National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 21, 2023
A search dog at work in Turkey after the devastating earthquake

Over the last couple of months (and as recent as this week), Montecito residents have been repeatedly reminded of the deadly debris flows of Jan. 9, 2018, as atmospheric rivers have resulted in torrential downpours bringing back memories of massive floods that claimed 23 lives and is still being cleaned up today. 

But a couple of the first-responder rescue teams that were involved in the aftermath of that fateful day were nowhere near California during our recent rainstorms, as instead they were over in Turkey looking for survivors of the massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the region, leveling hundreds of buildings and killing almost 50,000 people. As rescuers race to find survivors, the United States authorized several urban search-and-rescue teams consisting of canines and their handlers to join the international effort. 

Among the rescuers were seven canine disaster teams trained by the Search Dog Foundation (SDF), the Ventura County nonprofit that has trained nearly 250 such partners over the last quarter-century. Two of those dogs, Clancy and Deacon, had performed a similar service in Montecito five years ago. 

SDF was founded in 1996 by Wilma Melville, a FEMA-Certified canine handler who worked the Oklahoma City Bombing, where 168 people lost their lives. To honor the victims, Melville committed to training 168 search dog teams, an effort that resulted in building a 125-acre training center in the mountains of Santa Paula, a simulated search city that contains replicas of a downed airplane, derailed train, and the rubble of buildings torn apart by earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. 

The dogs have all been rescued from shelters, where adoption has been problematic because they’re too rambunctious and noisy, traits that perhaps make them poor pets but perfect for performing the single task of finding survivors of disasters much faster than humans can. 

The dogs go through an intensive training that can last a year or more ahead of the stringent FEMA or state certification process, and are then paired free-of-charge with first responders from fire departments or other rescue organizations across the country. 

While using their noses to find survivors is serious work for the humans, for the canines, the rigorous training is nothing but another chance to play their favorite game and be rewarded with tugging on their favorite toy, explained Denise Sanders, SDF’s Senior Director of Communications and Handler Operations. 

“It’s the same game, whether they’re searching at our site – which we call Doggie Disneyland – or in Montecito or Turkey,” Sanders said. “It’s all about that super-fun experience for that dog, because they don’t even know that they’re rescuing someone. They’re just playing a game of sniffing out live human scent buried beneath the rubble and then getting their toy, and they absolutely love every minute of it.”

The SDF-trained canine disaster teams were in Turkey for nearly three weeks and covered about 600 different search sites, Sanders said, some of which we witnessed on TV news reports. “The dogs were definitely helping with a lot of the rescues. The canines definitely were alerting their handlers quite a bit in terms of finding people, although we don’t have the numbers of how many people were found through the teams.”

The canine disaster teams are extraordinarily helpful even when they aren’t able to find survivors, as was the case in Montecito, Sanders said. 

“They didn’t have any alerts there, but in many ways that’s good news because it means that someone is not waiting for rescue beneath the surface,” she said. “And they were able to clear a ton of area and let their handlers know that there’s no one here, and then they can move on to keep searching in a different area, much more quickly and efficiently. It would’ve taken forever for humans alone to do that.” 

While Turkey captured the international spotlight, the 89 active SDF-trained teams throughout the country remain active, ready to leap into search-and-rescue duty with little notice. The California teams were deployed to the recent mudslide in Orange County and following Hurricane Ian in Florida, where the teams helped to clear miles of devastated coastline. 

“The dogs definitely stay busy,” Sanders said. “There’s no shortage of callouts, unfortunately.” 

Clancy and Deacon are heading toward retirement, Sanders said, as the dogs are aging out of the top condition necessary to perform. But the Search Dog Foundation is relentless in its drive to keep training new teams, even as the organization has already surpassed its original goal of 168 by nearly 50 percent, as the need continues to grow. 

While a lot of the SDF budget goes toward the training, an even more significant portion is also earmarked toward the vast majority of dogs that don’t pass the rigorous process for any number of reasons, and their lifelong care and feeding. Those that don’t are given just as much love and attention, Sanders said, with many of them going on to work in other important fields, such as a canine who couldn’t handle crawling over rubble but has found his niche as a narcotics detection dog.

“We take pride in every single dog along the way that we’ve been able to rescue and help and to find their place in life,” Sanders said. “Just yesterday, one of our happy career-change dogs came back out to our facility this week to do a little demo. He showed us his stuff, how he sniffs out illegal drugs, which he really enjoys.” 

Donations of any size help SDF continue its mission to be at the top of the heap in training canine disaster teams, Sanders said. 

“Nobody has this kind of facility, the expert dedicated teams that we have to do this, or the advancing training support that continues even after they leave. But we keep looking for ways to evolve and expand, because we want to do more. We always wanna make a bigger impact.”

National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

George Haynes, CEO

Denise Sanders, Senior Director of Communications and Search Team Operations
(888) 4K9-HERO
(805) 646-1015

Check out this awesome video of the SDF team returning home from deployment in Turkey!


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