Saving Lives & So Much More: The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

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On Tuesday I had a wonderful opportunity to spend the day with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation family. They are such an incredible organization, and I can’t wait to share all the new things I learned with you.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) was founded in 1996 by a retired schoolteacher named Wilma Melville. Melville, and her FEMA certified search dog Murphy were deployed to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. She, along with 6 other search dog and handler teams, got to work searching for victims trapped in the wreckage.  She was surprised to learn that at that time there were only 15 certified search and rescue dogs in the entire USA. That experience made her aware of the need for more search and rescue teams, it was there that the seed for SDF was planted.

Wilma Melville with dogs

SDF Founder Wilma Melville (Photo Courtesy of SDF)

I first heard about SDF from their work at the twin towers after September 11th. Along with the reverence I feel when thinking about these amazing dogs and what they do, I was thrilled to hear that about 90% of the dogs that train to become search dogs are pulled from animal shelters. As you know, our mission here at Found Animals is to reduce animal shelter euthanasia and pet adoption is a huge focus for us. Here is a group that not only rescues dogs from the shelter system, but gives them possibly the most important job that exists, saving lives.

But there is so much more to it than that.

The traits that make a great search dog are often the same traits that lead to a dog being difficult to place in a home. These dogs are very high energy, they are driven, inquisitive and not content to nap on the couch all day while their owners go off to work. They are barkers, at SDF they are trained to focus that bark into a “bark alert,” which is the indication that they have caught a live human scent. Typically, herding and working dogs are the best fit. Breeds like Shepherds, Labs, Border Collies and mixes of these breeds are happiest when they have a job to do. They currently acquire their dogs from animal shelters, breed rescues and as gifts from donors who feel like they have the perfect puppy that can go on to be a great search dog.

search dog demonstration

Search dog Ben, with his handler Eric, demonstrate a live victim find.

Once a dog starts in the program, they go through about 8 months of intensive training. They must pass a test which includes locating multiple live victims within a strict time limit before they can go on to be FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or state certified. All the dogs taken in by SDF are cared for their whole life regardless of whether they go on to become search and rescue dogs. Through their Lifetime Care Program, dogs that do not possess all the skills necessary to be a disaster search dog are career changed to another group to train to be an assistance or drug sniffing dog, or they are adopted into homes. Once a search dog retires, usually around the age of 10 years old, the foundation will then offer to take the dog back and adopt it into a loving home, however, not once has that happened since all of the handlers refuse to part with their dogs.

retired search dog with her handler

Retired search dog Hero with her handler, mingling and charming all of us in attendance!

After training and certification, SDF pairs the dog with firefighters and police officers. They do extensive checks to make sure that the organization interested in having a canine unit has the foundation and means to support it,  as well being able and willing to be deployed with the dogs to a disaster site at a moments notice.

Since most live recovery of victims occurs in the first 8 hours, dog and handler teams are deployed with TONS of gear, food and water for weeks. They do not descend into a disaster zone with any needs they have not packed. They are delivered by military airplane and get to work straight away. With so many moving parts, it’s incredible that they do all that they do with a small, tightly knit staff.

Currently, SDF is working on building an amazing new training center, the first in the nation. The 125 acre site located in the foothills of Santa Paula CA, will have simulated mudslides, rockpiles that can change configuration to train for deeply buried victims and collapsed buildings. The foundation estimates the training center will be complete in 2014. Generous donations from supporters across the country including Newman’s Own Foundation and AT&T have kicked off construction, of course much more is needed to finish the estimated 14.5 million dollar center.

annie mclaughlin

Photo with our NDSDF hostesses, handlers and dogs in front of the AT&T first responder trailer.

The foundation trains and places about 16 dogs per year. Once they move into their new facility they hope to train and place 40. Currently there are about 250 search dog teams working in the USA. Wilma Melville, now 78 and still piloting her own plane to pick up dogs from all over the country, would like to see double this amount. Cheers to a woman and an organization with extraordinary vision, they are well on their way!

The cost of training a dog is around $15,000. These dogs are provided to handlers at no cost to them. The foundation is funded by grants, individual and corporate donations and awards. They have a wonderful sponsorship program where you can sponsor a dog. Once you sponsor a dog, you can help name him or her and you are a member of the Disaster Search Dog Family and you will receive updates on “your” dog for their entire life. While at the event on Tuesday, one of the guests of honor was a young lady who, in lieu of wedding gifts, made donations on behalf of all her guests to the SDF.

If you’d like to learn more about The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, please visit their website. You can show your support by purchasing a conversation starting t-shirt or tote bag from their online store or visit their donations page for other ways you can help.

2 Responses

  1. eric darling says:

    Thank you for posting these photos of Ben and I at the AT&T event. If there is ever anything we can do to help please let me know.

    • Annie M says:

      Thank you Eric! We had so much fun hanging out with you guys, it was awesome. I hope you like the collage I made of you and Ben. Take care!