“Scent of the Missing,” by Susannah Charleson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $26.
If you’ve ever seen search-and-rescue dogs at work, this inspiring narrative will leave you with a new- sense of awe of their incredible teamwork and trust.
“Scent of the Missing” takes you to a thick, brushy field, a remote lake, beneath layers of fallen concrete and a decayed building in the footsteps of the author and her incredible young golden retriever Puzzle, searching for a young child, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient or a missing teen.
While emphasizing “dogs aren’t the magic bullet,” Charleson is quick to emphasize their God-given toolbox far surpasses ours when it comes to scent and sound and other necessities like endurance and physicality.
Commitment and patience are the hallmark badges of search-and-rescue volunteers everywhere. “Among our team members are few common denominators,” the author says. “About half of us are former military. A good few are former or current first-responders – police paramedics, firefighters. We have professional dog-trainers among us.” After that it is virtual crapshoot of backgrounds.
Charleson, a member of the Metro Area Rescue K9 Unit, it Dallas, is at her best when describing the special bonding between handler and animal, not only in searches but in the maturation process at home. And she really shines when taking the reader through the rigorous three-staged timed certification testing process in a building, urban and wilderness settings in search of volunteer victims, challenges where an estimated 80 per cent of the dogs fail.
Having been told by another trainer that high wash-out figure is chiefly due to handlers’ inadequacies, Charleson admits, that “in the latter stages of our training together, I’m first aware that I could be the weak link between us. This is not the job for the merely well-intentioned. I have the training, the head skills and the physical and emotional stamina for this, but Puzzle provokes my vulnerabilities.”
It’s not until late in this moving narrative that Charleson reveals a serious physical ailment of her own that impacts her ability to perform. Here, she serves up nuggets of insight and wisdom on the handler’s role in this deep-rooted partnership, pinpointing required attributes as self-control, physical and emotional stamina and intellect.
Traversing a broad path of emotional terrain, the author’s can-do spirit resonates throughout with a flavorful mix of passionate intensity, celebratory energy and sobering realism. There’s no MapQuest or GPS tracking devices here. Conversely, it’s gritty, well-trained dog-handler teams venturing beyond today’s modern technology with basic old-fashioned senses and savvy trying to save lives.