When disaster strikes, the most critical of rescuers have four legs, a tail, and an amazing nose. This is what retired schoolteacher, Wilma Melville realize and decided to pursue after considering retirement.
I wanted to learn to train a dog to do something special…
So at at the age of 54, she decided to train dogs in disaster search. It took four to five years for Melville to get the skills and train her first dog, Murphy, who was then certified by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), where she was layer deployed to the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which suffered from terrorist bombing in 1995.
Murphy and other search dogs covered large areas of rubble, barking loudly to indicate where victims were buried, thereby saving precious time for firefighters and other workers to excavate. This disaster made it clear to Melville that there wre just too few certified search dog/handler teams, and that she needed to make a change.
At this point there were only 15 Advanced Certified disaster search dog/handler teams in the entire US, where now there are over 250. Melville believed there was a way to train more, train them more efficiently and in a more cost-efficient manner.
She started the Search Dog Foundation, following the three ingredients put down by her dog trainer Pluis Davern – the right dog, matched with the right handler and professional training by both. Before, all disaster search dogs were trained and handled by civilian volunteers using out of date methods. Not only was it slow, but very costly that most people couldn’t afford the training equipment, travel, vet care, etc. Melville made it her mission to change this and make it more efficient.
What sets SDF apart the most is that they recruit their dogs from shelters and breed rescue groups, give them professional training and partner them with firefighters and other first responders. They go great lengths to find the proper canines, looking for specific traits that make them suitable search dogs – intense drive, athleticism, energy and focus.
These traits, such as intense energy and very extreme drive, usually make dogs unsuitable as family pets and cause them to end up in shelters, so it is a win win situation for both the dogs, shelters and SDF. SDF offers these animals what they crave the most, a job!
The dogs they use are primarily Labs, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and varies mixes are recruited throughout the Western states, some of them just hours away of being euthanized.
“The rescued dogs become the rescuers,” she said, “It’s a beautiful sight to see a 60-pound untrained, difficult dog to deal with, and in six to eight months of training he has a purpose.”
Melville’s Dogs have now been deployed to over 118 disasters and missing person searches all around the world, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 Tohuku earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Thanks to the wonderful hard work Melville, not only are these wonderful dogs being given a second chance at life, but they are saving lives of people all over the world.