Calla the search and rescue dog comes back from spinal injury
Calla had everything it took to be a top-certified search and rescue dog. The 6-year-old German shepherd who lives in Twisp got along well with strangers and other dogs. She was highly trainable and up to the physical challenges of her job.
Those physical challenges are especially daunting for dogs in Okanogan County Search and Rescue. Their territory is vast and includes practically every type of terrain. Calla showed she had the right stuff when she completed a 52-mile circuit in the Pasayten Wilderness, looking for the remains of a lost hiker.
Then, suddenly, Calla couldn’t walk. Her career as a search and rescue K-9 was on hold. For how long, nobody knew.
On the day Calla was injured, around September of last year, she was chasing a deer out of her yard. Sue Elson, the dog’s owner, was watching as Calla ran onto her gravel driveway.
“She made a quick, left-hand turn, skidded on the gravel and started screaming,” Elson said.
The pain didn’t appear to last long. But for a day or two, Calla’s hind legs were paralyzed. Then she was able to move her left leg.
“The right one took forever to come back,” Elson said. Calla’s right hind leg would drag behind her, or she would hold it up without putting weight on it. Her muscles atrophied.
A GoFundMe campaign raised more than $2,500 for Calla’s visits to veterinary specialists and her treatment. Doctors at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University suspected that Calla had suffered a fibrocartilaginous embolism, sometimes referred to as a spinal stroke. In such cases, an artery supplying blood to the spinal cord is blocked by a piece of fibrous cartilage.
The condition is fairly common among larger-breed dogs around the age of 5 or 6 and often happens during “rough play,” Elson said.
The dog that carried out a 52-mile mission had a long road to recovery if she was going to get anywhere close to her old form. Months of physical therapy and other rehabilitation focused on stretching and strengthening exercises, and restoring circulation and range of motion.
Dan Smith, Calla’s handler, estimated she was “85% to 90%” recovered. She has trouble making the short jump into the back of a hatchback.
But she can run.
Back to training
Elson and Smith took Calla out July 10 for her third training session since being cleared by her veterinarian a few weeks earlier. They went with Okanogan County’s other search-and-rescue dog, a 2-year-old chocolate lab named Bee, and her owners, Bob and Heather Rivard. The Rivards brought two grandsons, Logan and Johnny Routien, to act as hiders.
Dogs and humans met at 5 p.m., where Elbow Coulee Road begins at Twisp River Road. Logan, 17, and Johnny, 14, were told to walk up Elbow Coulee a short distance, then turn right and walk into the grass, then split up — one turn back south, the other head north. Then: Lie down, and don’t move.
Calla was let out of her portable kennel after the teens were in position. Smith prompted her to “go find ’em!”
Calla would get distracted by random odors. She wanted to investigate a culvert along the road. Smith egged her on: “Let’s get to work!”
Heading up Elbow Coulee, Smith and Elson noticed that Calla passed the point where the boys had headed into the grass.
But not for long. She turned back, ducking in and out of the brush along the side of the road, ambling up the slope to the roadway with plenty of energy. Then, she darted into the 3-foot-tall grass. Her humans could see she was following a faint line in the grass where the boys had just walked.
Calla occasionally picked up the boys’ scent on their trail, but she wasn’t strictly tracking them. She wasn’t given an article of the boys’ clothing to sniff beforehand. She was on to their scent, emanating from wherever it was that they were hiding.
Minutes earlier, when the trainees first arrived, a stiff breeze had been blowing out of the south. This boded well for the search, because the boys’ scents would be readily identified and tracked upwind. By the time the boys had found their hiding spots, the wind had died down. As Calla began her trot up Elbow Coulee, a slight wind was blowing from the north.
“It’s hard for the dog when the wind changes direction,” Elson said. “It looks like they’re being indecisive.” That’s when handlers can make themselves useful, by assessing the changes in wind and deciding where to direct the search.
“They’re supposed to be smarter than dogs, although not with as big of a nose, maybe,” Elson said.
Scientists say a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than that of humans. One scientist tried to describe how impressive that is by translating the low end of that range to eyesight: Consider how clearly a human can see something that’s 500 yards away. An animal that could see 10,000 times better would observe the same clarity at a distance of 3,000 miles.
After a couple zig-zags, despite the fickleness of the coulee wind, Calla found the first hider. She went to Johnny first, who had hooked back to the south and bedded down in a particularly tall patch of grass. Smith gave Johnny a treat to reward Calla. Then Elson took a soft frisbee-like toy out of Smith’s backpack, to give Calla a second reward of play.
Some rescue dogs are rewarded with food, others with a toy. Still others, including Calla, get both.
In short order, Calla was back to work. She found Logan a little farther up the coulee in a couple minutes. Everyone grew still for a moment as Elson and Smith waited for the proper response.
Calla, who had been silent throughout the search, let out a single bark — just as she had done after finding Johnny. Calla was showered with praise and got her rewards.
As of last week, Calla was still waiting for her first call to a real search and rescue since her injury. In the meantime, she will train up to two times per week.
By all accounts, after three training sessions she was good to go.
“The first time out, she was tentative,” Elson said. “The second time, she was right back at it.”