Cai knows her mission
He may not look heroic — in fact, with the tug toy hanging from his mouth and his tongue hanging out, this German shepherd looks downright goofy. When his owner, Noreen McClintok, gives him the “search” command, however, the goofy animal is gone, replaced by a focused, intent dog who does not give up.
On April 8, Cai and McClintok, 63, returned from helping search for victims of the mudslide in Oso, Wash., as part of a California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) team.
“Washington FEMA put out a call for cadaver dogs, “said McClintok, who lives in El Dorado Hills, “and CARDA responded right away.” McClintok said the search in Oso had changed from rescue to recovery within a day or two of the slide. “I can’t imagine what those first responders were confronted with. In 50 feet of mud, how do you start to look?”
“Our CARDA team had seven dogs and we drove up to Washington as a caravan. Two members of the team came all the way from San Bernardino,” said McClintok. “We got there on Thursday, April 2, and by noon, we were out in the field, searching.”
McClintok praised the Washington state FEMA for its organization and support.
“They got us into and out of the area, made sure we were safe, that our dogs were safe and taken care of and they laid out exactly where we were to search,” said McClintok. “They took over the fairgrounds and set up a whole city with showers and laundry facilities. Our team all knew each other, so we stayed together and supported each other and the dogs.
“Even though we saw the conditions on the news, you still don’t know what to expect,” said McClintok. “The search area was so huge — the slide was one mile by one mile — that there was another team conducting a search on the other side of the knoll from us and we never saw any of them.”
The seven-dog team was driven in a commuter van out to the search area each day as the main highway is still blocked. Inside the van, the human members of the team found handwritten notes from the families and people in Darrington thanking the dogs and the humans for their work in finding their loved ones.
“That made me cry,” said McClintok. “The people of Darrington were so appreciative of our help and they showed it in so many ways.
“It was disorienting when we were first driven in. I couldn’t make sense of it. Then I looked back toward the north and saw this enormous slide and I was just stunned. How did the first responders even know where to start?” said McClintok. “Teams from Montana and Oregon were coming and going as we came in. The local dogs had been working for days and were exhausted, so Washington put out a call for other search teams. When we got there, they had already learned a lot about what the dogs could deal with, so we searched a specific area in a very meticulous way for about four-five hours with a one-hour break.”
The search was very methodical said McClintok. If a dog picked up a scent in the search area, diggers would explore it. The area would be cleared of the top layer of mud and the dogs sent in again; then the next layer would be removed by machinery and the dogs sent in again, until the native bare ground was reached. And then the search began again in a new area.
“The people working the machinery were local people and they would work all day, until 5 or 7 at night,” she said.
McClintok said she is not at liberty to share what the dogs found at Oso.
“I was told the mission wasn’t yet complete, so all I can say is that all seven dogs did an excellent job,” she said.
Despite the intensity of the work, McClintok said Cai was instantly ready every morning to go back to the search. “He would be so cold and wet — I showed him where I wanted him to search, which put him knee-deep in water and mud. He looked back at me as if to make sure and then he went right in.”
While the handler may send the dog out to search and wait for them to return, McClintok found the conditions to be dangerous and elected to stay close to her dog for support.
Cai has been certified as a cadaver dog since he was 2, trained to find the dead so they may be recovered. He and McClintok have been members of CARDA for about a year and a half and are also members of the El Dorado County Search and Rescue Team. Cai is also a trained and certified live-find and area wilderness search dog. All of his certifications are very different aspects of search and rescue, requiring different training and different skills. He and McClintok have been together since he was a 7-week-old puppy. “It’s important to bond with your dog and train them right away,” said McClintok. “Cai has a very high drive and he needed a job.
“When he finds what I’ve sent him to search, if it is a live person, he comes back and jumps on me and then I follow him back and he gets his tug as reward,” said McClintok. “If he is looking for a cadaver and he finds something, he sits right where he is. For the dog it’s all about working the scent and getting the reward.”
“This was a very different type of search from other searches we’ve done,” said McClintok. “We had so much support. Our CARDA dispatcher was texting us 24/7 to make sure we were all right and when we got to Washington the California Office of Emergency Services had a canine support person there to meet us. When we left, the national FEMA brought in 12 teams, so we were the last private sector team.”
McClintok, an ER nurse at Methodist Hospital in Sacramento, trains with Cai two to three days each week, going on practice searches. She got into training search and rescue dogs when she was a park ranger at Yosemite. “Another ranger did search and rescue with his dog and he talked me into trying it. Once you do it, you’re hooked,” she said. Cai is her third search and rescue dog.
“I felt honored and privileged to be part of this search,” said McClintok. “This was the first time CARDA participated in a big interstate mission of this kind. If they called us again, we’d be gone in a minute, without even thinking about it.”