From Rescue Dogs to Rescuers

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), founded in 1995 by Wilma Melville, stands apart from other organizations because it recruits shelter dogs
  • Certain dogs wind up on shelter euthanasia lists due to behaviors that happen to be exactly the behaviors required in highly skilled search dogs
  • Dogs recruited by SDF who don’t make the grade as search dogs are never returned to a shelter
  • Human handlers are carefully selected and matched to a dog; the dogs remain with their handlers after retirement and for the rest of their lives

I have a wonderful guest with me today — Denise Sanders of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), an amazing organization I recently learned about. What follows are a few highlights from our conversation.

Most SDF Candidates Are Shelter Dogs and Many Are Considered Unadoptable

The idea for the SDF was conceived in 1995, when its founder, Wilma Melville, returned home with her FEMA-certified search dog, Murphy, after deployment in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. During her time at the bomb site, Wilma saw a need for more canine search teams to deal with the tragedy.

Fast forward to today, and the SDF has trained over 200 teams and grown to 70+ search teams currently serving across the country. The teams deploy all over the U.S. and internationally to offer assistance after both natural and manmade disasters. What’s very unique and absolutely fantastic about the SDF is the majority of their search dogs came from shelters as strays or owner surrenders. “We firmly believe every dog has a purpose in life,” Denise says. “They just may not know it yet.”

The dogs the SDF rescues from shelters are often on the unadoptable or euthanasia list due to behavioral issues. These “undesirable” behaviors are often exactly what’s needed in search dogs, including an extreme toy drive that gives them incredible focus and stamina. Many dogs with this kind of temperament don’t make great pets, but they do make great search dogs.

“These dogs are amazing at what they do,” Denise explains. “When we find them and are able to focus that energy and channel that drive into a job, it’s what they need. They need a purpose. They need someone to help show them the way, and they go from rescues to rescuers.”

The dogs the SDF chooses are brought to the organization’s national training center in Santa Paula, California, which they’ve dubbed “125 acres of doggy Disneyland,” because the dogs get to play all day. Training is a game to them, and they love every minute of it.

No Dog Rescued by SDF Is Ever Returned to a Shelter

Training takes from about eight to 12 months, in part because the dogs aren’t forced to do anything. They more or less teach themselves with guidance from the SDF training team. One of the first things they learn is the all-important “bark alert,” which is how search dogs communicate when working real-life disasters.

First responders know that when an SDF search dog barks, he or she has located someone buried alive beneath the rubble. The SDF dogs are live-find dogs whose job is to search for living human survivors beneath the surface who can’t be seen.

For many of the SDF rescue dogs, receiving praise for barking is the first time they’ve ever been told they’re good dogs. They’ve been told they’re bad for barking or they’re denied a favorite toy because they refuse to give it up. Most don’t make eye contact at first, because humans have never given them a reason to connect. It’s a sad state of affairs, but within a week or so of starting training and receiving praise, the dogs really start to light up.

“It’s the beginning a whole new life for these dogs,” says Denise. “It’s absolutely amazing. I’ve been here for almost 11 years now, and it never gets old. I don’t think it ever will. It’s a transformative moment when a dog goes from rescued to becoming a rescuer. It’s amazing.”

Dogs who don’t make it as certified disaster search dogs are never returned to a shelter. SDF has a Lifetime Care program that ensures every dog finds success in his or her new life, perhaps doing another job like detection or service work. Some go to forever homes as pets. They usually require some additional training, but now they realize they can be good dogs and good pets. Once they go to their new trainer or home, SDF continues to support each dog for the remainder of his or her life.

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Human Handlers Are Carefully Selected and Matched With Search Dogs

Due to the physical demands of search work, the eight to 12 months of training required and the length of most search dogs’ careers (typical retirement age is around 10 years, give or take), the SDF looks primarily for 1- to 2-year-old dogs, especially Labs, Goldens, Border Collies, German Shepherds and Malinois.

Prospective handlers are screened almost as thoroughly as the dogs are, and once approved, must travel to the SDF national training center for two initial weeks of training. The dogs and handlers are carefully matched based on personalities and skills. The SDF trainers look for unmistakable chemistry and the potential for a very strong bond between dog and handler.

“At the end of the day,” Denise explains, “we want to make sure these teams are as strong as they can be because they’ll be facing life or death situations.”

Certified teams are deployed to major disasters in groups of about 70 to 75 people and around six dogs. There’s a request process that must be followed, but once a deployment is approved, the teams get to their destinations quickly and go to work. Denise says it’s an amazing thing to watch teams unite, sometimes from all over the world.

“Though they may not all speak the same language and they may do things a little differently, they’re all working for the same purpose — to save lives,” she says.

It’s up to the handlers to decide when their dogs should retire, because the dogs will keep going — they never lose their drive. They love to work and want to work. “You can’t take the search out of the dog,” says Denise. Retired dogs remain with their handlers for the rest of their lives.

How the SDF Finds Potential Search Dog Candidates

The SDF has recruiters across the country who are always combing animal shelters and looking on Craigslist and elsewhere to find dogs with potential. The foundation also receives calls from individuals who, for example, bought a working breed puppy from a breeder and soon realized the dog was just too much for them to handle.

The requirements for SDF candidates are strict and there’s an evaluation process. It’s not enough that a dog is high energy. “Think of the highest energy dog you know and multiply by 10,” Denise explains. Dogs really must have “it,” which is sometimes an intangible “it.”

“Our evaluation process seems a little picky sometimes to people, but it’s for a good reason,” says Denise. “We’ll absolutely take a look at any dog that someone thinks has potential. If you’re willing to put the dog through the evaluation process, send us some video of it, and do a little bit of the legwork, we’re willing to talk to anyone who thinks a dog has ‘it.’”

Potential handlers must be located within about two hours of a FEMA or state task force, which disqualifies a lot of people. Denise advises people who are interested in being a search team to contact their local sheriff’s department, most of which have volunteer search and rescue teams that perform wilderness searches.

The work requires a huge commitment of time and energy. Denise advises getting your feet wet locally first to see if the work is really for you. If after some time you decide it is, start researching local urban search-and-rescue task forces and see if there’s a disaster search opportunity available.

How to Find Out More About the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

I really appreciate the concept of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in working with dogs who need a second chance. Everyone who is rescued by an SDF-trained search dog team is blessed by the amazing work the organization is doing.

Many thanks to Denise Sanders for taking a few minutes to talk with me today. The work the SDF is doing is important, necessary and incredibly inspiring! To learn more about this nonprofit organization, go to the Search Dog Foundation website or visit them on Facebook. Everything SDF does is funded by individuals and organizations — they receive no government funding.