- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent
Dogs have been on the scene of the March 22 mudslide in Oso, Washington, that’s so far claimed 30 people, a count that is likely only to rise as a number of people are still missing.
The conditions caused by the mudslide have been particularly difficult, posing challenges for the dogs’ powerful sense of smell and the way they track odor. As one veteran handler on the scene told National Geographic, “there is so much debris, everything is torn apart, and the human scent can be really spread around…. Plus, it’s been raining and cold — one dog ended up with hypothermia from working in the water.”
Despite the difficult terrain, more search and rescue dog teams have even been called in from other states — like California and Utah — to help with the search. These include dogs like the one pictured above, who sits at the feet of Washington National Guardsmen to be washed after working the debris field created by the mudslide, and Cody, pictured below with her handler Lisa Bishop from Northwest Disaster Search Dogs. The pair is looking up to watch a Washington National Guard helicopter circle overhead.
Some of the photos of the search and rescue dogs in Washington show them as beleaguered and worn as their exhausted human counterparts. And the dogs can only search for so long before they get worn out and their efforts becomes ineffective. (One of the best photo series on search and rescue dogs is this New York Times collection: “The Search and Rescue Dogs from 9-11″.)
War-dog history is flush with legions of dogs who located the wounded (or the fallen) on the battlefield, and the U.S. military has employed search and rescue dogs in recent years, adding them to their ranks. In many ways, we’re most accustomed now to using dogs to prevent tragedy — to save lives. But sadly, when the occasion calls, we also bring in dogs for recovery — to lead with their noses and do what humans and technology still cannot do better without them.