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A search and rescue dog works the area of a massive mudslide that killed at least 29 people in Oso, Washington.


Rescue Dogs Tested by Washington Mudslide Recovery: Q&A With a Handler

Mud and water present challenges in dogs' search.

Recovery efforts after natural disasters are always difficult. But the mudslide that wiped out the community of Oso, Washington, last month, killing at least 29 people with 20 still missing two weeks later, has left behind such hellacious conditions that recovery workers are stymied at every turn. And so are their dogs.

With experienced sniffer dogs on the ground, officials hoped to quickly account for the rest of the missing. But "while dogs can be a great asset, they aren't miracle workers," says Marcia Koenig of King County Search Dogs, a handler of search-and-rescue canines for the last 42 years. We spoke to her about why this disaster site presents problems she's never before encountered and why even the best sniffer dogs can do only so much to help. (See also "Detection Dogs: Learning to Pass the Sniff Test.")

You worked your dog Raven after Hurricane Katrina, after a plane crash in Guam, and at other major disasters. Has the mudslide recovery been similar?

Not at all. It's a substantially larger area and the working conditions are extremely difficult, worse than I've seen elsewhere. Here it may take heavy equipment to dig down and find the subject. And while our dogs have amazing capabilities, they can't do it all. They are just a tool, part of a cooperative effort between dog and handler. That's always the case—it's just more challenging here than usual for both human and canine.

What conditions in Oso make this a particularly difficult site?

The way the mud came through—how fast and powerful it was—means there is so much debris, everything is torn apart, and the human scent can be really spread around. You have crushed houses, buried roads, so much rubble, layers of mud, and not everything is necessarily stable. Plus, it's been raining and cold—one dog ended up with hypothermia from working in the water. There is a lot of water. [The slide happened above the north fork of the Stillaguamish River.] In some areas they've had to bring in boats and let the dogs work from those. And the mud itself is of course an obstacle: Even dogs, with their four-wheel drive, have trouble getting through it.

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A team of workers head into floodwaters on Highway 530 after the massive landslide struck Oso.

How do you prefer to work a search-and-rescue or cadaver dog for the best results?

The best way to work a sniffer dog is off lead, with the handler standing back and watching the dog's every move and directing her to search different areas if necessary. (See "Q&A: What Makes a Good Cadaver Dog?") You, the handler, have to watch for very subtle changes in body language—is the dog more animated? What's the sound of their sniffing? Ideally, someone would dig deeper and then the dog goes in, sniffing further, though in Oso that hasn't always been possible. When the dog makes up its mind that a person is buried under the mud and rubble, it does a trained alert such as a sit or bark to let the handler know it has found someone. You take GPS coordinates so the other rescuers know where to start digging. It's also best to have someone else there with you who knows the dog and can help observe, and help make sure you and the dog are safe.

With a square mile of debris and mud, how do you focus a search?

To improve the chances of finding victims, search managers have deployed searchers to areas where people would have been, such as housing developments and where there are roads, particularly the state road through the area. Otherwise, you'd look around at the enormous destruction and say, where do we begin?

Does the mud confound dogs' sniffing abilities?

This particular mudslide really does. It is made up of unconsolidated soil that was left after a glacier receded. This soil is a mixture of rocks, sand, and mud that does not have a lot of strength holding it together. The sand in the soil has round grains, which, when packed together, let some air through. But the mud, the clay, is made of flat mineral plates that allow little air exchange. What that means is any scent under the mud will have a hard time reaching the surface. There might be something three inches down but a dog might not smell it because the air isn't getting out. And in some places the mud is 15 feet deep or more.

When the dogs do signal they've found something, does that mean a victim should be right beneath that spot—as is the case in many search situations?

Not necessarily. The problem is that all the water carries scent around. So does wind at the surface. And the scent might be coming up far from where it originates because of that mud; the scent needs a downed tree or something else that's broken through the mud to let it out. So an alert from my dog might not mean we are directly above where a victim is buried. What that alert does is help narrow the area to search. At this stage we aren't using the dogs so much to find the exact location of a person as to indicate a general area in which to dig.

When all the thick mud dries out, will the going be much easier for the dogs?

Yes and no. Yes, it will be easier to get around, but when that mud dries, it sets up like concrete. It still doesn't allow for much air exchange, meaning dogs will still miss a lot of scent. Air exchange is really the key to this whole thing.

How long can these dogs work in such a setting, and what needs do they have each day that reduce their working time?

Some of the dogs can work much of an eight-hour day and can do that for two or three days before they need a real break. But those days are broken up a lot—the dogs and handlers need to eat and drink and rest, and warm up, plus we have to decontaminate the dogs (and ourselves) because of the sewage and other hazardous materials in the mud and water. Also, there is a lot of waiting time while others determine if an area is safe to work, to make sure nothing continues sliding or collapsing. So it really varies day to day.

Despite the difficulties, how helpful have the canines been thus far? And have any gotten hurt in the process?

They've assisted greatly in making finds. [Out of respect for victims' families, she declined to elaborate.] More than 30 dogs have been at the site and more are coming in from Oregon and elsewhere, and they are vital to the effort. I haven't heard about any major injuries—except the hypothermic dog, who recovered. From my experience, if dogs are trained in agility—if they know how and where to place their feet and how to climb both up and down, and if they don't willy-nilly jump off of things—there aren't a lot of injuries.

Having the dogs on-site is obviously an important tool for finding victims. What other purpose do they serve there?

In some cases, the families of victims are out there searching, which adds a different level of emotion to the scene. And sometimes people—rescue workers, firemen, family members—just want to pet a dog. My German shepherd Raven isn't known for being terribly excited about other people. She usually doesn't really care about them. But during all of this, she's been different. Not only is she accepting being petted, she's actually snuggling up to people, cuddling in their laps—something she never does. It seems she senses the unusual level of stress around her and is providing some comfort to the people suffering. It's amazing how nicely dogs rise to the occasion when they're needed.