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Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog [Kindle Edition]

Susannah Charleson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (417 customer reviews)

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Book Description

An unforgettable memoir from a search-and-rescue pilot and her spirited canine partner

In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson clipped a photo from the newspaper of 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. 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. Scent of the Missing is the story of Susannah and Puzzle’s adventures as they search for the missing—a lost teen, an Alzheimer’s patient wandering in the cold, signs of the crew amid the debris of the space shuttle Columbia disaster—and unravel the mystery of the bond between humans and dogs.

Editorial Reviews Review

Product Description
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.

A Q&A with Susannah Charleson, Author of Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog

Q: Scent of the Missing follows the relationship between you and your search dog from her puppyhood to eighteen months of age and her first search. How does your relationship now differ from the one you had with her then?

A: Puzzle is five and a half now. Though we had several hundred training searches together in the period covered in the book, we've had easily double that now. I have a lot more trust in her bond with me. She works pretty much exclusively off lead, and I no longer wonder if she'd abandon a search, run away from me to chase her own interests, or anything like that, as I did when she was very young. During her puppyhood, Puzzle was always interested in search work and joyful about finding people, but she seemed to regard me as an unnecessary chaperone for a job she'd do better alone.

As she matured, Puzzle seemed to recognize that part of her job was to work with me, to communicate with me, to insist when I'd missed some signal from her--and she seems to find joy in that part of the job too.

Q: Is your relationship with Puzzle, as depicted in the book, typical of the kinds of relationships other SAR handlers have with their dogs?

A: Some situations in the book probably resonate with other handlers--maybe a few make them wince, or laugh at my failings outright--but Scent of the Missing by no means represents a "standard" dog-and-handler relationship. It's not a template or a guidebook for best practice. I compare this book to a memoir about a marriage or raising a child: a portrait of one relationship over a period of time--ideally magical, meaningful, and worthy of being shared.

Q: What are these working dogs like at home as pets? What do they enjoy doing off duty?

A: Most of them enjoy being pretty typical dogs. They have favorite toys and games and preferred sleeping spots. They mooch car rides and sneak drinks from the toilet. Puzzle is a creature of routine. She likes to play bitey-face with one of the Pomeranians first thing in the morning. She adopted a kitten a couple of years ago; that kitten is now a cat, and the two of them cuddle and play quite a bit. Puzzle enjoys playing fetch and tug with humans. On rainy days she is keen to go outside and find the perfect mud puddle. Puzzle is happiest when she's absolutely filthy--a good puddle wallow, followed by a roll in the grass.

Q: How long will Puzzle's search career run?

A: Until she shows me she can no longer do the job,or she no longer wants to do it, or until my own strength forces us to retire from the field. This work is physically rigorous, and I wouldn't push a dog whose condition was not up to it.

Nor would I run her if I couldn't do my part of the job. Usually the dogs grow too frail before they lose their interest, so it's likely the types of searches she could work would taper off as she ages. Some dogs retire from disaster or wilderness work, for example, but are still able to work for years on boat/drowning searches, which don't require running or climbing.

Q: What happens to the dogs when they can no longer work searches?

A: Though there are exceptions with some teams, most search dogs retire as much-loved family members, living with the handlers they’ve partnered. Some dogs are so driven to work that they learn new tasks. Puzzle is very pack-oriented, and though she's not a herder, I think she'd happily learn to round up the other family pets or to "find" them all in the house on command. She already enjoys knowing what's what and who's where in the household.

Q: What characteristics give a dog a special aptitude for SAR?

A: This question sparks a lot of debate among handlers and evaluators, but most agree that a good SAR candidate demonstrates high energy, has natural curiosity, seems to enjoy scent games--and enjoys them enough to ignore distractions!--is willing to work on command for a human, and is confident in new situations. Physically, they need to be athletic and structurally sound, with no vision issues. While shepherds, retrievers, and hounds are popular breeds in the field, many breeds can do this work, and mixed breeds can certainly have the right gifts too.

Q: When you first began working ground searches, was there anything that surprised you?

A: The dogs surprised me. While I knew that dogs could do this job, I had no idea how well they communicated complex conditions of scent (for example, differences between "a little bit of old scent here" and "live scent, right here, right now" and "human scent here, but not live") and how difficult a job it is to decode them. The dogs communicate from nose to toes to tail, and they do it fast, so it's a lot of reading on the run.

I was also surprised by how tough terrain can be even in a city. Urban SAR can become wilderness SAR pretty quickly. In our area, when a housing development stops, it stops, and just beyond that wall can be acres and acres of brutal scrub. I've walked past million-dollar houses and, twenty steps later, beyond the community gates, had to press through a sector on my hands and knees, cutting my way through thorns.

Q: What aptitude do humans have to bring to this work?

A: All kinds of stamina, physical, emotional, intellectual. A search can begin at what is, for search personnel, the end of a long workday. It can run all night and into the following day or days, in all kinds of weather across all kinds of terrain and in a state of emergency. Self control and a long fuse are useful. Physical soundness and a willingness to learn new things are important. It helps not to be a afraid of snakes, spiders, the dark, or tight spaces. It's also good not to be squeamish.

Handlers also need to really believe in the work of the dogs, to trust information that we humans can't see--or smell--and be able to let the dog do the work instead of trying to do it for him.

Q: You began search-and-rescue-related work as a pilot. Are there any similarities between searching from the air and searching behind a dog?

A: There are some surprising similarities. When I pass fields or wilderness areas in my car, I always think about how I'd land a plane on it, if I had to, or how I'd search it with a dog. Good pilots have an awareness of the ground they're flying over. In flight training, we sometimes look down at the terrain beneath us and hypothesize, "If my engine failed right now, where would I land? How would I set up that approach and that landing?" It's a matter of where the wind is coming from, how flat or rolling the terrain is, and what's growing on it. Working search with a dog, I have to take into account many of the same considerations. "If I had to search that valley, how would I set it up. Where would I start Puzzle, and which way would we work across it?" Again, it's a matter of where the wind is coming from, what kind of ground and vegetation has to be pressed through. Landing an aircraft is not just about managing the plane, it's about working the plane effectively across an environment. Working canine SAR is not just about running behind a dog; it's about making it possible for the dog to work well in an area that is always in a state of change, where scent is often twisted, lifted, or obstructed.

Flying and dog handling both also require focus, a good deal of self-control, and the ability to interpret subtle cues from dog or airplane--while either one is moving quickly!

Q: How will your partnership with Puzzle affect what you will do with your next search dog?

A: I'd have to learn pretty quickly not to expect the next dog to be just like Puzzle, even if the two were the same breed. Other handlers on my team are partnering their second dogs, and though they were experienced handlers when they got dog number two and were able to sidestep some of the problems a new handler has to overcome, all agree that every dog is a completely new conversation, in a new language. Truly back to square one with a nose, four paws, and a tail.

Puzzle learned very well from watching certified SAR dog role models, and I expect that if she is able to search and demonstrate the work in training searches to dog number two early on, it would be good for her--she is a proud dog--and it would be good for the new dog too.

I have to say that even talking about a next dog is bittersweet. Though I'm a practical person, dedicated to this work, and know that dogs age and then leave us, it hurts to think I could ever step into a search field without Puzzle.

(photo © Chris Moseley)

Amazon Exclusive: Personal Photos from Author Susannah Charleson of her Search and Rescue Dog, Puzzle
(Click on Images to Enlarge)

Puzzle at Work

Misty, Susannah, and puppy Puzzle after her first training search

Puzzle standing by, ready to run

Puzzle loves her job

Snow training, February 2010

Puzzle at Play

Whaddya mean, I look guilty?

The inverted nap. The ghoulish expression.

Can't catch me!

Puzzle and her adopted kitty, Thistle


"Scent of the Missing contains wonderful writing about dogs and plenty of powerful, compassionate writing about the community of mankind. In its telling, it is respectful of life and celebrates the living." –Rick Bass

"The transformation of Puzzle the cuddly pup into Puzzle the professional search-and-rescue dog would be story enough, but Susannah Charleson gives us far more. With lean, lovely prose she takes us on a clear-eyed, compassionate journey into a mysterious world in which every story begins as a ghost story. When Charleson turns the search inward, she does so deftly, never straying more than a leash-length from the heart and soul of this book: Puzzle, and the all-too mortal ghosts she seeks." –Michael Perry, author of Population: 485 and Coop

"Scent of the Missing is not only a 'stay up too late at night' story, it's a brilliantly written book that should be on every dog lover's bed stand.  Her descriptions of her dogs are laugh out loud funny, and her use of language is so rich I’m not sure if I want to read her book or eat it.”
Patricia B. McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog

“A fascinating woman, Susannah Charleson, has written eloquently about her fascinating colleague, a golden retriever named Puzzle, and the critically important search and rescue work that these two faced together. Scent of the Missing is a clear documentation of the ability of search and rescue dogs, and a celebration of the human-animal bond." –Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs

"A riveting view of both the human animal bond and the training of search and rescue dogs. All dog lovers and people interested in training service dogs should read this book." –Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make us Huma...

Product Details

  • File Size: 5032 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (April 14, 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003KK5DY0
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,220 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
109 of 112 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read; tough job. March 10, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I learned two main things from this book. The first was, if I'm ever lost in the wilderness, or my senility increases until I wander aimlessly away from the house, or even, in the worst case, if I drown and my body gets stuck underwater (Yes, these dogs can help pinpoint a body at the bottom of a lake, from a boat on top of it), I want someone like Susannah Charleson and her dog Puzzle to come find me. The dedication that these people, and these animals, show to this grueling, heart-wrenching, UNPAID task, is nothing short of amazing.

By the time Susannah and Puzzle gained their certification in Search and Rescue, they had spent thousands of hours going through practice sessions and over different terrain, honing their communication and teamwork, building their unspoken connection, learning the ins and outs, the habits and tricks of the trade in all kinds of scenarios. Susannah spent years running behind other handler-dog teams before she even got the go-ahead to pick out a puppy to train; years spent handling radio communications and map navigation, years spent observing every other dog in her unit in Texas. And let us note: these are years spent doing these things on weekends, and in the middle of the night after being woken by a page and sprinting out of the house, from dead sleep to fully dressed, equipped, and ready to move in less than fifteen minutes -- and then going to work the next day. This woman, and every other person that is involved in this, is truly remarkable.

The second thing I learned is that I don't ever want to do this job myself. Amazing to read about, but oh man -- I need more sleep than that.
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48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scentsational March 9, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Who hasn't been moved by the pictures of search and rescue dogs and their handlers at the scenes of major disasters? This is the story of a woman who decides to become a handler and the engaging golden retriever who becomes her partner.

The author, a former flight instructor, finds herself living alone with her pets, when she becomes fascinated with search and rescue. Starting as an assistant, she decides to become a handler. After exhaustive research, she winds up with a retriever puppy she names Puzzle. As she and Puzzle adjust to each other, her household and the training, they slowly learn to trust and love each other. As the author confronts ghosts of the past and health challenges, she learns to appreciate the special bond she has forged with Puzzle and the members of her search and rescue team.

I like that she did not sugarcoat the process or the results. There are anecdotes of real searches, some with happy endings, some without. There are some real laugh out loud moments as Puzzle finds her way into the author's heart and home. I was impressed with the dedication of the volunteer search and rescue teams and amazed by the abilities and intelligence of their canine partners.

This is a must read, honest, uplifting and enjoyable.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative, entertaining, emotionally engaging. March 4, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I like Susannah Charleson and her dog; I like her book. She has an easy-going, genial kind of approach to her subject matter that makes it a warmly engaging read. She excels at descriptive elements, particularly of her dogs, who just absolutely come alive on the page; I read a few colorful scenes aloud to my husband and 12-year-old son and watched both of them quickly captured as well. Too, the book beautifully balances anecdote and information, managing to be very instructive about search and rescue work in general while still focusing nicely on *this* handler, *this* dog in particular. Charleson intersperses effortless exposition on how dogs work - the different strengths required for searching in different environments; the ways they are trained and motivated to succeed - with stories of her Puzzle's puppydom. She never focuses too long on either aspect, and as Puzzle grows in her understanding of her role, we grow right along with her. We get to both learn and enjoy.

If there was one thing I would have wished to see more of, it would be Puzzle in the field. Puzzle the puppy is delightful, but as much time as I spent silently rooting her on, I would have liked to have seen a little more of her as an adult. I got attached to this pair, and I didn't feel quite ready to say goodbye. It's a small quibble, though, and illustrates the difference between a work of fiction and one of fact. A life in process doesn't always offer a reader a full sense of resolution. That said, the epilogue was much appreciated. It wasn't only Puzzle and Charleson that I hated to say goodbye to.

The book is likely to appeal to those with an interest in realistic stories of heroism (and dogs). It is not gossipy or remotely lurid.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
By acwrite
Did you know that every day in the U.S. there are over 100,000 active missing persons cases and more than 40,000 recovered and unidentified remains stored in medical examiners' offices? Neither did I until I read "Scent of the Missing," a memoir about a search and rescue (SAR) dog named Puzzle and her handler, Susannah.

The book starts out with the story of a missing girl and pulled me in from there. I learned about all the different types of SAR dogs along with the serious dedication, trust, and training required from both the dog and handler in order for them to be a cohesive and effective SAR team.

I also enjoyed learning about the personal side of a dog/handler relationship. From bringing Puzzle home as a puppy to helping Puzzle survive a serious snake bite, which she coincidentally received in her own backyard, I really felt like I began to understand the deep dedication and true partnership between an SAR dog and its owner.

What I didn't like about the book is that it occasionally rambled. The author spends a lot of time talking about all her other dogs (which are not SAR dogs), her own phobias, like her fear of storms and tornadoes, and her mounting health problems. While I understand that these are all important factors in the author's life, they bogged the book down in places, and I found myself scanning, more than reading, in those spots.

Overall, "Scent of the Missing" is a pretty good book. It could have been a bit more cohesive and filled with a few more in-depth stories about missing people, but it was worth the read just to learn about the canine search and rescue field. I am truly grateful that there are people (and dogs) out there who are dedicated enough to fill this important need in society.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Too boring to finish
Repetitive to a point I could not read anymore. Would have made a good magazine article.
Published 20 days ago by Denise
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome!
This was an awesome story about training a search and rescue dog! So much work for the dog and their handler!
Published 21 days ago by Pat Upton
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating reading!
Just finished reading Scent of the Missing by Susanna Charleson. I was reading it for book club - obligation reading -but was totally fascinated with the very detailed description... Read more
Published 29 days ago by Elizabeth Brown
5.0 out of 5 stars I know how intelligent and instinctive dogs are
Because I work at an animal shelter, I know how intelligent and instinctive dogs are. This is an incredible and beautiful book.
Published 1 month ago by Rene D. Galloway
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Learn all about those abilities dogs have which humans can't match
Published 1 month ago by Paul A. Alcock
5.0 out of 5 stars Human and Canine Heros in My Book
Love, trust, loyalty, honor, obedience, resilience, tenacity ... all things a good Search-and-Rescue dog must possess and are essential in a successful dog/human partnership. Read more
Published 1 month ago by AuntieK3
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a fabulous book about the care and training ...
This is a fabulous book about the care and training of rescue dogs. Truly an eye-opener about the rigorous training both the dogs and the humans must continually do to develop and... Read more
Published 2 months ago by kc
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Book For Dog Lovers and Those Who Are Curious About How Dogs...
This is a wonderful book of how a search dog uses his or her nose to assist in finding lost people (and other things). Read more
Published 2 months ago by Dragonfly Magic
4.0 out of 5 stars Glad I read it!
More interesting and engrossing than I initially thought. It's well worth the read whether you're interested in search and rescue or just simply love dogs. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Jennifer Oakes
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book!
Fabulous book and well written. It was very educational as well and made me want to read more. I found it hard to put down. I plan to read her next book - great story!
Published 2 months ago by Deborah M.
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More About the Author

NEW YORK TIMES Bestseller Susannah Charleson works as a search specialist with her K9 partner, a Golden Retriever named Puzzle, for a U.S. search-and-rescue team and research group focusing on the special-needs missing. Charleson is also the Executive Director of Possibility Dogs, Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to rescuing and training homeless dogs for service and therapy work.

Charleson's first book, SCENT OF THE MISSING: LOVE AND PARTNERSHIP WITH A SEARCH AND RESCUE DOG (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), was optioned for television in 2010. Her second book, THE POSSIBILITY DOGS: WHAT A HANDFUL OF "UNADOPTABLES" TAUGHT ME ABOUT SERVICE, HOPE, AND HEALING (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) releases in June 2013.

If she's not "beside a dog, somewhere," Charleson -- a commercial pilot and flight instructor -- hopes she's exploring, either airborne in her Piper Archer or at the keyboard on a new book.

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