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Volunteers working around the clock to treat mudslide search dogs

Search and rescue crew members warm their dogs after returning from the Oso debris field. (Nichole Couffer photo)
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The non-stop search effort at the Oso mudslide is taking its toll on rescue dogs, who've worked tirelessly in the brutal conditions. And they're getting expert medical care that rivals that of their two-legged colleagues.

Darrington-native Nichole Couffer, a veterinary instructor at Sno-Isle Tech in Everett and a specialist in emergency care, has been treating dozens of search dogs in a veterinary triage tent she established at the slide site last week.

"These are my classmates and they're lost in this pile and their kids are out here, too. My best friend's son is out there and classmates are out there and the only thing I'm good at is veterinary medicine," she says.

"On average, I'm treating anywhere between 10-20 dogs on the mountain, sometimes I'm treating the same dog five to six times," she says.

The terrain is treacherous and the dogs are frequently suffering puncture wounds and cuts to their pads as they trudge through the deep mud.

"I get the wounds clipped and cleaned and scrubbed and flushed with antibiotics, give them pain medication if they need it and then they're removed off the mountain," she says.

Along with the injured paws, Couffer says she's treating a lot of dogs for sore or injured muscles, giving them anti-inflammatories to help ease their pain.

"It's just like the loggers up there. For every mile that a handler walks, that dog's running two miles," she says.

The days are long. Couffer is working alone. She starts at 5:30 a.m. and works until 10 p.m., then gets a few hours of sleep in a camper provided by her parents.

She's well supplied to provide treatment. Along with a tent where she cares for the dogs, Sno-Isle Tech and Pilchuck Veterinary Clinic have provided everything she needs from bandages to antibiotics. The clinic has also donated a veterinary ambulance for her use. But Couffer says she likely won't need it because FEMA is set to airlift any injured dog out of the slide area if emergency care is needed - just like the humans working alongside them.

"These dogs out here are treated no different than any human being. They're doing half day shifts. Handlers are coming in and checking in with me every hour."

Even if they aren't injured, all the dogs come in from the field cold and wet. Couffer helps warm them up and keep them hydrated, making sure they're fit before they can go back out into the slide zone. And she says she'll be out there as long as the searching continues.

"However long it takes," she says. "We're finding people every day, and every time we find somebody, it's another friend coming home. It's another family that's getting closure," she says.

KIRO Radio's Kim Shepard contributed to this report

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