It was in April 1995 when Wilma Melville and her black Labrador, Murphy, were deployed to the rubble of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City – an experience that would reveal to the retired New Jersey schoolteacher the relative dearth of trained search dog and handler teams.
Determined to help address the need for more canine teams to assist in the wake of emergencies, Ms. Melville founded the Search Dog Foundation (SDF), which helps turn rescued dogs into rescuers.
The mission of Melville’s nonprofit organization, based in Ojai, Calif., is to enhance disaster preparedness across the country by partnering dogs rescued from shelters and breed rescue groups with firefighters to help find victims buried in the wreckage of disasters.
"The dog, rescued by a shelter and recruited by SDF, is the winner in this, as the dog fulfills his destiny," Melville says. "The handler is the winner as he receives an outstanding partner. Society is the overall winner as the chance of surviving a disaster has been greatly increased."
It all started when the retired physical education teacher indulged in her dream of owning a highly trained dog. She was connected to a trainer based in Gilroy, Calif., and attended training for the Advanced Search Dog certification program offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Their first major test in the field came following the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, when they assisted first responders by joining other teams to help locate victims buried in the rubble.
“This disaster made it clear that there were too few certified search dog-handler teams,” Melville writes on her foundation’s website. “Out of this heartbreaking experience came a determination to find a better way to create highly skilled canine search teams.”
At that point, there were only 15 dog and handler teams across the country with the advanced training – a number that has since swelled to more than 250. Part of reason so few teams existed, according to the SDF, was the length of time it would take for the volunteers to undergo the process – three to five years – and the cost of doing so – upwards of $15,000 for equipment, travel, training, and care costs.
Melville, borrowing lessons from her canine trainer, coming to the conclusion that an effective search team needed “the right dog, matched with the right handler, and professional training for both.”
With that mindset, the foundation chooses a dog that has the right personality traits – including drive, athleticism, focus, and energy – and raises funds to have the dog and handler trained.
The teams are provided by the SDF at no cost to emergency agencies across the United States.
"Society is benefited as the dogs are out of shelters, trained, and paired with a handler so that, together, they are prepared to save lives," she says.
To date, the SDF has trained more than 150 disaster search teams, with some 73 teams currently active across the US.
Teams have been deployed to some 80 emergencies and disasters including the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti – during which a dozen survivors were located and rescued, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., and Oklahoma City.
"I never expected to found and lead an agency that would make a significant difference nationally in how dogs are selected, plus how handlers and dogs are trained for this specific work," she says. But once she realized she "could make a giant sized contribution, I never looked back."
SDF's annual budget has swelled from under $80,000 to nearly $2 million. That growth has included development of a learning center, where all of America's canine disaster search teams will soon be welcome to participate in training and practice opportunities.
"The dogs, handlers, and the greater society all benefit, as all the nation’s canine disaster search teams will be invited in small groups to train here," she says.
• For more information on the Search Dog Foundation, or to get involved or offer support, visit www.searchdogfoundation.org.