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Shay Cook of Concord, and her search dog Rixi, have recently returned from Washington state where they were among California Rescue Dog Association teams helping search for victims of the deadly mudslide in Oso.

Shay Cook and Rixi are in sync and continuously on alert to each other's cues, be they vocal or subtle shifts in body language.

The requisite training three days a week helps cement this bond, along with their annual backpacking trips.

The Concord resident knows when her dog needs her mental and physical breaks from the strenuous and arduous work she is well trained to do -- whether it's finding a missing person or human remains -- and to mitigate Rixi's angst when she is not able to meet her goal.

The 6-year-old, bicolor German shepherd returned home with her owner and handler April 9, after a few days of searching for victims of the massive March 22 landslide on the north fork of Washington's Stillaguamish River, that left 41 dead at press time. President Barack Obama visited the site Tuesday.

Rixi and Cook were among the seven teams who traveled to Oso, Wash., as part of the nonprofit, solely volunteer-run California Rescue Dog Association, deployed by the California State Office of Emergency Services.

The pair trudged through quicksand-like mud that reportedly was 70-feet deep in certain areas. Excavators would unearth debris layer by layer in response to alerts given by two different dogs.

"I worked her in plumes of scent. It's like doing a math problem. Sometimes you need to take a break and refocus," says Cook. "A lot of thought goes into this."

Cook described the deafening noise at the site, requiring Rixi to respond to her hand signals and interspersed whistle.

"You get tuned into each other. I have to trust that I've trained her sufficiently to keep her out of harm's way," Cook says, describing the cold rainy climate, the various water hazards, sudden drop-offs, and close potentially dangerous proximity to heavy equipment.

"For us it's about respect," she says. "Rixi is my partner and I have to treat her like that."

Rixi is rewarded with both calming food treats and interactive tug toy play, which Cook says releases tension.

"It's a matter of what mental state do I want her," she adds.

To date, Cook and Rixi have been on 18 searches, including locating a missing diabetic man in his 60s last May near Yosemite's El Capitan, after spending four hours, traveling nearly five and a half miles, crossing two waterfalls, a landslide across the trail, and tracking a scent Rixi had picked up from a T-shirt.

Cook's canine was named hero of the month in Backpacker Magazine last October for that feat.

Likening the scene to "a mini-city," the Washington mudslide was the most devastating and overwhelming in the vastness of its scope of all the 200 searches Cook has under her belt.

"You realize just how fragile life is," she says. "You can lose whatever you have in a matter of seconds."

Cook, a registered veterinary technician who has been an active part of search-and-rescue efforts since the mid-1990s, is well versed in what to look for in a trainable dog that's suitable for this line of work.

At eight weeks, Rixi had already demonstrated her optimal temperament and self-motivation, independently seeking out a small piece of chicken that her breeder had concealed in a pocket on a shirt that hung in the closet.

On this latest search, the pair was joined by Rixi's daughter, Rica, from one of her three litters, and her handler Sheila Malavasi of Agoura Hills.

Malavasi, too, knew what to look for in a search-and-rescue dog, and knew of Rixi's lineage of canines with their superlative work ethic.

Both Rixi and Rica, who share strong agility, acuity and physical appearance, are dually certified in trailing and cadaver searches.

And, both Cook and Malavasi are convinced the two recognized each other, with Rixi once giving her offspring a lick.

"(Rixi seemed to say) 'she's one of my kids; she can do the job," Malavasi says.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, even in her off-duty mindset, Rixi jumps into her owner's 1997 Chevy Silverado truck and awaits her next prompt.

For more information
To learn more about the California Rescue Dog Association or to make a donation, visit www.carda.org.