Big Stories

The Expendables: Inside America’s Elite Search And Rescue Dog Training Center

Rejected by society, these talented misfits are carefully recruited by tactical experts and trained at the nation’s top facility to perform the most dangerous, lifesaving missions. Meet Wilma Melville, who turns rescued dogs into rescue dogs.

Callie was a washout. A Labrador retriever raised to be a seeing-eye dog, her bold curiosity was ill-suited to a life of leading around the blind, leaving her a born-and-bred worker with no job to do.

Hayden bounced around central California shelters, an energetic black Lab with scars on either side of his mouth from where someone had wired his jaws shut, probably to keep him from barking.

Yellow Lab Riley had chewed and chased and just generally annoyed his way out of two homes.

Pearl was a juvenile delinquent. A high-strung Lab with a largely absentee owner, she’d jailbreak out of the yard as often as she could, roaming free until animal control nabbed her. Tired of paying to bail Pearl out of the pound every time, one day her owner just left her there.

Raider was a young pup living in a “kill” shelter. A good-looking Lab-shepherd mix, he had too much energy for homes with young children or too little space to run around in, and the shelter would only be able hold him for so long before they had to put him down.

Tucker looked like Dr. Moreau had seen fit to put together a Lab’s body, a racehorse’s legs and a bear’s paws, then left him to languish in a Northern California shelter.

Yet all of these dogs are recent graduates and accomplished alumni of one of the world’s most elite dog training programs, drawing dogs and trainers from across the country — a Navy Seal school for sniffers, an FBI Academy for flea bags — not in spite of the fact that they were rejects and washouts and shelter cases, but precisely because they were.

There are currently 263 FEMA-certified search and rescue (SAR) dogs in the United States, ready to respond in minutes to local catastrophes, and within hours to the hurricanes, terrorist attacks, tsunamis, and earthquakes continually befalling the nation and the globe. Of those 263 dogs, 43 were trained by a single group, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF). The two largest suppliers after that are California’s Mountain View Kennels with 26 dogs and Maranatha Kennels in Maine with 20, but they’re more homage than competitor, using the same evaluation and training techniques that the SDF pioneered to try to meet the country’s ever-growing need for SAR dogs.

Throw a single ball into a pit of balls and an SDF-trained pooch won’t rest until she’s found and returned the exact one you tossed, identifying it by the scent your hand left behind. Bury leftovers from last night’s steak dinner in a pile of rubble, and she won’t give it so much as a second sniff before going back to hunting down a target that’s hidden somewhere else in the pile. At disaster sites, the animals work off-leash, operating with a degree of independence almost unknown even in the rarefied realm of elite working dogs. They crank out 12-hour shifts for days on end, able to distinguish between the individual scents of hundreds of rescuers working at a disaster site and that of a single victim still trapped beneath tons of debris.

Two SDF-trained dogs spent last week scouring West, Texas, after a massive fertilizer plant explosion there devastated the surrounding neighborhoods, killing 15 people and injuring over 200 more. In a residential disaster like that, as with hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, the biggest difficulty for first responders is to search and “clear” surrounding areas of victims. For human searchers, it’s an incredibly time-consuming process of knocking on front doors, peering through windows, and getting inside every building they can, then hoping that they didn’t miss anyone who was trapped and unconscious, sleeping, or otherwise unable to communicate. A pair of dogs though can do the work of dozens of people, able to quickly sniff around suburban homes and zip through apartment hallways with far greater accuracy than their plodding human counterparts. After Hurricane Sandy, SDF dog teams found many elderly and handicapped apartment dwellers who were unharmed but stuck inside with no water or electricity.

When it comes to selectivity, Harvard has nothing on these pooches. In 2012, a pair of SDF recruiters visited thousands of dogs in shelters and kennels, tested 223, and recruited just 40. Of those, three have graduated the program, eight are still in training, and 29 have failed out. Yet the SDF doesn’t recruit from the pricey kennel clubs and dog breeding programs that produce the vast majority of America’s working K-9s. They come more from The Bad News Bears school of talent evaluation, scouring the overlooked and the abandoned for those diamonds in the rough who can be turned from rescued dogs into rescue dogs. It’s a counterintuitive, but indisputably effective, strategy, and it all started with a retired physical education teacher who has reshaped the SAR dog world by trying to keep people like herself from joining it.

Minka Marcom-Rehwald

Wilma Melville had spent April 20, 1995, crammed into a cargo plane with dozens of FEMA rescue workers. They were all eager to stretch their legs and get to work, but as soon as people got off the bus from the airport, they froze.

“You’d say, ‘Hey, move, man! We’re coming!’” says Melville, who was 61 at the time, “and then they’d move and you get out there, and you freeze, just the same way they did.” The disembarking workers were stopped in their tracks by the sight of the block-long, nine-story-tall remains of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, and the 30-foot wide crater in front of it. The structure had been blown up by Timothy McVeigh the previous morning with a blast that registered 3.0 on the Richter scale.

The day of the bombings, Melville had been at home in Ojai, California, with her husband, packing for a vacation to Palm Springs. As one of the civilian handlers who made up FEMA’s Search-and-Rescue (SAR) dog teams at that time, Melville knew there was a good chance she and her female Lab, Murphy, would be deployed. So she added three bags of deployment gear to the luggage. A day later, she was among the dumbstruck.

After 10 days searching the Oklahoma City site, Melville returned home to Southern California, proud that she and Murphy had proven themselves a capable team, but worried about what exactly that meant. Melville had shown up in Oklahoma City — her first major deployment — expecting to be just about the worst, most inexperienced handler there. The fact that she wasn’t meant the field had some serious issues.

Wilma Melville and Murphy in Oklahoma City, 1995. Search Dog Foundation

There are a wide variety of working-dog specialties. Some dogs sniff for bombs, others detect drugs, and both are often used for subduing suspects and enemy soldiers. Cadaver dogs are similar to SAR dogs, working off-leash with their noses in the air, searching large areas for human scent, but they specialize in bodies, where SAR dogs are trained to alert only on live human scent. There are even different types of SAR dogs — wilderness dogs search for human scent, but they can focus on only one person at a time, picking up the scent on the ground and tracking that smell to its source. But perhaps no working dogs are more independent and specially skilled than open-air, urban SAR dogs, who work off-leash at enormous disaster scenes, able to pick up and understand a wide array of human scent from the air around them.

Any one of these kinds of dogs would have been at least somewhat useful at the Oklahoma City scene, but they were more than many crews could muster. “Some [task forces] came with dogs and I’d watch them walking along, and the dog is leashed and walking around on the rubble,” remembers Melville. “On a leash? I thought. I asked one of my buddies what they were doing, and he said, ‘The dogs aren’t trained at all.’ The FEMA-certified dogs were so few that they just brought regular dogs!”

And it wasn’t just the dogs that were underprepared. Many of the civilian handlers didn’t understand the complex physics of a building collapse or the dynamics of air flow and scent movement through the rubble pile well enough to deploy their dogs in the most likely places to find survivors.

These newbie dogs and handlers were more the exception than the rule in Oklahoma City, but there were simply too few of the experienced teams. “Here in California, the state legislature actually mandated that the state needed 96 K-9 disaster search teams,” Melville says. But when McVeigh bombed the Murrah building, there were only about 15 FEMA Advanced Certified teams like Melville and Murphy in the entire country.

“Before Oklahoma City, I knew all of this, but I wasn’t that concerned. It was a hobby, and I had a hobby mentality. I didn’t really expect to ever be deployed, to tell you the truth,” says Melville. “Walking around Oklahoma City, talking to people, and seeing that the pain they were feeling was so immense, I think it had an impact on everyone who was deployed, but I can only really speak for myself.”

At the time, Melville had a pilot’s license and had built her own plane. She was a competitive endurance horseback rider, going on races of up to 50 miles in a single day, sometimes for multiple days in a row. But energetic as she was, after the Oklahoma City bombing, Melville realized that being a SAR handler just wouldn’t work with those other diversions.

“I knew that the system was so badly broken that anything I can do will be an improvement,” says Melville. “When I got home from Oklahoma City, I said, ‘I think I have to go into town and rent a little office and get busy doing something about this.’ I wondered when I’d get back out onto those mountains with my horse. And to be honest, I never have been back. That part of my life was over.”

So Melville rented an office for $125 a month in downtown Ojai, California, about 90 minutes northwest of L.A., and, without the least bit of experience in fundraising or nonprofit administration, started what has since become an eight-figure foundation that is now building the country’s first centralized national SAR dog training center.

Minka Marcom-Rehwald

I’m lying on my back in the dust, propped up slightly by the borrowed L.A. County Fire Department hardhat on my head. Curled into a space roughly the size of a short coffin, I’m buried beneath a creaking, rickety mess of wooden shipping pallets intended to resemble the sort of wreckage that SDF teams pored through in the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the flooded disaster zones of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. I’m absolutely still, breathing as quietly as possible through my mouth so that the dirt and wood dust floating through the air don’t cause an ill-timed sneeze.

Captain Dennis Clark of the LACFD gives the command, and 80 pounds of dog comes crashing onto the pile. The wooden pallets shake and shift beneath him, but not before he’s already leapt on to the next foothold like James Bond crossing an alligator-filled lagoon in Live and Let Die by actually running across the gators’ backs, bounding onto the next floating footstool before the previous one can snap 007’s leg with its jaws.

From my dusty cave I can’t see Rugby, but I have a pretty decent guess at what he looks like, his nose pointed up in the air, sniffing furiously as he scampers across the pile. Here some of Rugby’s bloodhound-like physical features come in handy. The deep folds in his lips help trap scent for long enough to let him smell it, while all that fresh slobber running down his mouth washes old smells away to let new ones in.

Rugby should be distracted by some of the beguilements in and around the wood pile. Heavy earth-moving equipment is clanking and crunching just a few hundred yards away. There are a handful of people on top of the pile itself, so Rugby has to distinguish between the smells of humans who are free and the one who’s trapped. I’ve seen deer tracks nearby, and all manner of birds and rodents use the pile for shelter, leaving their scent behind. There are even the remnants of a rotisserie chicken dinner hidden somewhere in the pile. But a good SAR dog has laser-like focus, and my low-end estimate of a minute to find me turns out to have been not nearly low enough. Inside of 30 seconds or so, flecks of drool are seeping into my lair.

Rugby hasn’t barked yet but he’s getting ready, starting to whine, his head and nose pointed down into the pile trying to figure out exactly where I am. Eventually he works his sniffer into a large gap between two pallets, gets a big whiff and lets out a loud, bellowing bark. I wait for a few more loud barks and stick the end of a rope toy out of the same hole Rugby shoved his nose through. He latches onto the rope and starts a moaning kind of growl, yanking and pulling and flinging slobber like whichever one was the dog in Turner and Hooch. It’s all I can do to hold on to the rope and not get pulled out of my spot.

After Rugby’s had his fun, I climb out of the pile and one of the handlers hides in a different spot so the dogs can have another go, each of them taking a slightly different approach to the same job.

Callie, the washout from seeing-eye dog school whose short, muscle-bound frame makes her look like a chubby house pet, is a little more aggressive but still slow and steady, testing footholds, shifting her weight cautiously and backtracking when needed.

Pearl, the onetime runaway juvenile delinquent, is thoughtful, performing quick recon missions around the edges of a pile to look for the easiest means of ascent before making a clever leap to the top.

Raider, the Lab-shepherd mix saved from a kill shelter, seems like he’d be right at home traipsing through Peruvian tombs with Harrison Ford.

Rugby is actually the oddball of the group, recruited straight from a breeder as a pup and donated to the SDF by a charitable foundation. A long, lean, powerful dog, he probably would have played the dog equivalent of linebacker, driven a dog convertible, and dated the queen bitch of the prom, and he searches with that same blithe confidence of an alpha male who’s always been on top.

The woodpile search zone sits in the middle of the SDF’s new training grounds, a 125-acre former horse farm in Santa Paula, California, a couple hours northeast of Los Angeles. When it’s fully operational, it’ll be the country’s first SAR dog National Training Center.

Nearing 80 now, Melville isn’t as involved with the foundation as she used to be. She makes more time to see her four sons and six grandkids, and while she’s never gotten back into endurance horse racing, she does find time to indulge another of her old hobbies, flying prop planes. She actually lives in a converted hangar at the Santa Paula Airport and spends much of the summer bush-piloting through the wilds of Idaho.

The trouble in the SAR world, Melville tells me, is that there are plenty of smart people doing great work, but they’re often isolated from other, less experienced trainers and handlers, who are left to fend for themselves.

“Dogs and handlers are trained in little groups, with no central location,” she says. “There are some recycling centers with rubble piles, but you can’t bury people very deep in them safely. Well in a disaster, people are 10, 20 feet deep, and those people near the surface are found long before the dogs arrive.” Melville’s at the wheel of a side-by-side — basically a high-powered golf cart — at the crest of a small hill that overlooks the new property. The graduate dogs and their handlers, like Rugby and Captain Clark, are training on an agility course, while the SDF’s head trainer, Sonja Heritage, is running drills with a group of new recruit dogs nearby.

“And after a while,” she continues, “the dog knows the rubble pile and all the hiding places in it. You need to change it every three or four months, but that’s not something you can just do on your own. A big strong firefighter can move a piece of concrete that weighs 50 pounds? Perhaps 75? That’s nothing in a big rubble pile.”

(A few days prior, I was on a training run with some of L.A. County’s dog teams when we had to leave the enormous pile we’d spent an hour driving to — the contractor who owned the refuse was starting to crush some nearby concrete to recycle it for a new project. “For a few years, with the economy, the piles would just sit,” said one handler. “But now things are picking back up, so they’re using the concrete again.”)

It’s taken Melville and the team she recruited more than 15 years and just over $15 million in fundraising to acquire the land and start planning a center worthy of the field, and of the Foundation’s ambitions. Right now it’s just a few buildings, some makeshift training grounds, and a whole bunch of big, loud construction equipment. The new dogs stay at a kennel and are driven in each day for training. But when it’s finished, the SDF’s new campus will feature a rubble pile where “victims” can be safely buried deep below the surface, and that can be (relatively) easily rearranged by earth-moving equipment to keep the dogs guessing. There’ll be a 40-dog kennel, an actual, half-destroyed suburban neighborhood with houses and all, derailed train cars, an indoor “disaster dome” training facility that will be cooled below freezing to train for winter deployments, a lodge that will accommodate up to a dozen dog handlers, agility courses, classrooms with video links for training dogs around the world, a medical suite, and a memorial wall for SDF-trained pooches who’ve passed on after years of search and rescue service. The foundation hopes to have most of those capabilities built out by late 2014.

I’m asking Melville about that fundraising effort, and the importance of training shelter dogs almost exclusively, in helping raise that money. Personally, I can’t reach the remote fast enough whenever I hear that Sarah McLachlan song from the animal cruelty commercial (which is a shame because that song used to rock), but they wouldn’t keep airing it if so many people didn’t open up their wallets at the sight of those pitiful creatures. And then turning those charity cases into lifesaving public servants? It’s so thoroughly American, taking the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free, and making productive citizens out of them. There’s hardly a person in the world who couldn’t get behind a cause like that, as Melville and her fundraising team have found out.

She answers my questions politely but gives the impression that she thinks I’m missing the point. Melville rarely talks about herself — it’s been something of an issue even getting her to use the first person — but she does it when she thinks her own life is a useful lens into some more important issue, and today that issue is the real insight she made years ago about training SAR dogs from which everything else — the foundation, the idea to recruit shelter dogs, the new National Training Center being built in the valley below us — was born. It started even before Melville was deployed to Oklahoma City, and it came, like most important insights, not as a flash of genius from the muse, but thanks to plenty of trial and just as much error.

Minka Marcom-Rehwald

Before Murphy, the dog Melville brought to Oklahoma City, she had trained a German shepherd named Topa. “I worked at it with Topa for four or five years and made about as many mistakes as there are to make, because I was being trained by people who didn’t know a hell of a lot,” says Melville.

One trainer all but strangled poor Topa, dragging her around on a choke collar. Other trainers were far better, but Melville and her dog just weren’t learning as quickly as the retired teacher (you can tell she was a total badass in the classroom and ball fields, like Meryl Streep in Doubt, only with a whistle and sneakers instead of a nun’s habit) thought they should be. “The rescue group I trained with only drilled once a month as a group,” she says. “How can anybody learn anything once a month?”

After years of setbacks working with Topa, Melville started hearing stories about a trainer named Pluis Davern, a longtime rescue and show-dog trainer and handler who ran Sundowner Kennels in Gilroy, just south of the Bay area. Davern was about the best trainer around, everyone agreed, but too far away to help Melville and Topa.

“They were thinking, Who drives five hours each way for dog training?’ Well I do, that’s who!” says Melville. “And I didn’t think it was anything. I’d spent five years on this, and this was the first time I found out that there was a professional, someone who actually knew how to do this, and could teach me! If she’d been on the East Coast I would’ve picked up and moved there for a month, six months, whatever it took.”

Melville began trekking up to Davern’s kennel in Gilroy and making big improvements with Topa, but at some point Davern suggested that Melville start over with a new dog. Topa had been through a lot of bad training, some of which could be undone, but other problems were never going to go away.

The most essential trait for a working dog is what trainers call “drive,” a catchall term that combines energy, ambition, and focus. Trainers sometimes talk about wanting “crackhead” or “junkie” dogs with an obsessive addiction to toys and tug-of-war. It’s said half in jest, but the analogy is about right. In the case of a good SAR dog, only the most dedicated tug-of-war fiends will scale steep ladders, climb over dangerous debris, and work their noses sore for hours on end just for a chance at that toy. Topa just didn’t have it in her, so Melville retired her to a house pet’s life of leisure. With Davern’s help, she found a female black Lab that she named Murphy and went to work training her.

“By less than 2 [years old], Murphy and I were FEMA certified in the advanced level,” says Melville. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be damned, this is the way to do it! You need to have exact qualities, you can’t just take any dog.’”

Beyond drive, Melville also saw what an improvement a full-time, professional trainer made over the hodgepodge methods of scattered sheriffs’ departments and dog trainers who handled most SAR training. Years of fruitless work could be condensed into about eight or nine months of work between a professional trainer and a driven dog. What you didn’t need, Melville realized, was the dog’s future handler. It was Melville’s eureka moment, and the philosophical basis for the foundation.

To that point, SAR handlers trained their own dogs, sometimes with great success, but far more often, without it. It’s a bit like if Nascar drivers had to build and maintain their own car before they ever got a chance to drive one on the track. You might find a few brilliant mechanic-driver renaissance men, but plenty of great drivers and great mechanics would never make it to the big-time. “It’s no wonder people are dropping out left and right, working three years and dropping out in disgust,” Melville says.

With Davern finding and training the dogs, Melville could find and train the handlers, and then they could pair dogs and handlers up and train them together for a couple of intensive weeks. It would be world’s first SAR assembly line, capable of producing a far greater number of competent dog teams than the old way of relying on self-motivated individuals to find and train their own dogs.

“If you can teach people to play tennis, field hockey, softball, or drive a car,” Melville says, “then you can teach people to work with a dog, if that dog is already trained. That’s the key: You just need to teach them to work with this dog. A blind person works for 30 days in a facility with a dog and then they go home. And they’re getting on buses, on subways in New York City, crossing streets. That dog is responsible for that person’s life, and it’s all done in 30 days. Why can’t we do it?”

The irony for Melville was that she would be looking for handlers who were pretty much the opposite of herself. “I thought, why do we accept everybody that says, ‘Oh, I think it’d be fun to train a rescue dog and go on deployments?’ There isn’t a single bit of fun in a disaster deployment. I said, ‘Why would a woman in her early sixties with a highly trained dog make any sense to anyone?’”

A firefighter or EMT with no dog experience couldn’t be expected to train a dog from scratch on his own free time, but with a driven dog already trained by Davern, he wouldn’t have to. He’d just have to keep working and drilling with the dog, just as firefighters are constantly training and drilling anyway. Pairing the animals with firefighters would also eliminate another problem: the way that the civilian dog handlers were perceived and treated in the field.

“I remember going to one deployment and being excited because FEMA was supposed to have all these search and rescue operations,” says retired FDNY Chief and collapse expert Vincent Dunn. “Then we had the meeting and it was just dogs. Dogs are great, don’t get me wrong, but we were skeptical. And you know firefighters, they don’t want competition — these cute dogs were going to get all the attention while we did all the work.”

“Some civilian handlers are outstanding because they take it on as their life,” says Melville. “But how many people have jobs that let them deploy for 10 days? How many have an understanding of what it takes to really work at a disaster site for 12 hours a day, day after day, and then have families that understand that? If you have a wife and a family, they have to be willing to let you go for that long and have their own support networks at home for dealing with it.”

Despite SDF’s perpetual impoverishment, the speed that Davern could train animals and Melville could match them with handlers meant that a significant percentage of new FEMA dogs were coming from the foundation, and that ruffled some feathers. Some old-school FEMA dog handlers considered it a point of pride that they were self-made civilian trainers and thought you had to pay your dues before you could handle a dog. And now these greenhorn firefighters and EMTs were coming in and taking their place.

“Bringing somebody new in and giving them a trained dog, that created some resentment,” says Sonja Heritage, who joined the SAR world after watching the Oklahoma City aftermath on television at her bartending job in Maryland. She’s now one of the most experienced dog handlers in the country, with deployments to the World Trade Center, Haiti, Turkey, Taiwan, Nairobi, and a number of other disaster sites. Last year she moved to California to take over as the foundation’s head trainer, so they could begin training dogs at the SDF’s new campus, instead of at Davern’s kennels in the Bay area. “It’s a small, very homegrown industry, and Wilma and Pluis got a lot of backlash from that. When I worked as a judge for FEMA certification, you absolutely saw judges who were harder on handlers with dogs from the foundation. All I was ever interested in was training more dogs and training them well, and that’s exactly what Wilma and Pluis were doing.”

For any field to prosper, it needs some form of self-criticism to keep it balanced and constantly improving. That’s particularly difficult in the SAR world for two reasons. First, because large-scale disasters are (relatively) rare, there aren’t many trials from which to learn from your errors. Second, because the work is done under such tragic and difficult circumstances by people who are genuinely heroic, very few people — within the field or without — are willing to challenge orthodoxies or second-guess past operations.

That’s where people like Melville, “the Irish pit bull,” as they sometimes call her around the SDF offices, become a necessity. Like a high-drive search dog too fixated on finding a victim to pay any attention to the 30-foot crater she’ll have to cross on a steeply pitched ladder to get there, Melville’s been too focused on improving the SAR dog field to give much of a damn if she offends a few people’s delicate sensibilities along the way.

“We often joke that our mom is like a force of nature,” says Harry Hirschman, one of Melville’s four sons. “Unrelenting, determined, a lot of perseverance. Anybody who’s coming up against the way business has always been done, they run into those kinds of things. She was a soccer coach without much of any experience with soccer, and she took a high schools girls’ team to two city championships,” at a time, it might be added, when the very act of coaching a women’s athletic team was considered rebellious. “She learned to fly,” Hirschman continues, “built her own plane, did these endurance horse races. Very direct, straightforward, and whatever resistance she’s found she just ignores or moves past it.”

Wilma and Murphy Search Dog Foundation

Soon after Melville started the foundation in 1996, Debra Tosch, a local bookkeeper who’d done some wilderness dog training, saw a story about the SDF in the paper and began volunteering at the office. “I had a very similar path to Wilma,” says Tosch, who later became the first paid employee of the foundation and is now its executive director. “When I started it was just because I’d met somebody who told me, ‘Hey, you have a German shepherd, you should do search and rescue.’ When they signed me up to train with the sheriff’s search and rescue team, nobody even tested the dogs or checked to see if they had the right instincts.”

Tosch and Melville organized small-bore fundraisers — selling watermelon slices in strip-mall parking lots, running one-day obedience classes for house pets. Every time Tosch and Melville got $5,000 in the bank, they would recruit and start training a new dog at Davern’s Sundowner Kennels, and line up another volunteer handler, usually a firefighter from the area. (Today, the SDF estimates that it costs more like $15,000–$20,000 to fully train each dog.) Tosch started training her own dog for urban search and rescue, paying for it out-of-pocket. And Melville cut plenty of her own checks as well, realizing at one point when she did her taxes that she’d racked up $44,000 in personal donations to the foundation.

The one problem with the sped-up training techniques was just how many dogs they were going through. Only a tiny percentage of dogs have the right “crackhead drive” and physical and mental makeup to be a SAR dog. The drive is largely genetic, and a pair of driven dogs do have a better chance of producing driven pups, but good breeding is no guarantee — a couple of Michael Jordan’s kids played college ball, but they didn’t make the NBA.

Melville knew that to seriously increase the number of FEMA-certified dog teams, she needed to come up with a better way of recruiting dogs. Buying puppies from good working-dog lines was expensive and time-consuming. The purebred dogs themselves were pricey, and you had to raise that dog for nearly a year before you knew for sure if it was suited to the job and could begin training it in earnest. Sometimes that worked out fine, as with Melville’s second dog, Murphy. But like with her first dog, Topa, it often didn’t. Fortunately, Melville and her recruiters knew a place with more natural talent than an All-State basketball tournament: the pound.

“These are dogs that need something to do,” says the SDF’s lead recruiter, Heidi Miller. We’re walking through a maze of kennels at the Ventura County Animal Shelter in Camarillo, California, looking for SAR candidates. “They’re super intense, full of energy. That can be too much for people, so they bring them here.”

Miller crisscrosses the state, testing hundreds of dogs each year, and adopting only about 10% of them. She’s been working with various dog adoption agencies and training groups for 20 years, and has an extensive network of friends and colleagues at shelters and kennels around California and the country. One perk of this is getting tips about potential recruits. If they’re in California, she’ll drive to the shelter to check out the animal herself. Otherwise, she’ll give specific tests for shelter workers to run, and they’ll take videos of the exercises and post them on YouTube for Miller and Heritage to check out.

The vast majority of the dogs here in Camarillo are either yappy little Chihuahuas or abandoned fighting dogs — pit bulls mostly, with their ears clipped short, necks discolored from tight choke-collars, and their faces scabbed and scarred. They don’t seem particularly aggressive — winning dogs don’t generally get abandoned. They’re sad, with bashful, downcast eyes. Some rough-looking dudes are walking around the kennel near us, and seem only interested in these pits, teasing and testing them. Miller shakes her head.

“At private kennels, they can decide not to give dogs to certain people. Maybe it’s a dog that wouldn’t work well because the people have a family, or live in a small place. And maybe,” says Miller, “because of what they might want the dog for.” Unfortunately, this is a public shelter.

Miller carries a large duffel bag filled with assorted toys for testing the dogs, and about which she apologizes profusely. “One dog gets it in his head to pee on the bag, and then every other dog needs to do it,” she says with a laugh.

Selection starts with the breed of animal. The SDF focuses on Labrador and golden retrievers, border collies, and German shepherds (or animals with some mix of those breeds). Terriers have the nose for the job, but they’re too small to climb over rubble. Pit bulls and Dobermans have the right size and sniffers, but people’s wariness of them and the possibility that teams could be dispatched to cities and towns with “aggressive” dog laws that ban the breeds is enough reason not to recruit them.

When Miller spots a Lab or shepherd, she swings a rope toy and watches the dogs’ reactions. Even dogs that are mildly distracted, turning away from the toy to look at other dogs in nearby kennels, probably won’t make for good rescue workers.

“Focus, that’s what we need,” says Miller. “And barking! Barking is always a good thing. But kennel behavior isn’t always normal behavior for a dog. I’ve had dogs that were skittish, or aggressive in the kennel, but as soon as you take them outside and test them, they’re fine.”

We come across a good-looking German shepherd female named Anja who’s in the appropriate 9- to 24-month age range — old enough to train and young enough to have a long working career. She seems sufficiently bark-y and focused on the swinging toy, but does bare her teeth and growl a little when Miller approaches the cage. Aggressiveness won’t do, but a quick conversation with the shelter director and a volunteer who’s been working with Anja reveal her to be perfectly pleasant under normal circumstances. Miller takes the dog out to a fenced-in play yard and opens up her bag of tricks.

She starts by swinging a tennis ball on a rope, then tossing it to see if Anja will fetch. The dog is clearly thrilled to be running around outside and getting some attention (perhaps a little too thrilled — she catches Miller’s hand with her teeth at one point as she jumps to catch the swinging toy). Anja chases after the ball toy excitedly, showing some promising possessiveness. But that’s the easy part of the test. Next we go out to a parking lot with a few distractions (people, a stinky trash can), and Miller throws the toy up onto a grassy embankment on top of a waist-high cement wall.

Ideally, Anja will be so fixated on the toy that she won’t think twice about jumping on top of the wall and scouring the tall grass for it. Good SAR dogs are literally fearless, insofar as they don’t even conceive of the danger around them while focused. After that, the tests would get tougher for Anja, with Miller tossing the toy into the grass and holding the dog for longer and longer periods, up to a minute, before letting her hunt after it. Miller might stash the toy under the trash bin and see how distracted she is by all the interesting scents, or spin Anja around a couple of times to disorient the dog before releasing her.

But Anja is hesitant about the short leap onto the embankment, even when a shelter volunteer she’s familiar with climbs up and shows her the toy. In dog trainer parlance, Anja has play drive, but not enough hunt drive. She eventually goes up, but only after a lengthy period of cajoling and encouragement. It’s an understandable response — perhaps she came from a strict home where she wasn’t allowed up on furniture or on an outside deck, or maybe she’s just nervous about new places — just as it’s understandable for a 10-year-old kid playing shortstop to duck and cover when a hard line drive is smacked his way. But that kid’s probably never going to make the big leagues, and the SDF is only looking for pros.

The foundation guarantees that all the dogs it adopts will end up in a home, even if they don’t graduate to become SAR dogs. Anja never made it to the adoption stage, but Miller often uses her connections to find working-dog programs that a recruit might be better suited for (like guide-dog school for the less driven), breed-specific adoption programs with higher adoption rates than pounds, and “no kill” shelters that will take animals from the public pounds that euthanize animals by the millions each year. About a month after we met Anja, Miller was in the process of placing her with one of these groups when a family with the right kind of home environment adopted her from the Ventura County shelter.

Now, according to conventional wisdom, none of this diamond-in-the-rough recruiting should really be possible. People spend thousands of dollars on specially bred working dogs. One dog broker told a New Yorker reporter last year that “the country is almost out of Labs for detection work … And they don’t have any in Europe, either.” That might be true for Labs coming from fancy dog breeders. Yet every year the SDF finds a bevy of qualified dogs, most of them Labradors, in shelters throughout the country.

An SDF dog at Ground Zero, 2001. Search Dog Foundation

Everything in the SAR dog world changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Of the nearly 100 dog teams that searched Ground Zero, 13 of them were trained by the SDF, almost as many FEMA-certified teams as there had been in the entire country during the Oklahoma City search. Melville and the foundation weren’t the only people who had learned from Oklahoma City, of course. What the SDF was able to do, though, was take the accumulated wisdom of those talented people scattered around the country and turn their insights into standard operating procedures for finding the best dogs and training them.

Despite the exponential growth in the number of FEMA-certified teams between Oklahoma City and Sept. 11, the World Trade Center search effort made the need for an even greater number of trained dog teams all the more apparent — and the SDF’s method for creating them all the more necessary.

The attention of 9/11 also meant a lot more funding for the SDF. Search dogs were a popular feel-good story amidst all the tragedy, and there was no better story than the little gray-haired lady who was rescuing pups and making heroes out of them.

Soon, the SDF was sitting on a million dollars in donations but not many ideas about what to do with it all. Melville had some big, ambitious ideas about what the field really needed — a single, centralized training center that could serve the entire country, even world — but a million dollars wouldn’t cover that. So the foundation’s board hired a consultant who recommended putting half the money into the bank and using the other half to create a professional fundraising operation that could — over many years, he cautioned — raise the rest of the funds to build a National Training Center.

The need for that center has become all the more apparent in recent weeks, with the Boston Marathon bombing (which thankfully did not require any search dogs) and the explosion of the same type of ammonium nitrate fertilizer that Timothy McVeigh used in Oklahoma City at the fertilizer plant in West, Texas.

That explosion did require dogs, and fortunately two new SDF teams were located nearby and able to respond in hours. Tucker, the gawky goofball with the legs of a racehorse, and his handler, Keri Grant of the McKinney, Texas, Fire Department, searched more than 50 buildings in the wee hours of the night. Hayden, the Lab with scars on his jaws from being muzzled with a wire, cleared an entire floor of the devastated apartment complex and numerous other buildings, some of which his handler, Mike Hargrove of Texas Task Force 2, couldn’t get to because of the conditions.

Hayden and trainer Mike Hargrove walk through the blast zone at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 18, 2013. LM Otero / AP

“When we arrived, the fire was still smoldering at the plant and part of the middle school was still burning,” Hargrove told the SDF after their search. “There were large chunks of iron and other shrapnel, rocks, and dirt clods everywhere. There was so much smoke, and the wind made the search even more challenging. We weren’t able to gain access to some of the areas the dogs went into, but we gave them the ‘go through’ command and they just took off to do their job.”

It must be a strange thing, being on the ground floor of the most depressing boom industry in the country, but when I speak to Melville a few days after the explosion, she doesn’t see it that way. “The way I felt after West was, ‘Whoopie! We had the dogs in the right place. They were the first [SAR teams] on scene, searching through the night. That is proper functioning, good use of resources, and being able to get there quickly.” Her next thought, though, was concern.

“These two handlers that went to West weren’t as well trained as I’d like them to be for explosions,” she says. “They’d never trained in the dark, in smoky conditions after an explosion. So it got me wondering: Can we create an explosion for our folks? Can we get Hollywood types to help us? Hazmat crews and bomb squads maybe.”

Lifesaving fields like medicine and first response tend to attract people who love to be in control of things, and yet the events that lead to these fields being necessary (freak disasters, random accidents, heart attacks) are completely arbitrary. The answer to this paradox seems to be to focus on those things they can control, and let the rest take care of itself. Firefighters focus on fighting fires, not the human and economic toll of the blaze. ER doctors think of their patients as problems to be solved, not as someone’s wife or son or mother — not because they’re callous or unfeeling, but because that’s the only rational, sustainable way to approach the problem, to make this all second nature so handlers aren’t learning on the job.

“I want them to go to an explosion and say, ‘No problem, I have done this before,’” Melville explains resolutely. “I’m heartened by that.”

Riley and Eric Gray of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department at the SDF National Training Center. Joe Flood
















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