Scent of the Missing is about a forty something-year-old woman who heeded a call on her life. It’s also about her multitude of pets who had to adjust to yet another canine in the house, the Golden Retriever whom Charleson raised as a pup to become a working dog, and the adventures and mishaps that Charleson and Puzzle shared while forging a relationship both on and off the field. Scent of the Missing is a beautiful and fascinating melody about the love and partnership with a search and rescue dog.
Susannah Charleson has a history of her own, which puts a face to the throngs of search and rescue volunteers. A multitude of miscarriages caused a strain on an already shaky marriage, which ultimately ended in divorce. Some family members and friends wonder if search and rescue helped fill a void. Perhaps too each missing child she helped find lessened the heartache which miscarriage, some of which had occurred late in pregnancy, would have caused Charleson. Whether their assessment has any truth to it or not, Charleson found herself drawn to the field. She knew almost all disasters needed dogs on the ground to locate the living and the dead. Moreover, Charleson might have something to contribute. Her work as a pilot had taught Charleson how to talk on the radio, helped her understand the workings of the wind, and to not be squeamish or afraid of the dark. Yet for all of what Charleson could bring to the field, she still felt trepidation when certification time drew close because she feared that her middle-age body would be too slow to keep up with her vibrant young dog.
The part of a dog memoir which most resonates me is where the forging of a relationship between owner and canine is described. It’s also the part which one might expect to be most lacking here. After all, Charleson is bringing Puzzle home to join a family of six adult dogs and three elderly cats. Moreover, the dogs are all rescues, which brought with them certain unique issues. For example, one of the dogs has survived a house fire, but not without getting burned. Another had been tossed into a dump and had medical issues. And a third found himself homeless after the elderly couple with whom he had grown up had died. Compared to their needs, how hard could training a ten-week-old Golden be? In addition, Puzzle had already exhibited unique aptitude as a working dog, which meant she was plenty smart. Truly, how new could training her be? Apparently, plenty because Charleson had to hire a dog trainer for support, not on the field but at home. Puzzle it turned out wasn’t that interested in being a complaint household pet. Learning about how she becomes one makes for a heart-felt read.
Puzzle’s introduction to Charleson’s household naturally created some havoc, along with resulting in some of the humor in Scent of the Missing. Seconds after Puzzle’s initial entrance, Charleson writes that the four Pomeranians looked as if they’d been to a horror show. That’s because Puzzle put her nose to the butt of each as they rushed forward to inspect her. As for the cats, only the oldest and most fearless actually even allowed Puzzle to approach and sniff her. But when Puzzle reached Maddy’s bottom and snorted, even complacent Maddy squawked and leaped for the couch. During Puzzle’s puppy years, discord continued to reign, due to Puzzle’s insistence that she test her place in the pack and challenge any dog which she viewed as a rival. In contrast, the cats (or at least Maddy), took enjoyment in stalking and tormenting Puzzle. Charleson summarizes one anecdote as being about “a scramble, a spin, and a shriek”. It’s also about a walk, a china cabinet, and some amazing magic.
In just the above, Scent of the Missing is already a must-read memoir for pet lovers. But there’s more. Charleson also writes at length about search-and-rescue work. Sometimes this means she talks about the early hours, the long hours, the late hours, and the stress irregular schedules puts on one’s body. Search and rescue isn’t an easy job, nor does it come with any wages to serve as compensation. It can even come without gratitude, if ones in a town being searched have something to hide or simply don’t understand the skills of a search dog. Other times, Charleson describes how search areas are divided into sectors, which then dog-and-handler teams methodically search. She tells how the dogs will use the wind to pick up a scent. Charleson also details actual cases, while changing names to maintain privacy. Her tales serve as exemplar models to me as a writer of how to tell a story, while also being fascinating and memorable to me as a reader. The most striking one is about the team’s foray into an area where coyote traps are embedded into the land and hidden meth labs are protected by explosives on tripwires. Others are tamer in contrast but just as colorful, particularly one where a young boy went missing from an abusive home.
A member of our local dog obedience club passed Scent of the Missing onto me, after she learned that I would be writing regular reviews for the club’s newsletter. Thanks to her for introducing me to such a powerful true story. Susannah Charleson has followed up her debut nonfiction book with a second called Possibility Dogs, which is about rescued dogs being of assistance in psychiatric services. It’s on my list of books to read, as should Scent of the Missing be on every pet lover’s book list.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
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