An estimated 75 residents, dog lovers, friends, and search and rescue volunteers gathered at Edmonds’ Café Louvre on Wednesday evening for the official launch of A Dog’s Devotion. The recently published book details the stories, adventures and heroics of Keb, Edmonds resident and winner of the 2022 American Humane Search and Rescue Hero Dog Award, which will be formally presented in Palm Beach, Florida later this month.
Co-authored by Keb’s handler, Edmonds resident Suzanne Elshult, and Search and Rescue (SAR) teammate James Guy Mansfield, the book details Keb’s lifetime of SAR work, her training and a selection of true-life stories. Her accomplishments range from helping find lost hikers to participating in the grim work of recovering victims – living and dead – in the wake of the 2014 Oso landslide that leveled the town, left many homeless and took 43 lives.
Moderated by Marni Muir, an Edmonds resident and long-time friend of Elshult, the program included a book signing, opening remarks by former Edmonds mayor Dave Earling, and the authors’ personal comments and readings from the book.
Earling spoke of visiting the Oso disaster site while he was mayor, and how rewarding it was to him to see the greater region stepping forward to assist in this time of need. But perhaps his most vivid memory was watching the animals and the SAR teams at work, and seeing first hand the animal/human connection play out against this horrible backdrop.
He went on to relate how this animal-human connection hit home for him as his 5-year-old granddaughter Savannah, who suffers from Rett’s Syndrome, will soon receive a companion dog specifically trained to assist people with this condition.
“It gives me great joy to look forward to how Savannah’s life will be enriched by this canine companion,” he concluded. “It’s another example of how animals help us, as opposed to us helping them.”
Muir spoke of her 25-year friendship with Elshult, her pride in her friend’s accomplishments, and how in the wake of the 9/11 attacks Eltshult suddenly announced that she had decided to learn how to train dogs for SAR.
“The events of 9/11 really inspired me,” Elshult said. “I had just left the corporate world and was looking for a way to leverage my lifelong interests in dogs and the outdoors into a new direction. Watching the coverage of the dogs working the 9/11 site kinda brought it all together for me. Dog, disasters, wilderness — yes! — search and rescue became my new calling. Two months later I walked in the door with a Lab on leash. Since then I’ve been on between 200 and 300 SAR missions.”
Mansfield’s SAR experience began in 2008.
“I’d been hiking most of my life, and the chance came up to volunteer in a search for a missing hiker on Mount Rainier,” he related. “I really liked it, and shortly after got connected with our local Snohomish County SAR organization and started participating in their weekly canine team practice missions. Ultimately this brought me in contact with Suzanne, and we worked several events together.”
“We’re an unlikely alliance,” added Elshult. “He’s a cat person, I’m a dog person. At parties he’s in the corner nibbling hors d’oeuvres and I’m the life of the party. It’s amazing we’ve developed this great working relationship — but we complement each other really well.”
The Oso landslide event turned out to be a big life-changer for Elshult, Mansfield and Keb. It was one of the first missions for Keb after being certified as a human remains detection dog and on the first day she was deployed, Keb made her first find.
“Keb was on top of a pile of rubble, gave a loud bark and pressed her nose into the ground while pawing the soil. A firefighter went over, brushed away some dirt, and uncovered a body,” Elshult recalled. “Keb had found her first victim of the disaster. These are the moments you never forget.”
Fast forward through an array of other rescue missions to 2017, when Mansfield suggested to Elshult that she write a book about her dogs and her SAR work.
“I sketched out some chapter headings and a table of contents, and hoped Suzanne would be open to the idea,” he said.
“My first reaction was no way,” she laughed. “But on refection I thought that if I could inspire others to go for their passion — as I did — it would be worth a try. That was five years and 50 drafts ago, but here we are today officially launching A Dog’s Devotion.”
“Without Keb there would be no book,” she added. “She couldn’t do her work without me, and I couldn’t do mine without her. We engage in this dance while we’re working together. It’s almost an out-of-body experience. She’s my heart dog, my forever dog, my hero dog.”
Copies of A Dog’s Devotion are available at the Edmonds Bookshop at 111 5th Ave. S. in downtown Edmonds.
— Story and photos by Larry Vogel