Oso mudslide put search dogs and handlers to the test

BRYANT — To appreciate the work of the search dogs and their handlers after the deadly Oso mudslide in March is to hang out with them on a tree farm north of Arlington in June.

Or just about any other weekend, at any other time of year, for that matter.

It is to understand that the training never stops and the dogs that make the grade are few and far between.

On Saturday and Sunday, many of the human-and-dog tandems that worked in the Oso debris fields were reunited for training exercises. They also had a chance to share what they learned from their experiences.

After the slide, they toiled alongside loggers operating heavy equipment with deft touch as well as scientists and emergency management experts who tapped into technology to analyze the mudflow to pinpoint with remarkable accuracy the areas where victims would be found.

Suzanne Elshult of Edmonds spent 10 days working in the debris fields. With her was Keb, her 4-year-old labrador retriever certified in air-scent and human-remains detection and now in training for avalanches and disasters.

They stay busy.

“It’s a lifestyle,” Elshult said. “You have to love it and be totally committed to it.”

The reward for Elshult is her love of dogs, hiking, the wilderness and helping others.

The Oso experience was both traumatic and uplifting. Searchers were able to recover 42 bodies of the 43 people reported missing.

“There were literally hundreds of volunteers working in unison together,” she said. “I would look around and think this is why I am doing this. This is why I am here.”

Elshult has been a member of the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue team for 13 years. Her husband used to be a volunteer on the search-and-rescue helicopter team.

More than a half dozen dog teams from county search-and-rescue worked at Oso. Many others helped with field operations and in other support roles.

All told, there were at least 27 canine search organizations taking part in the Oso recovery efforts. Those groups sent roughly 80 teams from several states and Canada. Not included in those numbers were the dog teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Saturday, Snohomish County Search and Rescue hosted a training session that allowed dogs and their handlers to practice their navigation skills. Teams came from far and wide, in state and out of state.

Guy Mansfield of Edmonds, a search and rescue volunteer, served as coordinator for the mock search for missing sky divers. It took countless hours to organize. The exercise allowed teams from different jurisdictions to work together on short notice, a kind of micro-model of the Oso experience, but with less stress. The teams analyzed locations of cell-phone pings, converting latitude and longitude into searchable areas.

Saturday was sunny; often, in training, it’s not.

“We practice in all weather, including pouring-down rain,” Mansfield said.

Elshult and Keb practiced with the others.

She put a special collar around her dog’s neck. For Keb, that collar means it is time for serious business.

Keb worked quickly, creating her own grid, sniffing through the brush and sitting down next to her find. Within minutes, she’d sat down three times. Sure enough, each time she sat down she’d successfully uncovered what they were looking for.

Being a successful team truly is a partnership.

“The hardest part is for handlers to learn to read their dog’s body language,” Elshult said. “It’s easier to train the dogs than it is to train the handlers.”

The communication can be subtle: a change in posture, an angle of the tail, the action of the ears.

Lisa Bishop of Kent, and Cody, her border collie-cattle dog mix, returned to Snohomish County on Saturday. Cody is FEMA-certified in live rescues and is now training hard in searching for bodies.

The volunteers from Northwest District Search Dogs came bearing gifts. During the Oso search, they’d been given four cases of Bowser Beer in brown bottles for the dogs. They wanted to share with their fellow searchers the concoction. It includes beef or chicken with malt barley, but contains no alcohol, salt or hops.

There were others donations to divvy up as well, including gifts from the Girl Scouts and some pet grooming.

Seth and Brenda Stone of Bothell also are part of the county’s search and rescue dog team. Seth, the unit’s K-9 coordinator, works on the front lines with Sable, their German shepherd-labrador mix. Brenda’s niche is providing support, as she did helping sheriff’s deputies for more than three days on the Darrington side of the mudslide.

What keeps her coming back is the camaraderie.

“This is my extended family,” she said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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