Saving Lives

Search Dogs from Ojai Deployed to Haiti

The effects from the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, are still being felt, and will be for months, maybe even years. However, there is some hope, as survivors are still being discovered as I write this column. One very effective way of rescuing people trapped in collapsed structures are by the use of search dogs.

Right in our own backyard, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, based in Ojai, California, has already deployed seven dogs and their handlers to Haiti to help with the mission. I recently spoke with program manager Bill Murphy to acquire more information about their program.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is a non-profit organization that recruits rescued dogs and trains them to partner with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters. Retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in 1995 after she and her Advanced-Certified search dog were deployed to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. Melville saw a startling gap in our national disaster response network and was determined to do something about it. Her goal was to improve the way search dogs were chosen, trained, and to partner them with firefighters and other first responders. The program that Melville designed is a streamlined, professional training methodology where dogs are chosen using strict criteria. Highly skilled firefighters and other emergency personnel are recruited and professional training for the dog and handler are provided throughout the working life of the dog. The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation makes a lifetime commitment to the care of every dog.

Unfortunately, not every dog can become a search and rescue dog. Since disaster sites are hazardous environments filled with chaos, noise, dust, and debris, disaster search dogs must be able to perform at their peak even in the worst environments. Choosing a dog to recruit is quite a task. According to Murphy, their policy is to never “purchase” dogs. Dogs are either rescued from shelters—some from the brink of euthanasia—while other dogs are donated. The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation has even received dogs who failed out of guide dog school because of their high activity level, but luckily were great at search and rescue. Murphy explains that when they’re recruiting a dog, they will go into shelters and walk down the aisles to see which dogs are friendly and interested in them. They carry a tug toy, which is usually a flattened out piece of firehouse fire hose sewn to a leash. The toy is moved around and they watch to see which dogs fixate on the toy. The potential candidates are then taken out of their cages (with the help of shelter workers) and evaluated through a 10-step process. One step in the process involves a person who will try to distract the dog by making loud noises, such as banging pots and pans, while another person is trying to play with the dog with the tug toy. They also throw the toy into bushes and spin the dog around, disorienting him and try to see if the dog can still find the toy.

Once a dog is recruited, it will spend around 60 days in a foster family to receive socialization, further evaluation, and obedience training. When the dog is ready, it travels to Sundowners Training Kennel in Gilroy, California, for six to eight months of daily training. A disaster search dog must learn to crawl through tunnels, walk up and down ladders, and walk on wobbly surfaces and over debris and rubble. After this training, the dog is paired with a handler and will live and work with the handler to undergo another 8 months to 2 years of further training and will finally reach the certification as a Federal Emergency Management Agency search dog. Once certified, this highly trained team can be deployed to disasters anywhere in the nation.

If problems arise during training and there is something physically wrong with the dog or the dog isn’t able to progress through the training program, the dog will be placed in another program if possible—such as in the dog narcotics program—or the dog will enter the lifetime care program, where the dog is either kept for life or adopted to another home. If the dog was “donated” by an individual, that person has the first right of refusal for the dog.

When buildings have collapsed to the ground after a disaster strikes, dogs are able to quickly and safely search for survivors much better than people can. Their acute sense of smell, ability to navigate unstable terrain, and get to places that humans are unable to access makes them perfect first responders. To meet the search dogs or find out more information about the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, visit


Animal Shelter Assistance Program (ASAP) seeks homes for ranch cats. Ranch cats are difficult to place but there are some very happy stories when they finally find homes. Below is a happy-ending story about Theo, and a bio on Chip, a cat who needs placement on a ranch, told by Marie, one of ASAP’s volunteers.

“My bottle-feeder foster to adoption, Theo, was the most unhappy inside-only cat, made my other cats, my mom, and me miserable. I donated him to Heart’s Adaptive Riding Stable with my heart in my throat. Within a very short time, Theo was the king of the walk. He took care of the mouse and rat population as if he had been born to it instead to a hot house living situation with me. Next he began working on eliminating the ground squirrels that make holes in the riding trails, a dangerous trap for horse’s legs. He has a real job, is happy, gives me licks and head bumps when I visit and purrs a lot. He hardly ever did these things when living with me. Sad, but true. He is happier at Heart’s.”

Adoptable Ranch Cat, Theo

Some guys have all the luck, but Chip isn’t one of them. This big, handsome, eight-year-old tuxedo boy arrived at ASAP back in March 2009 with seriously solar-damaged eyes. He is better now but remains a little squinty-eyed. Because of his sun-sensitive eyes, he needs to be mostly indoors. Another result of his sensitivity is that he does not like to have his eyes or face touched. Despite this, he is extremely robust, healthy, and sees quite well. He does like affection and is easy to pick up and handle, but would probably be happiest as the only cat in the facility.

Before coming to ASAP Chip was allowed outdoors and became a “roamer.” So Chip really yearns for wide, open spaces, and because he is not really “housecat” material, we recommend he would be perfect in a warehouse, workshop, or greenhouse where he can “strut his stuff” as a mouser. This big boy is hoping for a happy ending.

To learn more about Chip and other cats, call the Santa Barbara Animal Shelter Assistance Program (ASAP) at 683-3368 or visit ASAP is located at County Animal Services, 5473 Overpass Road (just beyond the Humane Society).


Adoptable Pet of the Week

Bryce is a three-year-old neutered male Gordon Setter/Australian Shepherd mix who is 65 lbs. He is good with other dogs, well behaved, has a sweet temperament. He is ultra-loyal to his family and can be somewhat protective. DAWG’s trainer will help with this behavior if needed. Adopters from Southern Cal only; Santa Barbara County preferred. Come visit us! DAWG thanks you for adopting instead of buying a pet! Adoption saves lives and offers comfort to fabulous companion animals in need. Bryce is up-to-date with routine shots, house trained and spayed/neutered

DAWG (Dog Adoption and Welfare Group) is a no-kill not for profit dog rescue/adoption organization located at 5480 Overpass Road in Goleta. For more information, call 681-0561. You can view more adoptable dogs at

The public is invited to stop by and look around every day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. DAWG relies on volunteers to take care of all the dogs, so if you love dogs, think about volunteering. Students are able to fulfill their volunteer community service requirement by volunteering. Volunteer orientations are generally held every other Saturday at 10 a.m. Contact DAWG for the next meeting.


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