Scent of the Missing
by Susannah Charleson
5 stars - not just for dog lovers
At last! A dog book written by somebody who can write! Thank goodness.
Scent of the Living is Susannah Charleson's story of her work with Search and Rescue. It follows her progress from trainee who tags along behind dog teams taking notes, to getting her own SAR dog, Puzzle, and raising her to locate missing people.
Dog lovers will appreciate the tales of raising a rambunctious and independent Golden Retriever. Certainly a different dog from the rescue Pomeranians in residence prior to the arrival of SAR puppy, Puzzle.
Anybody who has raised a puppy will easily relate to the descriptions of trying to tame the beast as in this passage regarding their early experiences in walking nicely on leash:
"In a few months, I get a casual, acceptable trot ahead from her, punctuated by only a few spasms of pull. The lead is frequently slack. I feel less like I'm walking a chain saw. But "heel" Puzzle seems to find insulting. She veers away on her lead like a reluctant teenager in the company of a parent. We are irrevocably bound, but terribly uncool. She seems to be sure I'm unnecessary. She prefers to think I'm invisible too."
How ignorant I was regarding the training that goes into search and rescue (and, by the way, most of the teams doing it are volunteers, often working all night and then going to their "real" jobs in the morning). Handlers need to learn to rappel off buildings (eventually with their dogs), trudge through nasty environments, both indoors and out, and often go about their business under the glare of less than friendly people.
Ms. Charleson does a good job of describing the work without dwelling on the details of the finds. While she goes out on searches for lost seniors, lost children, sweeps through houses destroyed by fire, communities devastated by natural disaster, she keeps her focus on the dogs and handlers.
Not only do the handlers have to train to search, they spend a lot of time acting as victims for the dogs to find. Squished between sodden mattresses, pinched in under piles of rubble, hoping for a quick find to relieve the claustrophobia and discomfort of playing the role.
These people and their dogs know the meaning of giving. They are dedicated and relentless. I am in awe.
Eventually it is time for Puzzle to take the series of tests which will qualify her to be an official SAR dog. Through brush and bramble, over water, in buildings and out, and inside a fire scene:
"At the end of a long corridor smudged dark with recent smoke, Puzzle stands with her nose to a door, her tail waving faintly, Six rooms, six closed doors, and behind one of those, a single volunteer victim buried in rubble. We are in the fire department burn building, and today Puzzle is telling me which closed door to open and which others to ignore. She was given the "Find!" command yards from the building, and in she ran, smiling, her tongue out sideways. I am steps behind her, running from bright into immediate gloom. The air here is thick with soot and the dust of spent hay, and in the flashlight's beam, I can see the swirls of Puzzle's slipstream wash up against the wall like an airplane's wingtip vortices. If she were to disappear down some dark passage, for a time at least I could track her path through dusty air. I sneeze, then sneeze again."