Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charleson

4 out of 5 stars
Total read in 2010 so far: 91
(Review also posted on my Goodreads profile here.)

I remember once, years ago, walking to an Arizona Cardinals game with my father. It was a late, golden afternoon; I was young and I more than likely had a book clutched in my hands to read during the boring parts of the game. Along the pedestrian route to the stadium, police officers were directing traffic and keeping people in line. Several of them were on horses, massive brown and black animals with their own kind of uniform. I was utterly fascinated by the horses, even though I wasn't allowed to pet them, as an officer rather sternly informed me. They seemed so calm and self-assured, as though they knew perfectly well the job that was expected of them to peform. Ever since then I've liked to learn about working animals.

In Scent of the Missing, Susannah Charleson tells the story of her own history working with search and rescue dogs. Search and Rescue (SAR) organizations are often made up entirely of volunteers, who give up their weekends and after-work hours to train dogs, and remain on-call at all times to respond to missing persons calls or calls to find bodies. They search for drowning victims, people in destroyed buildings, lost children, and wandering Alzheimer's patients. Given the wide variety of situations search dogs face, their training is complex, and starts from an early age even as potential puppies are given behavioral and temperamental tests.

This book is interesting and informative, bouncing between stories from Susannah's experience training her own search dog - a Golden Retriever named Puzzle - and stories of Susannah's experience in the field, with and without her dog. The author has an excellent way of telling a story and an eye for small details that really bring locations alive. Her affection for all animals is evident in the way she writes about them. Dogs are never an "it"; they're a boy or a girl, and their temperaments are spoken of in such a way as to clearly mark each animal as an individual.

The book suffers from a few flaws in the manner of storytelling. A medical problem seems like a major twist in the last part of the book because of the timeline, and a few chapters felt as though they could have been shuffled around. The most difficult part of the book, in my opinion, was that several of the searches described did not have clear outcomes. They end abruptly. In some ways this mirrors the way any searcher may have to deal with simply not having answers, but I'm sure that Susannah was able to keep up on stories and would be able to follow criminal investigations or even just the news. I was also hoping for a few more stories about the other dogs on the SAR team. I'm sure there were several heroic stories that could have been told.

All in all, definitely a worthy read for anybody who loves dogs and the work they do.

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