The personal narrative of the author's relationship and adventures with her search-and-rescue (SAR) dog.
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.
N THE LONG LIGHT of early morning, Hunter circles what remains of a burned house, his nose low and brow furrowed. The night’s thick air has begun to lift, and the German Shepherd’s movement catches the emerging sun. He is a shining thing against the black of scorched brick, burned timber, and a nearby tree charred leafless. Hunter inspects the tree: half-fallen, tilting south away from where the fire was, its birds long gone. Quiet here. I can hear his footpads in the wizened grass, the occasional scrape of his nails across debris. The dog moves along the rubble in his characteristic half-crouch, intense and communicative, while his handler, Max, watches.
Hunter rounds the house twice, crosses cautiously through a clear space in the burned pile, and returns to Max with a huff of finality. Nothing, he seems to say. Hunter is not young. There are little flecks of gray about his dark eyes and muzzle, and his body has begun to fail his willing heart, but he knows his job, and he is a proud boy doing it. He leans into his handler and huffs again. Max rubs his ears and turns away.
“She’s not in the house,” I murmur into the radio, where a colleague and a sheriff’s deputy wait for word from us.
“Let’s go,” says Max to Hunter.
We move on, our tracks dark across the ash, Hunter leading us forward into a field that lies behind the house. Here we have to work a little harder across the uneven terrain. Max, a career firefighter used to unstable spaces, manages the unseen critter holes and slick grass better than I do. Hunter cleaves an easy path. Our passage disturbs the field mice, which move in such a body the ground itself appears to shiver.
Wide sweeps across the field, back and forth across the wind, Hunter and Max and I (the assistant in trail) continuing to search for some sign of the missing girl. Hunter is an experienced search dog with years of disaster work and many single-victim searches behind him. He moves confidently but not heedlessly, and at the base of a low ridge crowned by a stand of trees, he pauses, head up a long moment, mouth open. His panting stops.
Max stops, watches. I stand where I last stepped.
And then Hunter is off, scrambling up the ridge with us behind him, crashing through the trees. We hear a surprised shout, and scuffling, and when we get to where he is, we see two men stumble away from the dog. One is yelping a little, has barked his shin on a battered dinette chair he’s tripped over. The other hauls him forward by the elbow, and they disappear into the surrounding brush.
A third man has more difficulty. He is elderly and not as fast. He has been lying on a bare set of box springs set flat beneath the canopy of trees, and when he rises the worn cloth of his trousers catches on the coils. We hear rending fabric as he jerks free. He runs in a different direction from the other two—not their companion, I think—and a few yards away he stops and turns to peek through the scrub at us, as though aware the dog is not fierce and we aren’t in pursuit.
Our search has disturbed a small tent city, and as we work our way through the reclaimed box springs and three-legged coffee tables and mouse-eaten recliners that have become a sort of home for its inhabitants, the third man watches our progress from the edge of the brush. This is a well-lived space, but there is nothing of the missing girl here. Charged on this search to find any human scent in the area, living or dead, Hunter has done what he is supposed to do. But he watches our response. From where I stand, it is clear Hunter knows what we’ve found is not what we seek, and that what we seek isn’t here. He gazes at Max, reading him, his eyebrows working, stands poised for the “Find more” command.
“Sector clear,” I say into the radio after a signal from Max. I mention the tent city and its inhabitants and learn it is not a surprise.
“Good boy,” says Max. Hunter’s stance relaxes.
As we move away, the third man gains confidence. He steps a little forward, watching Hunter go. He is barefoot and shirtless. “Dog, dog, dog,” he says voicelessly, as though he shapes the word but cannot make the sound of it. “Dog,” he rasps again, and smiles wide, and claps his hands.
Saturday night in a strange town five hundred miles from home. I am sitting in a bar clearly tacked on to our motel as an afterthought. The clientele here are jammed against one another in the gloom, all elbows and ball caps bent down to their drinks—more tired than social. At the nearby pool table, a man makes his shot, trash talks his opponent, and turns to order another beer without having to take more than four steps to get it. This looks like standard procedure. The empty bottles stack up on a nearby shelf that droops from screws half pulled out of the wall. Two men dominate the table while others watch. The shots get a little wild, the trash talk sloppier.
A half-hour ago, when I walked in with a handful of teammates, every head in the bar briefly turned to regard us, then turned away in perfect synchronization, their eyes meeting and their heads bobbing a nod. We are strangers and out of uniform, but they know who we are and why we are here, and besides, they’ve seen a lot of strangers lately. Now, at the end of the second week of search for a missing local girl, they leave us alone. We find a table, plop down without discussion, and a waitress comes out to take our orders. She calls several of us “honey” and presses a hand to the shoulder of one of us as she turns away.
Either the town hasn’t passed a smoking ordinance, or here at the city limits this place has conveniently ignored the law. We sit beneath a stratus layer of cigarette smoke that curls above us like an atmosphere of drowsy snakes, tinged blue and red and green by the neon signs over the bar. Beside the door, I see a flyer for the missing girl. Her face hovers beneath the smoke. She appears uneasy even in this photograph taken years ago, her smile tentative and her blond, feathered bangs sprayed close as a helmet, her dark eyes tight at the edges, like this picture was something to be -survived.
I have looked at her face all day. On telephone poles, in the hands of local volunteers, over the shoulder of a big-city newscaster at noon, six, and ten o’clock. She is the ongoing local headline. She’s the girl no one really knew before her disappearance, and now she’s the girl eager eyewitnesses claim to have known all their lives. It’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but for the most part that’s not our job. We go where law enforcement directs us. We run behind search dogs who will tell us their own truths in any given area: never here, was here, hers, not hers, blood, hair, bone, here, here, here.
We humans aren’t talking about the search, our first day at work in this town. Inappropriate discussion in a public place, and we are exhausted with it anyway. Though today’s bystanders seemed to think we could take our dogs to Main Street and race them outward across all points of the compass—first dog to the victim wins—canine search-and-rescue doesn’t work that way. Assigned to locations chosen by law enforcement, we work methodically, dividing a region into sectors to be searched by individual dog-and-handler teams. It’s a meticulous process, but trained dogs can quickly clear a large area it would take humans days to definitively search.
Even so, we could be here for weeks. We already feel the trackless absence of this girl. Her hometown is small, but its outlying population is widespread, and there are...
"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 Human and Animals in Translation
“Scent of the Missing is heartwarming, heart-achingly poignant, and riveting from page one. Puzzle had me from her first joyous wroo!” –Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell a Lie
“This book is a fantastic discovery! Dog and human decipher each other's language and behavior to solve the mystery of the missing, and along the way find their bonds of love, trust and friendship grow. I loved this book." – Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson"[I]f you want to read about a dog who's a real hero, try Susannah Charleson's refreshingly grounded memoir, Scent of the Missing (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26)." —Washington Post"In a dog book, I look for great information, a wonderful story about the relationship between humans and dogs, and anecdotes that are funny, insightful and memorable. Rarely do all three components come together, but Susannah Charleson's memoir has the whole package. Beautifully written, informative, charming in every detail that chronicle the life and work of Susannah and her dog Puzzle, and laugh-'til-you-snort funny, it's a magnificent work."
—Bark Magazine"In a revealing new book, author Susannah Charleson shares the trials, tribulations, and unexpected rewards of training her own search-and-rescue dog….gripping."
—Cesar’s Way"Susannah's tales of searches are filled with urgency and suspense. They are tastefully and sympathetically portrayed, never delving into the macabre. This beautifully crafted and well-paced story, interwoven with threads on training, SAR science and the author's personal trials, makes for truly compelling reading."
—BookReporter"In this haunting meditation on trust, hope and love, Charleson chronicles her work as a handler with Dallas’ canine search-and-rescue team. A mesmerizing close-up of dogs trained to sniff for human scent, the book also celebrates Charleson’s extraordinary partnership with Puzzle, her golden retriever. Whether describing finding a missing child in an air duct or searching for survivors amid the debris of the Columbia space shuttle, Charleson’s prose is palpably alive, showing how each job, like life, entails placing "one foot before another, hoping for good but prepared for grief, and following the dog ahead anyhow."
—Caroline Leavitt, People Magazine"Charleson's depictions of the dogs, how they work and their joys and pains (and hers) are a pleasure to read, both informative and heartwarming....A fascinating, intense and often delightful story about training a search-and-rescue dog."
—ShelfAwareness"The unique dynamic between man and "man’s best friend" is passionately explored by a search-and-rescue dog handler....An inspiring collection of rescue tales ideal for dog lovers and armchair detectives."
—Kirkus"This memorable tribute to the dedication of these dog-handler teams is an essential read for dog lovers."
—STARRED Library Journal
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