Alzheimer walkaways.

But did you know that the vast majority of search and rescue squads are volunteers? What would compel a person to willingly sign up for the hardest of duties without monetary compensation? And what is it like to raise/train a search dog? In Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson, the author answers these questions and more.

The memoir is a beautifully written account of Puzzle’s, a Golden Retriever, first eighteen months of training and searching. The story details Puzzle’s maturation as a search dog and Charleson’s growth as a handler. Scent of the Missing also conveys what really happens when a search is called. Not all searches are successful and some are emotionally draining on the handlers.

As Charleson poignantly notes after one fruitless search:

Some of us are angry, some so sad we can barely speak. Rescues that become recoveries are never easy. Recoveries involving children – whether we are there at the moment of find or not – may be the hardest of all. In time we go on to other searches and other sectors behind the dogs. But I am never far away from Braden [a child victim]

Still rain or shine, optimistic or with a heavy heart, on the next search call the dogs and their handlers will be there to give 100 percent until they are told to stand down (cease searching).

Scent of the Missing is a must read for anyone who has ever wondered what it is like to be search and rescue member.

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 14, 2010), 304 pages.
Review based on borrowed public library copy.


  1. This does sound pretty fascinating Kim -- maybe a tad sad as well though, for me. I'll give it a try. Thanks

  2. These kind of memoirs are my favorite, when it focuses on something specific about a person and in this case, the dog that accompanies Susannah on the searches. Thanks for this review.

  3. My daughter's art teacher and her dog work with a search and rescue team. Seems like hard work and sometimes just devastating I would imagine.

  4. Sounds like a fascinating book, but oh no, sadness, well I can deal with that

  5. I'm too stressed out right now in my life for sadness...but I'm saving this book for a time when I won't be, because I think I'll love it.

    Great review, as always!