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The Hero Dogs of Oso

On a Saturday morning in late March 2014, a hillside above the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River gave way causing a significant landslide four miles east of Oso, Wash. Known as the #530slide on social media, the Oso landslide covered part of State Route 530, buried 49 homes and other structures and claimed 43 lives.
Written by Kate Hudson
The rescue and recovery operation that deployed to the small community of Oso included over 600 people at its height—numerous of which were volunteers—and organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and American Red Cross as well as many local teams. Dozens of search and rescue (SAR) dogs and their handlers provided a valuable service in locating victims of the slide.

While many outfits were involved in the recovery effort, one of those local organizations was King County Search Dogs (KCSD), a 501(c)(3) organization affiliated with the King County Sheriff’s Office. The all-volunteer KCSD crew was an early response team with 18 members and six dogs logging 925 hours at the slide site.

CityDog Magazine had the opportunity to meet two of the very humble dog and handler teams from KCSD that volunteered at Oso to learn about their experiences and what it takes to be a SAR dog.

KCSD president, operations leader and senior searcher Jonathan Brown deployed to Oso with his nine-year-old german shepherd, Benny, as a human remains detection dog assigned to inspect debris unearthed by an excavation crew.

Benny and Jonathan have been responding to searches together for about six years, but Oso presented an unusual deployment for the pair as they don’t often respond to mass casualty disasters.

“I think about the lives that were lost and the people in the community who have lost so much. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to try to help them,” shared Jonathan.

Search and rescue training becomes ingrained in the lifestyle of SAR dogs and handlers. Dogs become very attuned to their handler’s body language and commands just as the handler learns to recognize subtle changes in a dog’s behavior. For example, Jonathan uses limited voice commands when working with Benny. Without verbal queues, Benny responds to physical hints like the direction Jonathan points his body.

“I have done a lot of agility training and trials with my dog…out on the mud, workers developed a network of scrap wood to walk on to reach different areas of the slide. Benny quickly learned to ‘walk it’ over the boards just like the agility dog walk, otherwise he would sink into the mud. It was a high point for me to see all that agility training pay off in such a direct way,” said Jonathan. Adding, “When out searching, he’s the talent. I’m the back-up.”

Senior searcher and operations leader Heather Cutter and Tryon, a nine-year-old Yellow Labrador retriever (pictured below), are KCSD members that also responded to the Oso landslide on six separate days.

“We were there a number of times that first week after the slide happened and again a few days before they closed down the official search and recovery efforts. There is no way seeing the pictures on the media can truly give you a good sense for the size and scope of the scene up there,” said Heather.

“The most difficult days were the initial ones when the size and scope of the search was sinking in. It was hard to wrap your mind around the devastation. The missing people, houses, whole neighborhoods that had been impacted by the slide.”

While speaking with Heather and Jonathan, their commitment to canine search and rescue as well as their modest attitudes is obvious. Between January and May of this year, KCDS’ 24 active members dedicated 2,772 hours to search and rescue between trainings, educational demonstrations and missions.

“The biggest challenge for me is simply balancing life and volunteer work,” observed Heather. “There are many more things I’d like to do for and with SAR, but time can be hard to come by.” Jonathan added, “Training for K9 SAR takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication. The most challenging aspect for me is finding that time. But after all the effort put into training, when called on a mission, we are eager to use our skills to try to help.”

Volunteer canine search and rescue organizations give an incredible amount of time to this unique calling, but the motivation to do so is simple.

“It is most rewarding for me when there is a successful conclusion to a search that makes a difference in somebody’s life,” Jonathan noted. “There is also the daily joy of working with a dog. The bond that develops is really tight.”

The hours devoted to training are integral to the success of dogs and handlers when the time comes. Looking forward from the experiences learned at Oso, both Heather and Jonathan walked away from the slide site with knowledge to better prepare them for the next mission.

Heather noted, “Our dogs did great. We came away with a few scenarios that will be good to practice, but for the most part we were prepared, as were our K9s. The next time something like this happens I know we’ll be ready.”

Ultimately, KCSD would not have missed providing support to the Oso rescue and recovery operation for anything. These types of missions are what canine SAR teams prepare for and devote their time to as volunteers.

“I would have always regretted not helping when that call came. Being on a search and helping resolve it is…” said Heather as she trailed off and simply nodded.

When asked how Tryon’s name was chosen, Heather shared that she and her husband, KCSD trainings coordinator, operations leader and senior searcher Josh Gerstman, name their dogs after places. Tryon’s namesake is Tryon, North Carolina—the town where Heather’s grandfather passed away shortly before bringing her home. As Tryon is nearing the end of her search and rescue career, Heather hints her next SAR dog will likely be called “Oso.”

To learn more about King County Search Dogs, or to support its all-volunteer work, visit kcsearchdogs.org.

Photo credits in order of appearance: 1. Washington National Guard, Spc. Matthew Sissel; 2. Washington National Guard, Spc. Matthew Sissel; 3. Washington National Guard, Lieutenant Colonel Puckett; 4. Heather Cutter
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