Book Review: Hero Dogs

How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners
By Claudia Kawczynska, January 2019
Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became  America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners

Have you ever wondered why some dogs seem to be consumed by raw energy and intense drive? Some would say that they are hyper-energized, or even untrainable and irredeemable. Sadly, it is often these hyper dogs who get into trouble; deemed too much to handle, they end up at shelters, passed along to someone else or, in some cases, in even worse circumstances.

However, these are precisely the type of dogs who fit the profile of a perfect search-and-rescue (SAR) recruit. A few of them—a pack of amazing “rescues, rejects and strays”—are given star treatment in an inspiring new book, Hero Dogs, by Wilma Melville and Paul Lobo.

This book focuses on the origins of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) and on their canines. It is also the story of Wilma Melville, a remarkable woman who started her second career at the age of 61 with the founding of that organization.

A retired physical education teacher, mother of four sons and a grandmother, she volunteered as a search-dog handler with her FEMA-certified Lab, Murray, in the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. While there, she experienced firsthand how ill-prepared the nation was to respond to such disasters, and how important teams of highly trained dogs and their handlers are to recovery efforts. Shocked by how few of these teams there were at the time—only 15—she came back from that devastation with a desire to remedy the deficit. The following year, she established SDF, a foundation whose purpose it was to train disaster search-dog teams that could deploy quickly and effectively as needed.

There are specializations within canine SAR—cadaver, water, avalanche, wilderness and disaster —and each requires unique training. Melville’s specialty is disaster search, in which “the dog searches for live victims trapped in a structure collapse or any other event that might shield victims from rescuers.” In other words, where there is the potential to save a life. There were 168 innocent lives lost in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and Melville’s goal was to honor them by preparing 168 disaster search teams. In this book, we learn how she and the SDF not only reached and far exceeded that goal, but along the way, revolutionized disaster search-dog training.

While SDF has had many challenges and hurdles to overcome during the past 20-plus years—bureaucracies, infighting between training factions, finances —they were offset by an unwavering belief in the abilities of the dogs, many of whom had been deemed unadoptable, and their handlers. Today, the foundation and its teams set the universal standard for search dog excellence.

Melville’s success can be attributed to her own tenacity, resiliency and courage as well as to two important decisions: First, she partnered with a remarkable Santa Cruz, Calif., trainer, Pluis Davern, who was herself a certified searchdog handler. Even though it required a five-hour drive from Melville’s home, she put her faith in Davern’s training philosophy.

Second, she wisely followed her husband’s suggestion to pair the dogs with handlers outside traditional civilian SAR training groups, people who were a blank slate when it came to dogs, with no bad habits to overcome: firefighters and first-responders. It seems like such a natural combo these days, but back then, it was definitely not the norm. Among other things, it added to the credibility of SDF’s pilot program.

By May 1997, when Golden Retriever Ana and Sacramento Fire Captain Rick Lee became the first SDF team to receive FEMA certification, training time had been cut by two-thirds. Driven to exceed, these dogs learned quickly and executed the FEMA certification program with nary a hitch. Within less than two years, SDF had five teams ready to deploy. Keep in mind that in 1996, only “about 20 percent of dogs made it to become qualified search dogs,” and those who did took two years to do so.

The book is arranged in three parts. The first is a fascinating look at the dogs, their handlers and the beginning of the foundation. Part two takes us to 9/11 and behind the scenes, revealing some of the truly amazing stories of the heroics these dogs demonstrated while working at Ground Zero for more than two weeks. This was a situation unlike anything SAR teams had ever seen, or trained for; “there is only steel,” and there were no “live” finds (tragically, in disaster search work, there rarely are). In part three, we read about more recruits and other deployments, including those following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) and the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti (2010). It was during the latter mission that Hunter, a Border Collie famous for his raw energy and flair for drama, and his handler, Fire Captain Billy Monahan, experienced what few other disaster search teams have ever had the good fortune to do: save lives.

These stories make Hero Dogs a must-read for all dog lovers. It is a gripping, compelling insider’s look at the abilities of dogs—many of whom had been given second chances to prove themselves—and an organization headed by a remarkable woman who triumphed against enormous odds. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their work, and for the inspiration they provide us.

Read an excerpt of Hero Dogs.

Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners is published by St. Martin's Press (January 8, 2019). 

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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