Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson: Book Review

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Scent of the Missing Book Cover

4 Stars

Susannah Charleson sort of fell into search-and-rescue. After volunteering as an assistant for her local search-and-rescue team, she eventually received approval to train a dog of her own. After a prolonged nation-wide search, the Golden Retriever Puzzle landed in her lap.

I’m not a huge non-fiction reader. Let’s take a peek at my GoodReads shelves, shall we? Let’s see…. I’ve labeled 1252 read books as fiction and 129 as non-fiction. Yeah, I’m not a big fan of the true stories.

Yet I was drawn to the story of Susannah and Puzzle. I don’t watch the news a lot, but even I have noticed that whenever a disaster happens, there’s always footage of a SAR (search-and-rescue) worker and his or her dog in the background. I did not realize that these workers are volunteers who spend hours training each week, not to mention the time that they spend actively searching. What a huge commitment to make to help out other people.

When I was asked if I wanted to read and review this book, I asked the publicist, “Is this one of those books where you get all attached to the animal and then you sob the last fifty pages as they get sick and die? ‘Cuz I don’t do the whole crying thing.” To my relief, the answer is that Puzzle is alive and well.

Puzzle learning to rappel
Posted with permission

And what a dog Puzzle is! She is highly intelligent and creative, and through Susannah’s eyes we can watch Puzzle reasoning her way through the problems she’s confronted with. I was amazed at some of the stories I read, not just about Puzzle but about all the dogs in their SAR team. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say much, but just think about training in burnt buildings and the myriad of scents these dogs must be confronted with. I had no idea that SAR dogs can work on the water also. Who knew? Oh, and the picture of the volunteer and his dog rappelling down the side of a building together blew me away. A dog calmly rappelling? Wow.

There’s one section where Susannah writes feelingly about her time as an assistant on the search after the Columbia space shuttle exploded. She handled it with sensitivity, but it was heart-breaking to read about. Even the dogs suffered from burnout on that search.

I think part of the reason the author chose to write this memoir is to confront the misconceptions the public, especially those who work in public services such as law enforcement and emergency medicine, have about what exactly the dogs can do. She quotes one officer who tells her that he hates to see the dogs called in because that means they’ve given up hope on finding a live person and believe they’re now searching for a body. She gears up to tell him that these dogs can practically work miracles and they should always be called to a search early on when he cuts her off and says, “We only use dogs for human remains….Live people just don’t smell bad enough.” Susannah amply proves her point in this book that the dogs absolutely should be called in before all hope is given up.

Training Puzzle is no easy task. A dog as bright, independent, and inquisitive as she is has her own ideas about proper behavior. Convincing her otherwise provides some entertaining moments. Especially when they share the house with a multitude of jealous Pomeranians. They all have to play the searching game! And when Puzzle decides to find someone’s hidden stash of treats–well, let’s just say the results aren’t pretty but they’re funny.

I think animal lovers of all kinds will love this book. It kept my attention, and I even kept reading bits to my husband, something I don’t recall ever doing with a non-fiction book before. I also think it’s important for the law enforcement and emergency medical communities to give it a try just so they do know the dogs’ abilities. I loved learning about these dogs and their volunteer handlers, and I loved “meeting” Puzzle and Susannah, may they share a long and healthy partnership!

Thanks to FSB Media for sending me a copy of this wonderful book for review.

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1 Comment

  1. We have to get you reading a bit more nonfiction girl.

    My dad's dog trainer does SAR on the side and just talking to her for a few minutes was eye opening. Will have to pick this one up.

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