Rescue Dogs Scout Out 'Scent Of The Missing'

Author Susannah Charleson i i

hide captionSusannah Charleson and her search-and-rescue dog, Puzzle. Susannah adopted Puzzle as a puppy, and Puzzle has since adopted a cat, Thistle.

Chris Moseley Photography
Author Susannah Charleson

Susannah Charleson and her search-and-rescue dog, Puzzle. Susannah adopted Puzzle as a puppy, and Puzzle has since adopted a cat, Thistle.

Chris Moseley Photography

Search-and-rescue dog handler Susannah Charleson and her partner, a golden retriever named Puzzle, work with the elite Metro Area Rescue K9 unit in Dallas, Tex.

Charleson tells the story of their partnership in her book, Scent Of The Missing.

Charleson and Puzzle have worked all kinds of cases, from a teen who disappeared, to an Alzheimer's patient who wandered off. And when the space shuttle crumbled over Tex., police called in Puzzle.

Still, Charleson tells NPR's Neal Conan, "a not uncommon assumption is that search dogs only find the deceased." In fact, Charleson clarifies, the first thing the dogs are certified in is "live finds," or recovering missing people when they are still alive.

To date, Puzzle has never declined to work a search. "This is what they love to do," says Charleson. There is some language handlers use to indicate "ready, set, go!" to their dogs, and generally the hardest thing is holding Puzzle back till its time to search. But if Puzzle ever indicated to Charleson she did not want to work, Charleson would assume she was sick or injured, and not put her in the field.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

No disaster is exactly the same - fire, earthquake, hurricane. But almost - after almost every disaster, dogs arrive to search for both the living and the dead. Fifteen years ago, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Susannah Charleson couldn't forget one picture of one dog in particular, a golden retriever sitting next to her exhausted partner, both members of a fire rescue team that had worked all night.

She clipped the photo, and when she found it again six years later, helped convince her that this was the work she wanted to do. After three years as a field assistant on a search and rescue team in Texas, she started to train her own golden retriever and tells the story of her partnership with Puzzle in a new book.

If you have experience with search-and-rescue dogs, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Susannah Charleson's book is called the "Scent of the Missing." And she joins us now from our member station KERA in Dallas. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. SUSANNAH CHARLESON (Author, "Scent of the Missing): Thank you. Thank you for asking me.

CONAN: And it's fascinating to me, there was so much I did not know about what you do on search and rescue teams. For example, that you had to spend three years as an assistant before you were given the opportunity to train your own dog.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yes. That's correct. And though I can't speak for every team nationwide or worldwide, I think that period of apprenticeship and modeling and viewership is not uncommon. And, you know, I bless it now. That three years as a field assistant where I was charged with significant responsibilities for navigation and medical triage and radio communication, et cetera, those field assistants have plenty to do on their own, while the handler is watching the dog. Nonetheless, I had the chance to really watch some great dogs and handlers in the field.

CONAN: And I remember reading about your confusion because one handler would say, go in ahead and another handler would say, no, walk 50 yards behind and another handler would say, do something completely different. You say, I'm just getting tremendously mixed signals here.

Ms. CHARLESON: It's true. And you know, once I became a handler, I got it, when I became a handler in training. One of our trainers says that, you know, every dog is a new conversation. And all those handlers who were saying, you know, go ahead of us, go 50 yards back, whatever, they were operating from the construction of the relationship they had with their dog. And so, they would tell me completely different things because they didn't all run their dogs the same way.

And this is true. The working relationship I had with Puzzle is not identical to the working relationship I have with - or any other handler on my team has, or probably not identical to any other handler's relationship. It's completely unique to handler and dog.

CONAN: Another thing I did not understand, I guess, completely, is this is your dog. You bought Puzzle. You raised her and trained her, yet she was also chosen in coordination with other members of your team. You describe it as an arranged marriage.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yeah. Yes, that's correct. For most volunteers, K9 search and rescue teams, and I would say we are probably a majority in K9 search and rescue in the U.S., these dogs are ours. We acquire them either from testing in shelters or we acquire them from breeders. But yes, they are dogs that generally pass a series of aptitude tests that demonstrate their drive and curiosity and stick-to-itiveness and their gifts of nose and their willingness to work with a human. And, after, you know, careful selection, they come to us. Now, in my case, I did not want to leave that selection up to my novice understanding.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CHARLESON: So the breeder of my puppy, who classically raises dogs that work, hunting dogs as well as service and guide dogs and I think one other search dog in the history, she gave the test to the litter of puppies at six weeks old and 10 weeks old, brought in somebody else to also observe the puppies and then the breeder and the teams head trainer collaboratively chose the best puppy out of 10 that they thought really seemed keen for search and rescue. And that's how I met Puzzle.

CONAN: And that's how you met Puzzle. And it's a great relationship that you describe and not always the easiest of relationships, especially at the start. But nevertheless, I was also - I did not know that there were so many different kinds of search-and-rescue dogs.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yes. Yes. And there are dogs that will specialize in only one thing. And then there are teams that have their dogs as the dogs show gifts, you know, specialize or certify in a wide array of things. But, yes, you know, there are air scent dogs, of which Puzzle is one. There are tracking dogs and trailing dogs.

CONAN: Not the same thing.

Ms. CHARLESON: Not the same thing. Even though, boy, if you do a search, you know, on the Internet, you'll sometimes find material that blurs the two terms or redefines them. But, yeah. They're not the same thing. And it's amazing to watch the different dogs work and bring their gifts to bear in very different ways.

But on disaster searches, we're generally working air scent, which is, you know, the dog enters a large environment and is told to identify any human scent in the area. And so it's a wide, wide net intent on catching the scent of a number of victims, you know, in a catastrophic scene.

CONAN: Then there can be other kinds of searchers, as we mentioned, as somebody who might be - wandered away, an Alzheimer's patient, that sort of thing, or somebody who's been feared, taken and murdered.

Ms. CHARLESON: Exactly. Exactly. And I think for many canine teams, the single-victim search is the more common condition. You know, we all train for the big disasters, because what has this decade taught us but that big disasters are out there in every form, manmade and then, you know, naturally occurring as well. But for many teams, you know, it's the individual condition of a child who's walked away from his grandmother's house in an unfamiliar place, or the elderly person who found an unlocked backdoor and pushed out and went. And so, yeah.

In these cases, the dogs, again, may be given a wide area to find a single human scent simply by air scenting. Or if there are a number of other searchers in the field or it's in a populated area, the dog, if they've been trained to do this, are scent discrimination dogs, and they can actually be exposed to a scent article from the missing person. And if that article has been acquired appropriately and preserved appropriately, what the dog can do is be given a command to simply match the scent that they smelled on the article to the scent of any human that they find that smells that way.

And so, yeah, it smell that and find that, and the dogs will work, ignoring every other human scent until they find that match.

CONAN: We're talking with Susannah Charleson. Her book is "Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-rescue dog." If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Let's start with Robert. And Robert's on the line with us from Concord in New - North Carolina, excuse me. I was going to say New Hampshire. But go ahead.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. I'm calling just, I think, you know, for humans, there are days that we show up for work and, well, to be honest, we just want to be at work. I'd rather sit in front of the computer and play solitaire or something like that all day long. What happens when you show up at a job or an event and, you know, your dog just really doesn't want to work? Are there things that you can do to motivate them, or would somebody else have to step in with their dog?

Ms. CHARLESON: Well, to tell you the truth, I've not yet had that happen because Puzzle - search is the very favorite thing she loves to do. So I haven't yet shown up to a site and had her go, oh, not, you know, not today. Sorry.

In fact, it's harder, I think, for many of these dogs to not spring into action immediately, you know, waiting to go out to a sector is the hard thing, because they're so ready to go, ready to go, ready to go. But I think...

ROBERT: Are there things that you have to do to motivate them? Or, like you just said, your dog and similar dogs are just, really, this is what they love to do?

Ms. CHARLESON: This is what they love to do. Invariably, these guys are very, very high drive. And they're from breeds or mixes of breeds that are genetically encoded to want to work. And so in many cases, it's a condition of just trying to restrain them until the point they can get out to a sector.

But when we do take them out to sectors, there are certain rev-up words and language that we use, and they come to know that this is sort of the ready, set, go before they penetrate an area. And it's a really special collaborative moment, you know, when you bend down to that dog and it's - are you ready? I'm ready. Are you ready? I'm ready - you know, with your own specific language and off they go.

Now in the condition that, you know, for instance, Puzzle, for some reason, seemed unwilling to work or not motivated to go out, I would suspect she was not feeling well. And if I got that sense from her and I didn't see the signals that she was going to be effective, I would simply stand her down and then, you know, other dogs - ideally, this wouldn't happen to, you know, 14 dogs on a team at the same time. But, you know, there are occasions where people do stand their dogs down from a search, even when they've already been searching and they've come in from a sector and, you know, they're tired or injured or, oh, you know, a dog that has - maybe that suddenly demonstrates a real bad cedar allergy or something and comes back...

CONAN: Yeah.

Ms. CHARLESON: ...and their eyes are runny, you know, then, yeah. They stand down.

CONAN: Robert, thank you.

ROBERT: All right, thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And one of the lessons that you repeat throughout this book, lesson that handlers sometimes need reminding of: trust the dog.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yes. Yes. And it is not easy. I understand it's easier for some people than it is for me. But, you know, I came to this as a pilot. And so when you fly, you bring all your senses to bear in the cockpit. And it's sight and sound and smell and feel, and maybe smell is the least of those, certainly in an airplane.

But it's hard sometimes to let go of all of that and really - even if your head knows the dog can smell 40 times better than you can, it's sometimes difficult to let go of what your logic and your eyes tell you when the dog says, I've got scent right here and you can't see anything, and the dog says, I've got scent right here - boy, experience tells me I better pay attention to that dog, because the dog is more - certainly far more often right than I might be, especially in debris or wilderness.

CONAN: "Scent of the Missing" is the name of the book. "Love and Partnership with a Search-and-rescue dog." Author Susannah Charleson is with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Todd. Todd's with us from Mt. Hood in Oregon.

TODD (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call, obviously. I just had a couple of quick - one quick story, in particular, because I worked with the National Ski Patrol and I then I was a professional ski patrol manager here on Mt. Hood for about 18 years. And we had gone through every type of electrical avalanche trip, tracking beacon and using helicopters and everything. And then finally, this was, of course, about 15 years ago, we started working with dogs.

And just to tell the listeners how incredible they are, you can blind bury a person up to five or six feet deep in an avalanche, in old avalanche debris, and this dog comes on the location - and you bring in him up from downwind, obviously. And they put their nose in the air and they immediately run directly to the location and start scratching the snow, and that's where the person is. And that's as easy as it is. And you know how important it is to get to somebody quick. But, you know, after five minutes, your chance of survival in an avalanche is reduced by half.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah.

TODD: So the dogs are absolutely amazing. You really have to see it to believe it.

CONAN: Thank you very much for that, Todd. We appreciate it. You describe in the book, Susannah Charleson, that there is still, a lot of the times, you encounter skeptics, detectives who say: The last thing we want to do is employ a dog. It means we failed.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yes. A not-uncommon assumption is that search dogs only find the deceased. And, you know, I do - there's an example in the book where I have a - I hear a detective say, well, you know, we hate it when the dogs come in, because it means, in our minds, we've turned a corner and the victim is dead. And when I mention, well, our dogs do live finds and it's the first thing we certify in because it's so important to us, and the detective does say to me, you know, oh, no, no. We never use dogs for live finds because living people just don't smell bad enough.

And so, yeah. You do find people who still either are exposed to dogs and don't believe it, or in many cases, I think they've simply just not been exposed to the work and had a - not had enough chance to see how effectively dogs can be used. Of course, the trick is you have to know how they work to use them effectively. So you get sometimes a catch-22 there.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kevin, Kevin calling from San Francisco.

KEVIN (Caller): Hi, Susannah. I'm with the Marin Search and Rescue Team, and we rely on the dog teams pretty heavily through CARDA. A number of our members are CARDA members. So I've got some experience working with them. It's been an absolute pleasure, and I've learned so much. And, you know, as I hear Michael say, gosh, I didn't know that about the dogs. I've had literally dozens of those kinds of revelations. The one thing that I wanted to comment on was kind of a counterpoint to them not wanting to work that one of the other callers mentioned, and also trusting the dog.

You know, some of the dogs that I've met seem more like coworkers than pets. You know, they're very eager to go out into the field. They really want to do something, and they get kind of tired of sitting around the house waiting for the pager to go off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CHARLESON: Exactly. That is so true.

KEVIN: And then trusting the dog, you know, the other - they have the sort of employee behavior that you almost see in these dogs is they want to please. So they'll false alert sometimes in the field as you're working with them and say, no, I found something. They're, really? Really? There's somebody here? And they - you've got to ask them to prove it to you because they want to do a good job and they want to find something. That's why they're out there.

Ms. CHARLESON: Right. You know, I don't want to misspeak, but I believe I worked with some of the CARDA teams on the Space Shuttle recovery. And there were some fine dogs out there. So my hats off to you, guys, for sure.

KEVIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much. Let's see if we can go next - this is Roy. Roy's calling from Denver.

ROY (Caller): Yes, sir. The reason I'm calling is just to hand out kudos to the people who actually do work with these dogs. I was one of the people who would be burrow - buried, burrow down into a concrete rubble pile, sometimes more than acres big as these people would be working with their dogs. And some of these people would be coming in for their certification on these dogs. And it was very frustrating when the dogs perhaps didn't perform well. And these people would just work with them, work with them day in, day out. I was only doing this every now and then, you know, for their training and (unintelligible).

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Oh, so you would play the victim.

ROY: Exactly.

CONAN: And do they find you?

ROY: Oh, yes. Yes. It was incredible. But the way that, for instance, the searchers - that is, the handlers - would sometimes just yell to the dog and - or whistle and then give them hand directions and direct the dog what direction to go - turn left, turn right, go further out, come closer to me. They themselves couldn't go into a hazardous area, but they could direct the dog to that area. It's just phenomenal.

CONAN: Yeah. The dialogue with the various dogs, especially Puzzle, Susannah, is remarkable.

Ms. CHARLESON: Yes. Yes. And those directions that you're referring to are reflective of some of the FEMA testing that goes on for disaster sites. And it - you know, someone asked me just last week, does that mean, you know, you're sending the dogs in where you are unwilling to go? And that is typically not the condition at all. We're sending the dogs in where their lower center of gravity and their four paws make it accessible to them, and often quite easily, where we would be tottery and wobbly and actually put the dog more at risk if we were right behind them. And so, yeah. You know, in an noisy environment, you've got to be able to point left, right, further out, come back in or the hugely important one is wait. You know, a sign for, stop right there. I see a danger. Wait. And just to have that dog grind to a stop is marvelous.

CONAN: Susannah Charleson, thank you very much for your time today. And we wish you and Puzzle the best of luck.

Ms. CHARLESON: Thank you so much. Take care.

CONAN: The book is called "Scent of the Missing." She joined us today from KERA, our member station in Dallas. You can read an excerpt from her book about the search for a missing girl on our Web site, at npr.org. And you can check out our blog for some video of Puzzle. That's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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Excerpt: 'Scent Of The Missing'

Cover of 'Scent of the Missing'
ThankDog Photography
Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog
By Susannah Charleson
Hardcover, 304 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $26.00

GONE

In the long light of early morning, Hunter circles what remains of a burned house, his nose low and brow 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, intense and communicative, while his handler, Max, watches.

Hunter rounds the house twice, crosses cautiously through a clear space in the burned pile, and returns to Max with a huff of finality. Nothing, he seems to say. Hunter is not young. There are little flecks of gray about his dark eyes and muzzle, and his body has begun to fail his willing heart, but he knows his job, and he is a proud boy doing it. He leans into his handler and huffs again. Max rubs his ears and turns away.

"She's not in the house," I murmur into the radio, where a colleague and a sheriff's deputy wait for word from us.

"Let's go," says Max to Hunter.

We move on, our tracks dark across the ash, Hunter leading us forward into a field that lies behind the house. Here we have to work a little harder across the uneven terrain. Max, a career firefighter used to unstable spaces, manages the unseen critter holes and slick grass better than I do. Hunter cleaves an easy path. Our passage disturbs the field mice, which move in such a body the ground itself appears to shiver.

Wide sweeps across the field, back and forth across the wind, Hunter and Max and I (the assistant in trail) continuing to search for some sign of the missing girl. Hunter is an experienced search dog with years of disaster work and many single-victim searches behind him. He moves confidently but not heedlessly, and at the base of a low ridge crowned by a stand of trees, he pauses, head up a long moment, mouth open. His panting stops.

Max stops, watches. I stand where I last stepped.

And then Hunter is off, scrambling up the ridge with us behind him, crashing through the trees. We hear a surprised shout, and scuffling, and when we get to where he is, we see two men stumble away from the dog. One is yelping a little, has barked his shin on a battered dinette chair he's tripped over. The other hauls him forward by the elbow, and they disappear into the surrounding brush.

A third man has more difficulty. He is elderly and not as fast. He has been lying on a bare set of box springs set flat beneath the canopy of trees, and when he rises the worn cloth of his trousers catches on the coils. We hear rending fabric as he jerks free. He runs in a different direction from the other two — not their companion, I think — and a few yards away he stops and turns to peek through the scrub at us, as though aware the dog is not fierce and we aren't in pursuit.

Our search has disturbed a small tent city, and as we work our way through the reclaimed box springs and three-legged coffee tables and mouse-eaten recliners that have become a sort of home for its inhabitants, the third man watches our progress from the edge of the brush. This is a well-lived space, but there is nothing of the missing girl here. Charged on this search to find any human scent in the area, living or dead, Hunter has done what he is supposed to do. But he watches our response. From where I stand, it is clear Hunter knows what we've found is not what we seek, and that what we seek isn't here. He gazes at Max, reading him, his eyebrows working, stands poised for the "Find more" command.

"Sector clear," I say into the radio after a signal from Max. I mention the tent city and its inhabitants and learn it is not a surprise.

"Good boy," says Max. Hunter's stance relaxes.

As we move away, the third man gains confidence. He steps a little forward, watching Hunter go. He is barefoot and shirtless. "Dog, dog, dog," he says voicelessly, as though he shapes the word but cannot make the sound of it. "Dog," he rasps again, and smiles wide, and claps his hands.

Excerpted from Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog by Susannah Charleson. Copyright 2010 by Susannah Charleson. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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