My story is a story about hope and survival in the making of an urban search and rescue dog. The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) was founded in the late ‘90’s by Wilma Melville after she and her dog Murphy searched for survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing. At the time, there were only about 15 dog-handler teams in the country. The experience changed Melville’s life and she dedicated herself to significantly expanding the number of teams nationwide to help with national and international searches. Due to her efforts, there are now about 250 dog-handler teams and yet that is only half the number of teams still needed when a major disaster strikes.
The process to find and train the dogs and their handlers is a lengthy one. Melville’s nonprofit regularly combs shelters looking for the dog breeds that make the best urban search and rescue dogs. They also train shelters on how to spot these dogs so that SDF can pick them up. Typically, the dogs with the most potential are Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Border Collies or Australian Shepards. The dogs have to exhibit high drive for some kind of toy. The toys are their primary reward for finding victims and these dogs border on obsessive-compulsive disorder about getting their toys. This trait makes them superb rescue animals. They can eventually be trained to find someone with no reward, based solely on the smell of human scent.
The process to train a dog once it’s found in a shelter takes about 6-8 months. It then needs another 6-8 months with the handler and must pass tests and be certified by FEMA before being deployed. Because of the long training cycle, the dogs need to be between one-to-two years old when they start. Occasionally, SDF will take in puppies, but because the training process is longer, it has to show incredible potential to be chosen.
Melville’s work is incredible. Her dogs have been at the World Trade Center Disaster, the Haiti Earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, the Japan Tsunami and more.
Melville’s motto when it comes to her nonprofit: dogs first. Without the dogs, they can’t find the people.
To me, visual storytelling is the only way to tell a story.