Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue 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.
and challenged Puzzle, from whom she learned the ways of canine compassion. She also learned how to insist. In 2007, Puzzle met an abandoned calico kitten she was determined to bring home. Enter: Thistle. Cat and Golden are inseparable playmates. In the prime of her strength and drive, Puzzle is a joyful dog, a daily instruction. I like to think I have brought her something too, and that we achieve things together neither of us could have ever done alone. And I’m aware how thoroughly she is one
wide plains of tall, stiff grass. Other sectors are mostly brush and huddled stands of trees, so thick that inside the huddle it is difficult to see open field beyond. The air is dense and heavy, but it’s moving a little too. This morning’s twelve-knot wind will shift scent in interesting ways, and when the ground warms after a few hours of sun, the same terrain will offer all-new scent patterns. The dogs go into this with few preconceptions. It’s the handlers who must be on their toes, and the
whose tastes went everywhere. But he had a private standard. He never once touched a houseplant, a roll of toilet paper, or a shoe. Fifteen years later, I thought I came to Puzzle wiser. But Ellen’s voice on the other end of the phone suggests otherwise. She has been dog-sitting the crew on evenings when I teach a night course. When I call her to let her know I’m on my way home, I hear the guarded tone she’d used with Bogie all those years before. “What?” I say. “Your dog,” she replies. And
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,
adoptable—plucked from animal shelters a day before their scheduled euthanasia. Excepting Pomeranians Fo’c’sle Jack and Mr. Sprits’l, the population here swells or decreases as this dog comes in to foster or that dog adopts a new family. In the weeks preceding the new puppy, they were all aware of my changed motions, but only Sprits’l appeared deeply suspicious as I puppy-proofed the house, mutter-grumbling his way behind me, giving occasional “augh” barks of disapproval. He is a bright,