You might believe, as I did, that you know something about how search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs work from watching television or movies. Chances are these notions are misconceptions. A SAR team member doesn't simply have a dog sniff an object owned by the missing person and then turn it loose. Instead, the dog handlers are assigned to specific areas by law enforcement officials. That area is divided into sectors, which are worked methodically. The dogs can cover every inch of the area much, much faster than humans can. I also was under the impression that SAR human team members were well-compensated for their hard work and expertise. Wrong, again. Most are selfless volunteers juggling arduous tests, lessons, practice and actual searches with their day jobs. These details, and more, are covered in this fascinating story of Susannah Charleson's experiences with her partner, Puzzle, a Golden Retriever.
The story opens during a search for a missing girl just as Susannah Charleson is approaching a landmark in her SAR career: she will soon be able to actually train and run a search dog after three years working as a SAR Field Assistant. The assistant helps the team with radio communications, medical aid, and other necessary functions. As Susannah's milestone nears, we learn how she began working with the SAR team. As a flight instructor, she was asked to fly search missions with law officers. A middle-of-the-night encounter with a dog on a runway was a turning point, sending her off to find a career melding her love of dogs with a calling of service.
When Susannah first sees Puzzle, the pup who is to become her SAR partner, she adores the little bundle of fluff immediately. However, Puzzle is decidedly indifferent toward her new owner…and Susannah's several Pomeranians are appalled when the rambunctious puppy bounces into their home.
Some SAR dogs, like Puzzle, start training as scatter-brained pups. That makes it sometimes difficult to follow the first rule of a SAR human partner: "Trust your dog." As Susannah trains Puzzle, she plays scent games with her. She passes a treat between her hands and then asks Puzzle to bump the fist that now conceals the goody. As Puzzle succeeds, Susannah makes the challenges more complex.
One early training experience is called a runaway. An assistant holds the dog while the handler hides in a nearby, easy-to-discover spot. The assistant releases the dog, saying, "Find." When the dog discovers the handler, he is praised. Over time, the hiding places grow progressively more difficult to find. Eventually, the assistant also hides.
Training is fraught with problems with a young distractible dog. Handlers must take pains not to over-discipline, over-indulge, or compensate for their canine partner by giving credit when no credit is due. As important in a SAR dog as the qualities of intelligence and heightened scent perception are, these dogs must also excel in drive and confidence. Many (some say as high as 80 percent) would-be SAR dogs can't or won't do the work --- or are actually hampered by their handlers.
Susannah's tales of searches are filled with urgency and suspense. They are tastefully and sympathetically portrayed, never delving into the macabre. This beautifully crafted and well-paced story, interwoven with threads on training, SAR science and the author's personal trials, makes for truly compelling reading.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org) on January 23, 2011