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Monday, May 2, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: "Scent of the Missing"

Scent of the Missing

-by Susannah Charleson
 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, New York
 ISBN:  978-547-15244-8

For readers who want "more" about Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs than what Nora Roberts presented in her romantic-fiction The Search, Susannah Charleson's Scent of the Missing is sure to please.  (To read my review of Roberts book, click on my post from September 1, 2010.)  Charleson's memoir of her experiences volunteering for a SAR team in Dallas, Texas, while training her own Golder Retriever puppy, Puzzle, to become a certified SAR team member, offers an intimate look at the rewarding, yet demanding world of Search and Rescue.

Charleson weaves personal narrative about her life with case studies of actual SAR operations, changing specifics of the incidents to protect those involved.  As she indicates in her opening "Author's Note,"
Who, where, and when are frankly altered; what, why, and how are as straightforward as one person's perspective can make them.  The dogs are all real.  You can hold up a biscuit and call them by name.

Altered or not, Charleson's descriptive writing pulls the reader out of bed with her as she heads out to middle-of-the-dark-and-rainy-night calls, looking over her shoulder as she supports canine SAR teams tramping through the wilderness or stumbling over debris in abandoned buildings.  The reader is with Charleson all the way during the two years of training Puzzle, and feels Charleson's misdoubts as she fights through fatigue caused by a serious illness.  Will she have the ability to both do the training and perform the Search and Rescue functions?

It is not surprising to read in Charleson's book that the qualities necessary for a SAR dog are drive, confidence, and willingness to work for a human.  What IS surprising is that only 20 percent of dogs trained to become a SAR dog actually become a SAR dog.
A free-floating statistic you hear in canine SAR states that 80 percent of would-be search dogs wash out.  They can't do the work or won't do the work or too many things stress them to overload and they shut down.  Aptitude testing for puppies gives an initial idea of a puppy's overall assurance, but there are  no guarantees which way the maturing dog will go.  (166-67)

This success rate is much less than those of dogs raised to become guide dogs.  Charleson relates that a trainer once told her, "some of those 80 percent dogs wash out because of their handlers" (173).  This is Charleson's fear.

Scent of the Missing is a many-layered book.  Charleson gives background information on dog breeds suited to SAR work, especially Golden Retrievers; she is open and honest about her divorce, her illness, and her own misgivings.  She paints a realistic picture of the physical demands and commitment level of SAR volunteers (as well as their camaraderie), including the mental anguish that sometimes accompanies a search with no resolution.  Charleson also celebrates successes, whether it is a lost person found, or the passing of the written and practical tests she and Puzzle endure to finally become "certified."

  • It took three years of volunteering as a field assistant before Charleson earned a spot on the SAR team to train and run her own dog.
  • Volunteering for a SAR team is a HUGE commitment that involves, among other things, infringement on personal time (can be called at any time to go anywhere), personal expense (volunteers are responsible for all costs associated with their dogs, equipment, and as a rule, their travel to and from a search site), and intense physical training (SAR teams even learn to rappel with their dogs!).
  • SAR volunteers train 3-7 hours weekly and undergo 10-15 hours of wilderness training, including campouts.
  • SAR volunteers take classes in scent theory, medical assessment, meteorology, report writing, building construction, situation size-up, Morse-code, knot tying, dog obedience, map and compass reading, GPS, first-aid, crime scene preservation, interviewing techniques, interagency protocols, and radio navigation.

For a dog-lover considering volunteering for a canine Search and Rescue team, it would serve you well to read Susannah Charleson's book Scent of the Missing first.  Charleson reports that a question she oftentimes hears from the uninitiated is, "You do this for fun?" (67).  Like the struggle that most Leader Dog for the Blind puppy-raisers that I know have with answering our most common question ("How can you give them up?"), Charleson feels that her pat answer, "We do it for service," doesn't quite express her multi-faceted reasons.
We do it for service would be the summary response, and accurate too, but sounds a bit lofty, and canine SAR folk are not generally a lofty group.  We trudge through Dumpsters too often, carry our dogs' warm poo bags too frequently to claim much glory. (67-8)

If you are not up to the commitment level demanded of a canine SAR volunteer, consider raising a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind (for more information, click their Raise a Puppy page).

You will still deal with puppy "poo," but you might be surprised that the puppy-raising community is just as supportive and dedicated as Charleson's SAR team members, and you will feel the same satisfaction that comes from giving service.

Check out Susannah Charleson's website:


  1. My parents gave me this book as a gift recently - I'm looking forward to reading it!

  2. Great! I'm sure you will enjoy it...let me know what you think when you get finished reading it.