Pilot Susannah Charleson worked search alongside canine teams for years before she got a dog of her own to certify for search and rescue.
Enter Puzzle, a golden retriever puppy who joins the author's six (yes, that's 6) rescued Pomeranians and a cat or two, not all of whom were as delighted to have a puppy in the household as she was.
Charleson alternates chapters between home life with the Poms, the cats and Puzzle, and search expeditions both before she got Puzzle and Puzzle's training to become SAR certified.
Puzzle's delightful personality comes through loud and clear in the book. Puzzle is eager, oh so eager to work, extremely motivated by praise. And smart. And fabulous.
Early in her training, she was on a "Find!" command...
As we carefully extract Matt (from his hiding place where Puzzle found him, successfully completing her task), Puzzle steals a piece of burned wood from the debris pile. Matt carries her to the team to show off her success, and she has her head up, her trophy in her mouth. "Good girl!" they all praise. Rooo-wooo-wrroooo, Puzzle rumbles, the universal Golden retriever croon for dig me. She rumbles, wagging around the circle, showing off her burned stick. Wooor-oo-woo. I know the sound, but it's the first time the team has heard it from her. It's the sound of a dog who thinks she's hot stuff.
The book isn't all cute puppy moments, though. Charleson describes some of the darker and harder parts of search. She describes being on the search team for the space shuttle Columbia disaster (before she got Puzzle), how she and many others searched for days and weeks for shuttle debris as well as human remains. She talks about how the dogs came away from that search affected, overcome by the intensity of the search.
The true nature of canine grief - if this was grief - was a mystery to me. I had listened to experienced handlers at this search and opinions were strongly divided. Some said dogs didn't share grief in human terms, but that critical incident stress was as real for them as it was for their human partners. It could overwhelm a dog in the field, or it might take a while to surface. They said that handlers and dogs would need to proceed cautiously across the coming weeks. Easy, motivating practice searches for the dogs. Lots of play. Upbeat rewards. Pushing too hard could create an aversion to the work and shut a dog down from search for good. Perhaps some humans too - though none of us talked about that before we packed the cars to go.
As Charleson shares her experiences with all of her dogs and training Puzzle, incredible descriptions of the dogs, their handlers and their work, I feel as though I have a much greater knowledge of and respect for the incredibly hard and amazing SAR work by dogs and humans. Not only was it fascinating to read about SAR, it was made that much better by being so well written.
I appreciated Charleson's scope of her writing, from vivid descriptions of SAR to Puzzle's growth to how she and Charleson slowly became a real search team, sharing a wide range of emotions.
Clearly Susannah Charleson is lucky to have Puzzle in her life, and Puzzle is lucky to have her. We are lucky she decided to share their lives together with us in this book.
(This was the book I received for St. George's Day. Lucky me!)