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SAR Hero Dogs and Why They Excel

Q&A with author Paul Lobo
By Claudia Kawczynska, January 2019, Updated June 2021
Cody training on the wobbly.

Cody training on the wobbly.

Hunter running

Hunter running

Hunter searching in a rubble pile with handler Bill Monahan.

Hunter searching in a rubble pile with handler Bill Monahan.

Pluis Davern rewards her rescuer.

Pluis Davern rewards her rescuer.

Wilma Melville (bottom left), founder of the Search Dog Foundation, and members of the disaster-search dog team.

Wilma Melville (bottom left), founder of the Search Dog Foundation, and members of the disaster-search dog team.

In Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster-Search Partners (St. Martin’s Press, January 2019), co-author Paul Lobo digs into how the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) works its magic. A national leader in the search-and-rescue (SAR) field, SDF also revolutionized the way search dogs are trained. He shared some insights with Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska in a recent interview plus read our book review.

Claudia Kawczynska: The pairing of Pluis Davern and Wilma Melville, which resulted in a program with a remarkable success rate for the SDF’s program, is one of the book’s most interesting stories. How would you explain it?

Paul Lobo: Pluis is an absolute master of her craft. There were few people in California (or even the world) at the time with her skill level. Wilma wanted the best training for her dogs—and when Wilma sets her mind to something, the movement of mountains will likely follow until her goal is achieved.

Many factors contributed to the pair’s success in training, but from a high level, it came from three major pillars:


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• The right dogs. Wilma knew what characteristics a great search dog needed to possess innately, and she became an expert on picking out rescue dogs [who had them].

• The right training. Pluis knew what it took for the dogs to succeed, and started them out in challenging environments (relative to their skill) from Day One. She and Wilma understood what each dog needed individually.

• The right handlers. The dogs are the stars, but the humans are an essential part of the team. Wilma took a radical approach, using firefighters as search-dog handlers, focusing on those who did not have dog experience—blank slates with no bad habits. She and Pluis put in the groundwork knowledge, and the firefighters did the rest with sweat equity: Training! Training! Training!

This approach was built collectively on Wilma and Pluis’s years of experience and training. What might appear as a lucky long shot was actually the result of hours of training, studying, reevaluating and then training again.

Last, but perhaps most important, Wilma and Pluis refused to quit. They had the goal in mind and nothing would stand in their way. One of the most difficult things I had to do was to build dramatic tension in situations where Wilma was facing what seemed to be insurmountable odds. I would ask her questions like, “Were you worried about failing?”

And her answer usually amounted to, essentially, no. Clichéd as it might sound, she did not worry because she did not consider failure an option. She would work until they got it right.

CK: I saw an interview in which Pluis said that she had evolved from making the dog do something to letting the dog do something. How does this manifest itself in her approach to training?

PL: Pluis blurs the line between art and science. She tailors each training program to a dog’s specific needs. Some of the dogs in the story were hard-chargers and checked off the boxes one after the other. Others required a different approach.

For example, many of the Border Collies would get bored with search training and refuse to do an alert bark. Pluis had to invent creative ways to get them back in the game—not just for the training sessions, but for the rest of their careers! No small ask, but she finds ways to get it done.

As far as rewards-based training, Pluis never used food rewards because treats can become contaminated in a real disaster site. Also, human food is often openly spread across disaster sites. After Hurricane Katrina, one of the dogs had to search an overturned semi full of frozen chickens. Quite the temptation, but these dogs cannot get distracted.

The usual reward is some type of chew toy, something for tugging or fetching. These toys allow the dogs to channel their intense drive on the prize they get after finding a buried victim. Counterintuitive as it may seem, they’re out there searching to “win the game,” to get their chew toys as fast as possible.

CK: In the book, you say that when Wilma first started out, there was tension between SDF and other training groups who were working to get their dogs FEMA-certified. What was behind those disagreements?

PL: I believe part of this tension was simply a lack of experience and knowledge. Groups weren’t as informed as they are today. There was no Facebook connecting groups across the globe, and there were no YouTube tutorials for struggling members. There was also no central command structure, so lessons were often lost as members left or switched groups. In other words, collective improvement was tough. For members exposed to only one way of training, anything outside the norm would be viewed with skepticism.

Wilma approached training in a results-based fashion. There was a standard set [of goals], and if she didn’t hit the mark, then she went back and trained until she could. There was no fluidity of standards in her mind because you can’t make a real disaster site easier.

CK: What attributes does SDF look for in a dog? How are those traits discovered?

PL: Besides a strong drive, SDF looks for physical ability and fitness. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a physically demanding job. Also, dogs cannot be aggressive toward other dogs or humans in any form. I like to describe search dogs as [having] the body of a professional athlete, the toughness of a soldier and the heart of a nurse.

Every dog has a distinct personality, but you have to be willing to look for it. Dogs are emotional creatures, and they express themselves in different ways. Handlers spent countless hours studying (literally) the mannerisms and body language of their dogs. They had to know the difference between a questioning bark and a true alert bark; the difference between a high tail wag and a moderately high tail wag, and so forth. Every handler I talked to could recall with perfect clarity certain characteristics of their dogs. From there, it was just a matter of putting the words to actions. This was actually the easiest (and most fun) part of the writing for me.

CK: What impressed you the most during the time you spent with these dogs and their handlers?

PL: Their dedication. Disaster search is a 24/7/365 job. They are professionals who sacrifice a lot in order to be the best search teams possible. They never wavered, and seemed to have endless energy. Even the retired dogs I saw—well into their doggie golden years—got revved up when a chew toy came out.

CK: Why do you think Wilma has succeeded to the level she has?

PL: Wilma has superhuman willpower. If she sees something that needs fixing, she fixes it. She doesn’t waste time complaining. She searches out a solution and goes for it—full speed ahead.

CK: Was SDF’s new training facility in the Santa Paula foothills affected by the Thomas Fire last winter?

PL: The fire destroyed much of the foundation’s new training area. The dogs-in-training and all the staff had to be evacuated. Afterward, active-duty search teams were deployed in support of [rescue efforts] following mudslides in the hills surrounding Santa Paula. It was a trying time for everyone. They’re in the process of rebuilding a large portion of the training facility now.

CK: What would you like people to take away from your book?

PL: I hope to bring more awareness to this nonprofit foundation and keep it growing. And to keep rescuing these dogs and training them to be search dogs. SDF has a program in which individuals can sponsor a dog. In return, handlers keep sponsors up-to-date with how the dog is doing, their training and their deployments. They always need volunteers as well.

In terms of the story, I really hope people are inspired by these quiet professionals who are always there for us; theirs isn’t a nine-tofive job. Both the handlers and the dogs have been through a lot, and these are the teams who are ready to help us.

Finally, near to my heart is the idea of “adopt, don’t shop.” Plenty of dogs out there need rescuing and need a home. I hope this book demonstrates that any dog can overcome just about anything. You don’t have to go to a breeder —go to your local adoption center or humane society and bring home a wonderful dog.

In the following excerpt, we learn about Cody, a dog who had seven homes before he was two years old. The Wisconsin Golden Retriever Rescue group, recognizing that rehoming such a high-energy, “broken” dog might be beyond their means, reached out to SDF. Assigned to the patient and dedicated Pluis Davern, SDF’s lead trainer, Cody eventually overcame his trust issues to become an ace search dog.

Broken Beyond Repair

Eleven months in, nearly double what our previous dogs took for training with Pluis, Cody still wasn’t making eye contact. He was doing everything else well. He’d channeled all his energy into his work and he was excelling. Obedience and commands were no problem. Obstacles and agility were easy. His searching was top notch. But when Pluis would give a command, Cody would look at her and the seven homes and shelter would come back. He’d look away, still refusing to trust.

I had to make the tough call. The SDF would always stand by our rescues, whether they became search dogs or house dogs, but obviously for Cody, the latter was easier said than done. He’d never be abandoned again, of course, but would that be the rest of his life? A constant quest for a home that could handle him? I didn’t want to imagine what that would do to a dog already so traumatized he couldn’t look a person in the eye. At the same time, I had the responsibility to rescue and train other candidates, many with similar backgrounds as Cody. Again, I faced the general’s dilemma. I had to make the sacrifice for the greater good. I told Pluis we needed to move Cody along into a forever home.

Pluis overruled me. She said Cody needed just a little more time. I didn’t want to be heartless, but I was hesitant. The more time Cody spent, the longer another candidate had to wait. But I’d built a strong, knowledgeable team whose input I valued. I, like Cody, had to trust her. I agreed. He would have one more shot.

It was fall of 2002, and the weather in southern California was starting to chill. The green grass of the training field at Sundowners Kennel had browned in the late autumn, thirsty for winter rains. Pluis, working by herself, stood on the field and watched Cody run through a series of training tasks without error. The young Golden was doing everything right. His clever way of problem solving that had served him so well as an escape artist now allowed him to work through any obstacle. He would make a great search dog, if only he could learn to trust again. Pluis could feel the pressure. His time with her was nearly up. She’d tried everything in her bag of training tricks and he still wasn’t looking her in the eye. It was something he needed to work out himself. She could only pray.

Cody, his dog smile beaming, nattily conquered the final obstacle, and Pluis called his name. He looped back to where she was standing, his amber coat flowing like falling leaves across the autumn afternoon.

“Cody, heel,” Pluis commanded

Cody, unwanted and without a home or much of a future at all, obediently took up his proper position, close by her side. Then he leaned against her and looked up, directly into her eyes.

Pluis started to cry.

She called me and with a shriek of glee, informed me of the good news. Cody was ready to be paired with a handler. He would need someone with a gentle touch who would maintain his fragile bridge of trust, but he was ready. I doubt if anyone besides Pluis could have successfully rehabilitated Cody. Now, instead of scrambling to set up an unstable dog in a precarious home life, we were adding another team to our roster.

Cody was partnered with Chula Vista, California, firefighter Linda D’Orsi, a quiet but driven woman with both a gentle touch and an unrelenting toughness. Cody no longer had trust issues, and bonded with Linda immediately. He embraced his new home life, family, and the other Golden Retriever Linda had as a pet. The dog who’d never known a family now had a permanent family, the adoration of a fire department, and even a sibling. Cody seemed to recognize his good fortune. Gone were his escape artist days. When a non-search call came in for Linda and the other firefighters, Cody was happy to sit in the truck, seat belt fastened, patiently waiting until his partner returned. When it came time to search, Cody practically broke down the walls of his crate to get to work and please his new family.

During a search, Golden Retrievers usually hang their tail low. But Cody was too proud to. He held his tail high as he searched, like a golden flag. Cody also developed an enigma of a bark alert. Goldens typically alert in short, almost-chirpy barks. Cody’s bark was a low, guttural roar that echoed across the rubble pile and announced to the world that this is what he was made to do.

Excerpt from 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).