Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
California Rescue Dog Association handler Karen Atkinson and Amiga, her search and rescue dog, play in the park on Friday before leaving for their third mission in two weeks.
Being deployed to the front lines of one of the most tragic natural disasters to strike the West Coast was a job for which 4-year-old Amiga was born.
Last week, Karen Atkinson, a San Carlos resident and mission ready handler, left for Oso, Wash. with her rescue canine to assist in the search for victims of the mudslide that spanned about one square mile and engulfed a rural neighborhood March 22.
“There just weren’t any words. The force of the mudslide was unbelievable. Cars were twisted and reduced to the size of refrigerators. In some cases, houses were moved hundreds of feet, the ones that remained intact, and you can’t really get the whole feeling because it’s so immense. But the area where we were working was just, it looked like the world ended,” Atkinson said.
She and six other volunteers are part of the California Rescue Dog Association, or CARDA, who were called by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help scour the site for missing victims, Atkinson said.
Amiga is a yellow lab and, like other rescue dogs, started her intensive training when she was a puppy, Atkinson said.
“A search dog takes about two to two and a half years of multiple days a week training. It’s a hefty undertaking. You start with a puppy and you just mold them through positive training to be rewarded for finding people, and unfortunately deceased,” Atkinson said.
Amiga is both an area dog that can detect any human scent and looks for those who may be lost, such as hikers or Alzheimer patients, and a trained humans remains detection dog, Atkinson said. Being a CARDA dog takes a lot of drive, energy and focus. Amiga is consistently trained and, like most search and rescue dogs, will retire around 8 or 9 years old, Atkinson said.
Being a handler is no easy feat either. She’s sure to stay in shape as she follows when Amiga is tracking a scent, Atkinson said. She is also responsible for reading Amiga, meaning she pays close attention to the dog’s body language to interpret any slight gestures or indicators, Atkinson said.
She’s always had an affinity toward animals having worked as a veterinarian technician and with horses, Atkinson said. She also serves as the Marin Search and Rescue K9 coordinator, a division of the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, Atkinson said.
Her husband Larry is also a voluntary rescue technician and is often at their side during a deployment.
“It’s a full-time job, but it’s one of those jobs that just grabs you. Working with the animals and helping when I come on scene and there’s a family, there loved one’s lost, to be able to take my dog and go out and help them is a very powerful feeling for me,” Atkinson said.
CARDA volunteers work as a team and are available 24/7, 365 days a year. She and Amiga are called about once or twice a month, however, in the past two weeks they have been on three deployments.
In the case of Oso, the search was very canine-oriented and most dogs can only work for a few days in the cold, rain and mud, Atkinson said. So to help relieve the local Oso dog teams, the CARDA dogs were called in for a four-day deployment, Atkinson said.
She arrived early Thursday morning and Amiga worked for two solid days before she cut her paw, Atkinson said. This type of work is methodical and the canine units function as a team.
“In this case, we were several dogs placed in an area of high probability for victims and it’s very organized. I’m given an area and … we work that area and when my dog would tell me she’d found something, another dog is called in to work the area and if they also mark, sit on the same spot, then the FEMA crews would then concentrate on that area for recovery,” Atkinson said. “So for closure for the family we, FEMA, [were] attempting to bring something home for the families.”
The devastation was heart wrenching, Atkinson said. The conditions were rough, there were hazardous materials, knee deep mud in some places, unforgiving rain and all the while the families would be suffering, Atkinson said.
According to national news sources, the Oso mudslide claimed the lives of 36 people and eight remained missing as of Thursday.
Well-trained dogs are an invaluable asset for the search community and as the search continues, those responding to the deadly disaster continue to work tirelessly, Atkinson said.
“It was very impressive. Every remains found was treated with great respect. A military team was on site and [when] they removed [the remains], they would go in and it would be removed and a chaplain was there. It was very moving,” Atkinson said. “So it was long hours, but we were very well supported. FEMA is amazing. FEMA is doing an amazing job up there.”
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