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Training Heroes - National Search Dog Foundation

by Missy Seu

bad rap

In 1995, retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville and her FEMA-Certified Search Dog, Murph,y helped search the rubble for victims of the terrorist bomb attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Because of her experience, Melville identified shortcomings in the national disaster response network, and in 1996 she founded the nonprofit, non-governmental organization, National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF).

SDF augments the national disaster response capabilities by providing canine-firefighter disaster search teams to search for trapped victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks. SDF’s goal is to increase the number of handler/dog response teams while maintaining the highest skill level and deployment readiness of its existing search teams.

SDF has been directly involved with 89 disasters worldwide, including the World Trade Center Attack in 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Ike in 2008, the gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California in 2010, and most recently, Superstorm Sandy on the eastern seaboard in 2012.

SDF dogs must have intense drive, athleticism, energy, and focus—attributes that often make dogs unsuitable as family pets. SDF recruits most of its dogs from shelters (most commonly Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and Border Collies, as well as mixes of these breeds), provides professional training, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders for deployment to disaster scenes.

If, during training, a dog proves unsuitable for search and rescue work, he is placed in an adoptive home as part of SDF’s “Lifetime Care Commitment” to every dog accepted into its program. The dogs found unsuitable for the program will never be in the position of having to be rescued again. Once a search dog is retired from duty, he lives out the rest of his life at home with his handler as a member of the family.


Training is extensive for both handler and dog, and involves the entire family. SDF wants to ensure that the entire family understands what an enormous commitment having a search dog will be. When Sharon Hanzelka’s husband, Fire Captain Eric Hanzelka (Monterey County Regional Fire District), applied to the SDF, Sharon was included in the interview process. Because of her involvement with Eric and his dog Ellie’s recruitment, Sharon was hired as a trainer for the SDF. She is now as active in the program as they are.

Once a dog reaches between eight months and two years of age and is deemed suitable to enter the SDF program, he undergoes a thorough medical evaluation. Next, the dog enters formal training lasting six to eight months, living full time at the kennel with SDF trainers. During their time at the SDF kennel, the dogs are trained and evaluated in basic obedience, obstacle work, search drive, long down stays, directional control commands, and emergency stop/here—all skills that are imperative in a rescue situation.

Before being paired with a search dog, handlers are required to complete a 40-hour class during which they work with seasoned search dogs on proper care, handling, and basic search techniques. On the last day of class, they are given the opportunity to work with a seasoned search dog in an actual rubble pit to practice searching for “victims.”

When handlers graduate, they are paired with a search dog. After a team is established, dog and handler work together during an additional 40-hour class at Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, California. After the dog/handler team completes their training at Sundowners Kennel, an SDF trainer visits them once a month until they are FEMA certified, which can take up to a year and a half. Currently, the SDF has a total of 74 active teams prepared to deploy at any time.


SDF is currently in the process of building its new National Training Facility (NTC) in Santa Paula. It will be the only center of its kind in the United States, and will bring together canine recruitment, training of teams, and certification testing at simulated disaster sites. At the NTC, SDF will have the ability to manipulate rubble piles as needed, to bury “victims” deeper than before, to have classrooms for handler continuing education, and to provide housing quarters for handlers and their families. The NTC is slated to open in 2013.

In order to be prepared for an emergency deployment, dogs are with their handlers 24/7. Team equipment is stored in lockers at the nearest airport to be quickly accessible. During the flight, the dog travels with its handler, never in cargo. During deployment, the handlers are careful not to overwork their dogs, and although injuries to the dogs are rare, handlers are trained in first aid. On major deployments veterinarians are available.

Captain Michele Vaughn (Salinas City Fire Department) and her dog Comet were deployed to three hurricane sites in Texas and Louisiana, with the total deployment lasting 28 days. After hurricane Ike, Vaughn and Comet located two families in a multistory apartment building. “As a handler, and from a human perspective, there are no words to describe how truly amazing these dogs are. They are fast and can search large areas with such ease and agility, and they love every minute of it,” Vaughn says.

The dogs obviously enjoy their work, and handlers benefit as well. Vaughn describes her motivation: “Love for animals and rescuing them, wanting to try a new adventure in the fire service, and the fact that I would be working in a true partnership that worked solely on trust and motivation. It makes me happy to know that not only Comet, but our teammates, can find folks who are buried or lost, or simply that they can clear an area and leave everybody with a sense of confidence that we did not leave anyone behind.”

For Captain Eric Hanzelka, his work with Ellie and the SDF resonates on a more personal level. “This is my way to give back to the 343 firefighter ‘brothers’ who perished on 9/11. Even though I have not been deployed yet, we still train to keep deployment-ready. If we (Ellie and I) find one person in my career, I’ve accomplished my goal. Until then, we will keep training, have our bags packed, and we are ready to go out the door at anytime,” he says.

For more information or to support the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, visit www.searchdogfoundation.org or join them on Facebook.


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