They May Be Unadoptable, but Have the Right Stuff for This

sdf recruits shelter dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), founded in 1995, stands apart from other organizations because it recruits shelter dogs from across the U.S.
  • Selected dogs live, train and receive veterinary care at the SDF’s training center until they graduate with their handler
  • The SDF looks for very specific traits in the shelter dogs it recruits, and has had the best success with air-scenting dogs who have an extreme toy drive, or urge to hunt and search in general
  • The dogs train for eight to 12 months with SDF, then for another year to receive FEMA or state certification

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) was founded by a remarkable woman named Wilma Melville. In April 1995, Melville, a retired physical education teacher from California, traveled with Murphy, her FEMA-certified search dog, to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Once there, Melville quickly recognized a need for more canine search teams to deal with the tragedy. Not one to waste time, later that same year she created the SDF, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nongovernmental organization based in Santa Paula, California.

What Sets the SDF Apart From Other Organizations? Shelter Dogs!

The SDF produces highly skilled canine search teams that work with first responders to search for victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. What separates this organization from others with a similar mission is the SDF recruits rescued dogs. The dogs receive ongoing professional training and are partnered with firefighters at no cost to their departments. The training takes place at the SDF's NTC (National Training Center), a state-of-the-art facility located on 125 acres of donated ranch land.

At the NTC, there are specially designed indoor and outdoor training facilities for beginner and advanced dogs, classrooms and accommodations for handlers, and offices for the center's staff. As dogs arrive from shelters all over the U.S., the first stop is a temporary quarantine to ensure they're healthy before they join the rest of the canines-in-training.

In addition to a thorough physical exam and lab work, the center's volunteer veterinarians also perform diagnostic imaging to look for potential problems like degenerative joint disease that could hamper a dog's ability to do physically challenging work.

Ongoing routine veterinary care as well as specialized care is provided for each dog living at the NTC. In addition, the veterinarians also teach the dogs' handlers how to identify canine emergencies such as dehydration and heatstroke, and how to provide first aid in the field. Firefighter handlers also learn to provide their dogs with basic first aid, wound care and bandaging.

Which Shelter Dogs Have the Right Stuff?

Disaster sites are typically noisy, confusing, grimy, dark and dangerous. In its two decades of operation, the staff at the SDF has developed a system of evaluations to determine which rescued dogs are good candidates for search and rescue work.

"It takes an extraordinary dog — with extreme boldness, intense drive, energy, strength, athleticism, agility and focus — to approach every training exercise and deployment with energy and determination," Denise Sanders, director of communications for the SDF, told dvm360. "These are dogs that love to work, need to work, and want nothing more than to be out on the rubble searching."1

Like many other service dog organizations, the SDF has learned over the years that the breeds most likely to succeed at search and rescue are Labrador and Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois, Border Collies, and mixes of these breeds.

"These specific breeds are 'air-scenting' dogs that sniff with their noses up in the air," explains Sanders. "When they scent a victim, you can see them whip their heads around to get into the 'scent cone,' which is a cone-shaped area that goes out from a pinpointed spot and widens over the rubble. You can see the dog hit upon the scent and zero in on the cone. It'll wheel around and zigzag on it until it gets to the strongest scent spot."

Once a dog finds the strongest scent spot, he puts his nose down to alert his handler, who in turn signals human rescuers to work that specific site. The dogs' phenomenal sense of smell makes them born for the job, so it seems.

Full Certification Can Take Up to Two Years

Turning a shelter dog into a highly trained search and rescue dog is a process involving not just the animal's innate skills and personality, but also a lot of hard work. Just a few of the steps in the process include:

Finding the right shelter dogs at the right time — Sadly, shelter dogs with the right stuff for search and rescue work can be viewed as unadoptable, and even wind up on the list to be euthanized, due to the very attributes that make them excellent workers.

"With their level of excessive energy and toy obsession, some of these dogs would not make great pets," says Sanders. "They're more likely to chew up a couch than be a couch potato."

Reward-based training — One of the most important traits recruiters look for in shelter dogs is either an extreme toy drive or an extreme drive to hunt and search in general, and one of the first things the dogs learn at the NTC is that barking for a favorite toy is a good thing.

"The dog tends to have a lightbulb moment in which it realizes that not only can it bark for a toy; it's encouraged to bark for a toy — and is rewarded when it does," says Sanders. "The dog learns that it can use what was formerly considered bad behavior to its advantage."

As soon as a dog grasps this concept, she's primed to pick up more quickly on the rest of her training, and the favorite toy becomes the reward when she locates, for example, a person in a barrel. The challenges become increasingly more difficult as the dogs progress, and each time the dog is rewarded and praised, she's learning and gaining confidence. Obedience work is also part of the training program for each dog.

Handler and dog team training — The dogs at NTC receive eight to 12 months of training before meeting their human handlers, and then the SDF works with the handler-dog team for two weeks to make sure they're a good fit for each other. "We can't push. We have to give them whatever time it takes to jell, dog to handler and handler to dog," says Sanders.

If all goes well, at the end of the two-week course, the leash is passed from the dog's trainer to his new handler. The dogs go home with their handlers and participate in ongoing training with the SDF.

After graduating from the SDF, the handler and his or her dog take another year of training to achieve either FEMA or state certification. Once they achieve this additional certification, they are considered highly trained and ready to be deployed to disasters anywhere in the nation.

The U.S. has a shortage of canine disaster search teams. In fact we need about twice as many as are currently available. If you're interested in learning more about the SDF, visit the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. They're also on Facebook.

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