Every year, hundreds of people go missing: elders with dementia, children, hikers, mushroom pickers, hunters, and more. You may not think about them, but we do. Every year in the Pacific Northwest brings the risk of building collapses from major earthquakes or the risk of people buried in landslides or avalanches. You may not train for this, but we do.
We are K9 Search and Rescue (SAR). You may have seen photos of our teams deployed on disasters and missing person searches on TV – often depicting the superficial glory and triumph, but seldom reflecting the real-life grit that K9 SAR teams encounter when training and deploying on missions. The truth is that search and rescue can be anything but glorious – it’s expensive and time consuming – yet there are hundreds of SAR volunteers on call and ready to respond at the drop of a hat right here in Snohomish County. We are passionate about what we do.
Cascadia Search Dogs (CSD) is an Edmonds-based not-for-profit organization committed to support quality training for K9 SAR teams locally and throughout Washington state. Our members have over 100 years of combined SAR experience with four of us residing right here in our community. Suzanne Elshult, an Edmonds resident since 1985, and her labrador retrievers have deployed on hundreds of missions over the last 20 years, quite of a few of them in Edmonds. With more people suffering from “COVID fatigue” and exploring outdoors opportunities, SAR organizations are being increasingly called upon to help rescue folks heading out in the snow and the wilderness. SAR volunteers are being stretched thin, and K9 teams are in high demand as more people go missing.
Did you know that there are different types of search dogs, each requiring a different form of specialized training? “Airscent” dogs are trained to find airborne particles carrying the scent of humans and to lead their handlers to lost persons. “Trailing” dogs are given a scent article (such as a piece of clothing worn by the lost person), and follow that scent trail on the ground. Even more specialized K9 disciplines, such as “human remains detection” (HRD), require a substantially increased level of training, commitment and K9 talent.
Training a search and rescue dog is not for the faint of heart. Suzanne Elshult has dedicated 15-25 hours a week since 2001, when she was inspired to get a dog and become involved in SAR as a result of 9-11. She has built large K9 teams and helped coach and provide leadership for K9 search and rescue in Snohomish County and beyond.
Suzanne and her first SAR dog Bosse received their first certification as a Wilderness Airscent Team in 2003. Soon thereafter, they were unexpectedly thrown into their first human remains detection (HRD or cadaver) search on a gruesome murder case that remains unsolved to this day. On that search years ago, a seed of possibility was planted in Suzanne’s mind. Could she train a search dog to find dead people?
In the years that followed as she and her dogs Keb and Kili trained and certified in human remains detection, this discipline came to take a special place in her heart. Suzanne and K9 Keb were able to find multiple victims buried by the 2014 Oso Landslide; they solved the mysterious disappearance of a woman in a wealthy suburb; they located bones thought to be forever lost to timeand even found the skull of a mentally disabled man missing 18 months in Scandinavia. Suzanne and her teammate Guy Mansfield (also an Edmonds resident) have shared many of their SAR missions in an adventure memoir soon to be published.
Last year, Cascadia Search Dogs applied for and received a grant from Puget Sound Energy, making it possible to bring a recognized master trainer from Tennessee to Snohomish County to provide specialty training for SAR K9 human remains detection teams. CSD and Suzanne are offering a five-day workshop June 21-25 with Paul Martin, HRD Specialized K9, to help 12 teams from throughout Washington state improve skills directly related to searching for clandestine graves and supporting law enforcement on cold cases. Interestingly, as DNA research has made important advancements in recent years, law enforcement agencies are opening up more cold cases and increasingly requesting K9 teams specifically trained in this specialty area of human remains detection.
The training in June will take place in different environments and locations in Snohomish County: wilderness, water, buildings and cemeteries. Cascadia Search Dogs is asking for the public’s help to locate a building we can use for training one day (June 22, 23 or 24). It could be a warehouse, an abandoned building, an office complex, a car dealership, a farm, a retail store, a school or a storage facility. There would need to be room to park around 15 vehicles. All teams attending will be certified, seasoned and will know the importance of being professional in any public setting.
If you can help, email Suzanne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cascadia Search Dogs representatives are also available to talk to community groups of adults and children. Suzanne’s K9s Keb and Kili or any other of our CSD K9s can also join and are typically crowd pleasers as they do demos, solve scent problems or show off their collection of tricks.
Check out www.csdk9.org and connect with the group on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
— Submitted by Cascadia Search Dogs