Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charlson

Working dogs fascinate me.  It doesn't matter if they're herding sheep (of which I have none), protection dogs, or service dogs, I love reading about them, and their training.  The versatility and intelligence of the dog is something I don't get tired of.  Scent of the Missing, by Susannah Charlson, is the memoir of a woman who works with a search and rescue team, who then gets approved to be a handler and gets her own search puppy to raise to be a search dog.  The puppy is a Golden Retriever and charmingly named (I thought) Puzzle.

After reading this book and also Search and Rescue Dogs: training methods (put out by the American Rescue Dog Association), I know that I personally am not suited for Search and Rescue work.  I'm not enough of a team player, and there are many requirements that the humans involved with it must meet above and beyond the dog training, and the practice drills.  Susannah Charleson write well about the entire process, be it practice or for keeps, and the stories are compelling.  She discusses searching for a woman with dementia who has wandered from her home, and searching for shuttle pieces after the Columbia disaster.  

She also discusses training Puzzle, a joyful and sometimes frustrating experience, which sounds familiar.   Scent obviously takes center stage when one is using dogs for Search and Rescue, and I learned a lot about different tracking styles that dogs might have; for example, a Bloodhound works nose to the ground, on a trail left by passing feet and perhaps items dropped.  Search and Rescue is frequently "air scenting", evidently, where the dog instead relies upon a trail formed by the bajillion skin cells that people shed as we pass through the world.  The dogs work, off-leash more often than not, while the handlers follow and direct them, watching their body language in what is frequently a life or death version of "Hot and Cold".  Puzzle also has a very strong working drive, and Charlson spent a good deal of time discovering what exactly was a good training reward for Puzzle, beyond the work itself.

It was all very interesting to me, and even exciting, in a dog-nerd kind of way.  Charlson is a very good writer, I feel, and willing to tell the story how it is, regardless of whether it reveals her own personal foibles to the world.  I did not know that Search and Rescue teams are volunteers,  and that makes me the more grateful for their existence in the world, and I hope that Charlson continues to work, and continues to write.

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