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Foundation turns shelter dogs into first responders

Shelter dogs are transformed into life-saving heroes
Credit: Erika Jacques
Firefighters from the Orange County, Calif., and Los Angeles County Fire Departments with their dogs at a 2016 search team graduation ceremony.

When a hurricane, tornado or earthquake hits, a train derails or a building crumbles, some of the first responders on-site are canine-human rescue units — many trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF).

In August 2017, 15 SDF teams were deployed to affected areas in Texas following Hurricane Harvey. In September — an exceptionally unfortunate month for global disasters — 16 SDF search-and-rescue teams were sent to Florida after Hurricane Irma; seven were dispatched to Mexico City to search through rubble after a devastating 7.1-magnitude earthquake, and five traveled to Puerto Rico and surrounding islands after they took a hit from the catastrophic Hurricane Maria. In January, 18 teams were deployed to Montecito, Calif., after heavy rains led to deadly mudslides that swept away homes and families.

The goal for all of these teams: Find survivors in the detritus of a disaster.

A Win-Win Arrangement

The SDF is a one-of-a-kind nonprofit organization that trains dogs rescued from shelters to become  rescuers themselves. It was founded in 1996 by retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville, after she and her search dog were deployed to the Oklahoma City bombing site. Struck by the fact that there weren’t enough search dogs to meet emergency demands — at that time there were only 15 teams nationally that were certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — Melville came up with the win-win idea for SDF: Not only would they create more canine disaster search teams, but shelter dogs would be rescued from an uncertain fate.

SDF’s National Training Center is set on a sprawling 125-acre campus located in Santa Paula, Calif., 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. Over the course of eight to 10 months, SDF trainers teach dogs to comb through the rubble of natural and man-made disasters, working in simulated environments in their specially designed “Search City,” “Earthquake House” and “Industrial Park” (which contains derailed train cars).

Credit: Kevin Hess
Rocket demonstrates search techniques at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation's training center grand opening last year.

Unlikely Heroes

Most of the dogs recruited are unlikely to be adopted by families because of their exuberant personalities. “What others see as bad behaviors, we see as talent and potential,” says Denise Sanders, SDF’s communications and development officer. Volunteer recruiters visit shelters around the country looking for rescues — typically sporting and hunting dogs like Labradors and golden retrievers, shepherds, border collies and mixed breeds — who are bold and fearless, agile and focused, with a super-high drive and energy to match.

To see whether they’re search-dog material, shelter dogs must first pass a screening test involving a toy. “We look for dogs that need, not just want, to possess that toy,” says Sanders.

If accepted by SDF, the dogs are put through a rigorous program and treated like competitive athletes, undergoing obedience and agility training, and receiving individualized diets and supplements to help them perform at a peak level. Working with a handler, the stakes are raised incrementally. To  successfully pass training, the dogs must be able to find their trainers, posing as victims, in 30 seconds or less in a 10,000-square-foot pile of rubble.

“No technology can match a dog’s speed and accuracy in finding people trapped in the wreckage of a disaster,” says Sanders. “Dogs have a remarkable sense of smell and an ability to ignore all other scents and noises when they receive a task. They also work quickly and can negotiate dangerous and unstable terrain — they have four-wheel drive on paws.”

Upon graduation from SDF, the dogs are placed with first responders nationwide for additional training. “SDF carefully interviews prospective handlers and their families to make sure they can care for the dog and understand the time commitment involved,” says Sanders. “They have to train several hours a day, several days a week.”

Eventually, the first responders can seek certification by FEMA, and state and other agencies as search-and-rescue teams, after which they can be deployed for missions. “Before SDF introduced its program, only 15 percent of the dogs that trained to be search dogs became certified,” says Sanders. “SDF boosted that rate to 85 percent.”

Having graduated 192 canines since its inception (“passing the leash” from SDF trainers to their new handlers) and making sure their teams keep up their skills, the organization is currently looking to continue its mission by rebuilding after losing “Search City” and a railroad car in the 2017 Thomas Fire, the largest wildfire in California history. “Our goal is to make sure our canine-human response teams are ready at all times to be deployed,” says Sanders. “We never know when the call is going to come, but we know it is not a matter of if, but when.”

Credit: Studio Gannett