In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson clipped a photo from the newspaper: 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.
Still she felt the call, and 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. Puzzle’s willfulness and high drive, both assets in the field, challenged even Susannah, who had raised dogs for years.
Scent of the Missing is the story of Susannah and Puzzle’s adventures together and of the close relationship they forge as they search for the lost–a teen gone missing, an Alzheimer’s patient wandering in the cold, signs of the crew amid the debris of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. From the earliest air-scent lessons to her final mastery of whole-body dialog, Puzzle emerges as a fully collaborative partner in a noble enterprise that unfolds across the forests, plains, and cityscapes of the Southwest. Along the way Susannah and Puzzle learn to read the clues in the field, and in each other, to accomplish together the critical work neither could do alone and to unravel the mystery of the human/canine bond.
1. Discuss the search described in the opening chapter, “Gone.” What theories did you have about the missing girl, based on the information you were given? How do Susannah’s experiences compare to the missing-persons dramas that appear so often on television and in movies?
2. As you learned about the process of training a search-and-rescue dog, what lessons seemed applicable to how we as humans acquire new skills? How does the dog’s concept of a job well done compare to our own?
3. Susannah vividly describes how her instructor helps her confront fear as she is trained to rappel across buildings. Is this process similar to the one Susannah uses to train Puzzle? What does Susannah’s SAR work prove about communication and building trust?
4. How would you characterize the family that is formed among Puzzle and the pets with supporting roles, including Blind Scuppy, Fo’c’sle Jack, Mr. Sprits’l, and Sophie? How do the pom and golden personalities complement each other?
5. How did Susannah’s experience as a pilot prepare her for working with Puzzle? How does flying help her combine the exhilaration of risk with the need for freedom?
6. What does Scent of the Missing illustrate about the differences between humans and other animals, and the power that can be tapped when these varied sensory skills are combined in the name of teamwork?
7. From Miss Celeste (chapter twelve, “The Family Story”) to six-year-old Braden (chapter fifteen, “This Boy Here”), the cases presented by Susannah span a range of typical scenarios confronted by SAR teams. What common elements recur? How do family situations seem to affect the fate of the missing?
8. What do you think spurs Susannah’s urge to serve in sometimes dangerous situations? What sets Susannah and her colleagues apart, giving them the courage to excel as rescuers?
9. What aspects of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy did Susannah reveal that you hadn’t considered before? When her assignments involve recovery rather than rescue, how does she assist in the healing of families and communities? Why is the recovery process important to most cultures?
10. Were you surprised to discover that the crews using SAR dogs are unpaid volunteers? How would the nature of this service change if they received a salary?
11. Susannah chose to wait until the later chapters of the book to tell us about her poor health. What is the effect of learning these details after we have become familiar with her strengths? How did the revelations of her personal history enhance your perception of her heroism?
12. What missing aspects of Susannah’s life were found — even rescued — by Puzzle?
13. The book closes with Jimmy’s rescue. What were the keys to victory in his case? What does Scent of the Missing tell us about the realities of hope?
14. How are Susannah and Puzzle transformed throughout this memoir? What lasting impact do they make on each other — traits that endure even when they are not working together?
Praise for Scent of the Missing
“Scent of the Missing contains wonderful writing about dogs and plenty of powerful, compassionate writing about the community of mankind. In its telling, it is respectful of life and celebrates the living.” –Rick Bass
“The transformation of Puzzle the cuddly pup into Puzzle the professional search-and-rescue dog would be story enough, but Susannah Charleson gives us far more. With lean, lovely prose she takes us on a clear-eyed, compassionate journey into a mysterious world in which every story begins as a ghost story. When Charleson turns the search inward, she does so deftly, never straying more than a leash-length from the heart and soul of this book: Puzzle, and the all-too mortal ghosts she seeks.” –Michael Perry, author of Population: 485 and Coop
“Scent of the Missing is not only a ‘stay up too late at night’ story, it’s a brilliantly written book that should be on every dog lover’s bed stand. Her descriptions of her dogs are laugh out loud funny, and her use of language is so rich I’m not sure if I want to read her book or eat it.”–Patricia B. McConnell, author of The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog
“A fascinating woman, Susannah Charleson, has written eloquently about her fascinating colleague, a golden retriever named Puzzle, and the critically important search and rescue work that these two faced together. Scent of the Missing is a clear documentation of the ability of search and rescue dogs, and a celebration of the human-animal bond.” –Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs
“A riveting view of both the human animal bond and the training of search and rescue dogs. All dog lovers and people interested in training service dogs should read this book.” –Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make us Human and Animals in Translation
“Scent of the Missing is heartwarming, heart-achingly poignant, and riveting from page one. Puzzle had me from her first joyous wroo!” –Hallie Ephron, author of Never Tell a Lie
“This book is a fantastic discovery! Dog and human decipher each other’s language and behavior to solve the mystery of the missing, and along the way find their bonds of love, trust and friendship grow. I loved this book.” – Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson
Copyright © 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Amy Root.