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Rescue, Doubled
How the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation saves lives

Cody was an uncontrollable puppy nobody wanted. But now, the spirited Golden Retriever is one of the most highly trained search dogs in the country. This is his amazing tale, the story of a rescued dog who is rescuing people. The nine-year-old Golden who nearly lost his life in a Wisconsin animal shelter is now part of an elite group of emergency workers specially trained to respond to disasters and find people buried alive. Cody’s tale, however, would undoubtedly have had a different and tragic ending if an organization called the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF), in Ventura County, Calif., hadn’t stepped in and taught him how to use his boundless energy to save lives.

“He is the luckiest dog in the world,” says handler Linda D’Orsi, a captain with the Chula Vista, Calif., fire department. “It could have been the end for him in the shelter in Wisconsin.” Cody lived with six different families before his first birthday. Each brought him back to the shelter because he had too much energy—they couldn’t control him. “He was a throwaway dog,” D’Orsi says. “He probably would have been put to sleep if someone hadn’t seen his potential.”

That someone was Dawn Christenson, a volunteer with Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRROW). She understood that Cody’s endless energy and strong play drive made him an excellent candidate for search-and-rescue work. “Cody was not your average Golden,” she says. “He was a Golden who needed a job.” But where would this feisty dog find one? The answer to that question was provided by SDF, which works exclusively with rescued dogs and trains them to find people who are lost or buried alive. Christenson contacted the organization about Cody, and her call saved his life. “The day after Dawn’s call, Cody was on a plane heading to the foundation’s training facility in Gilroy, Calif.,” explains D’Orsi.

Today, Cody and D’Orsi are one of 236 canine search-and-rescue teams in the country with advanced certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This certification, the pinnacle achievement for canine search teams, means that Cody and D’Orsi can respond to any disaster. Not a bad feat for a dog nobody wanted.

Tales like Cody’s aren’t unusual in SDF’s 14-year history. Since retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville founded the organization in 1996, she and her staff have worked with scores of dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, turning them into highly trained search dogs. They’re dogs like Andy, another spirited Golden Retriever rescued by the same group that saved Cody. This energetic canine is trained to rescue people buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings—fitting and bittersweet, because Andy is named in honor of 25-year-old Andrea Haberman, a young woman killed during the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

“What a tremendous honor it is for us to have Andy the dog named in honor of our Andrea,” says Andrea’s dad, Gordon Haberman of West Bend, Wis. “It’s one of the few positive things that I can point to out of this whole tragedy.” Haberman discovered the vital role search dogs play during disasters when he and his family scoured hospitals in New York City “hoping against hope” that Andrea was alive.

“We were standing outside St. Vincent’s Hospital,” he recalls. “It was eerily quiet; there were no injured coming in. All of a sudden, we heard sirens coming up the street. Our heads snapped, hoping it was someone coming out of the Trade Center.” The sirens, however, came from a truck carrying some of the dogs who had been searching for survivors at Ground Zero.

“Some of the dogs were injured,” Haberman says. “Many had burns on the pads of their feet. These dogs had searched tirelessly and without regard for their own safety.”

Haberman later made a donation to SDF, which helped cover the training costs for Andy and his handler, firefighter Russell Tao of the Chino Valley, Calif., Independent Fire District. “We’re very proud of Russ, Andy, the Search Dog Foundation and the good work they do,” Haberman says. “It’s important work. We know our Andrea would be intensely proud of this.”

Tao, who has worked as Andy’s partner since 2005, says Andrea’s memory is etched in his heart. “I hope Andy and I can do something really good one day to carry on Andrea’s legacy,” he says. “I feel a lot of responsibility as a handler, because if we search someplace and say nobody is there, then we’re not leaving anybody behind. On top of that, there’s the memory of this great young woman. And she and her family are always with us.”

Tao called the Habermans when he and Andy were deployed to hurricanes Gustav and Ike. “I told them we’re heading to the hurricanes and hopefully we’d be out there helping people.”

That same desire to help people—particularly those injured during a disaster or terrorist attack—was the motivating force behind Melville’s decision to establish the SDF. Her inspiration came when she and her dog Murphy responded to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“That bombing opened my eyes to the national need for certified canine search teams,” Melville says. “When that happened, there were only 15 of these teams in the nation.” Melville decided to fill the void. “I knew how to train a dog—I had a relationship with a trainer, and I knew if I put my mind to it, we could come up with a faster, better and more cost-effective way to do this.”

Back then, Melville says, it took a dog and handler about three to four years to become FEMA-certified. Her organization has slashed that time in half. Now, she says, “It takes six to eight months to train the dogs. The dogs are then assigned to their handlers, and it takes them about a year to get ready for the FEMA test. There’s no other organization that does what we do the way we do it. We give highly trained dogs to firefighters at no cost at all to them or their departments, and we stay with them throughout their careers.”

The foundation doesn’t receive government funds to cover the more than $10,000 required to train each team and provide lifetime care for the dog. As a nonprofit organization, the SDF pays those costs with donations from individuals and foundations. “We’ve actually been the leader in this field, and instrumental in greatly increasing the number of canine search teams out there,” Melville says.

The organization now has 69 search teams. The FEMA certification standard that many have is what sets these canine teams apart from others trained in water, avalanche, cadaver or wilderness search. And unlike other canines in public service, disaster search dogs must attain this certification to do their jobs.

FEMA Type One Advanced Certification is the highest level of urban search certification recognized in the U.S. To pass the advanced FEMA certification test, a dog must search two piles of rubble and find four to six victims. The dogs have only 20 minutes to complete this mission, and the testers try to distract them. For example, they may put food, live chickens or even cats in the piles of rubble. If the dogs become distracted, they fail the test.

“Our mission is to strengthen the disaster response in America,” Melville says. “It’s not that we do it all. We are one piece of the disaster network.” In recent years, SDF’s teams have deployed as first responders to urban emergencies across the board—including such crises as earthquakes, mudslides, hurricanes, building collapses, missing children, derailed trains and, of course, the 9/11 attacks.

“I’m proud of having come up with this organization,” Melville says. “I never started this by saying I’m going to change the way of doing disaster searches in this country. But people have watched our successful methods and emulated many of them.”

Melville isn’t resting on her laurels, though. The 75-year-old grandmother plans to open a national training center in California for handlers and dogs; SDF has secured 125 acres for the estimated $16 million facility. She also wants to expand SDF’s Bark Force, a group of volunteers who comb animal shelters for potential dogs. “If we can find the characteristics we’re looking for in a rescued dog, then we’re relieving the pet overpopulation problem. And we’re giving these high-energy dogs—who are difficult for most families to adopt—a job.”

Firefighters like D’Orsi and Tao applaud Melville’s commitment to them, to the dogs and to helping those in need. “This is a great opportunity to do good things, and that’s what those of us in the fire service want to do,” say Tao, who’s been a handler for nine years. “Andy has definitely found his calling in life.”

So has Cody, who recently took on a new role in canine disaster training. “He’s become like a mentor dog,” D’Orsi says. “He helps with training and works with the new handlers before they get their dogs. They get to work with Cody because you can’t ruin him by making a mistake or two. He knows the system so well.” It’s a remarkable transformation for the once-unruly puppy.

“Cody still has all that energy, but it’s now directed,” D’Orsi says. “He’s become comfortable in his own fur and found his niche in life. And while we don’t wish harm on anyone, we’d love to get out there and help more people. We’re ready to go.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 56: Sept/Oct 2009
Lisa McCormick is an award-winning investigative reporter whose stories have appeared in Dogs for Kids magazine, The Kansas City Star, and the national consumer news website, ConsumerAffairs.com; she has written 12 nonfiction children's books.

Watch video of the SDF dogs, here.

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