National Disaster Search Dog Foundation 3

Rescuing Dogs to Save Lives

Tornados, hurricanes, floods, building collapse, train wrecks. Disasters can happen anytime, anywhere. And when people are missing, buried in rubble, getting search dogs on the scene quickly increases their chance of being discovered and rescued.

After the Oklahoma tornadoes, search dogs were on the scene in an hour and a half, helping to locate victims missing among the destruction. In Port au Prince, Haiti, search dogs helped save 12 lives, for which Pearl was honored with the ASPCA Dog of the Year award. Search dogs have helped locate disaster victims throughout the world, including Japan, Haiti, Oklahoma and New York.

Many of the specially trained canines learned their lifesaving skills at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation training facility in Santa Paula, California. Founded by Wilma Melville in 1996, the nonprofit Search Dog Foundation’s mission is to “strengthen disaster response in America by recruiting rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.”

“The beauty of the dogs is that they give people hope. They give people hope that someone can be found alive,” says Melville, who saw the need for more canine search teams when she and her dog Murphy responded to the Oklahoma City 
bombings in 1995.

One of a handful of advanced FEMA-certified handlers, Melville was stunned by the loss of lives that resulted from the bombings. With only 15 trained canine search teams in the nation at that time, the disaster brought to light the great need for rescue dogs to find people trapped under rubble.

Melville, then in her 60s, set out to fill that need.

“I like to rise to the challenge,” explained Melville, a retired Physical Education teacher and avid aviator with a special connection to animals since childhood. “I felt I could do something; I felt I could make a difference,” she said.

Since its start in 1996, the Search Dog Foundation has trained and certified more than a hundred canine search teams, providing the nation with highly trained dogs and handlers that can go anywhere, anytime and do a highly professional job.

Partnering shelter dogs with firefighters, the Search Dog Foundation professionally trains canines and offers an ongoing training program at no cost to fire departments and with no government funding.

Based in Ojai, California, the Search Dog Foundation’s trained canine teams have been deployed to disaster sites throughout the world, including the World Trade Center, Japan and Haiti. Currently, 72 SDF-trained Search Teams located in California, Florida, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Baja California are ready to deploy and save lives in case of a disaster. Thanks to Mutual Aid Agreements between counties, cities and states, these precious, life-saving resources can be shared regionally and nationally to make sure that when disaster strikes, “No One Is Left Behind.”

From Rescued to Rescuer

Many of the Search Dog Foundation’s dogs are rescued shelter dogs that have been “re-energized” and given a job.

It takes a special dog, with traits including self-confidence, an outgoing nature, interest in toys, high energy, boldness, drive and ability to focus to become a certified search dog.

Tanner was found homeless and hungry on a golf course when the Foundation adopted him and gave him a purpose. During a training exercise, Tanner found a “victim” buried in rubble in seconds, barking loudly directly above the hidden victim.

“The rescued becomes the rescuer; that’s a terrific feeling,” says Melville.

Dogs undergo directional and obedience training and are taught to search through a game of hide and seek during which trainers hide with a toy.

“It’s like a game for the dog,” says Melville. “It’s fun.”

The Foundation relies on grants, sponsorships and private donations to fund the training and ensures lifetime care for every dog in its program. While 15 certified canine search teams in 1995 have grown to more than 150 today, “the need is an absolute minimum of 400,” says Melville.

Grand Opening

The Search Dog Foundation plans to train many more canine search teams from around the country at its 125-acre National Training Center for Canine Disaster Search Teams, located in a beautiful, rustic canyon in Santa Paula, California. The first facility of its kind in the nation, the center provides a place where rescued dogs learn to be rescuers, and Search Teams can practice disaster simulations under the expert guidance of SDF trainers.

The center will be fully operational by September 2016, with more disaster simulation props to be added in 2017.

Training and preparing increased numbers of certified canine search teams will surely save lives of disaster victims trapped under the debris of destruction, when the sound of a search dog’s triumphant “Eureka” bark signals life, almost lost, has been amazingly found.

To learn more about the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, call 888.459.4376 or visit