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 Puzzle at Work Puzzle at Play
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