Hero Dogs

Retired schoolteacher establishes National Training Center for canine search and rescue

Created date

January 22nd, 2019
Dogs' superior smelling powers allow them to sniff out humans who may be trapped under rubble that people can't access.

In the spring of 1995, 61-year-old Wilma Melville, a retired physical education teacher and grandmother of six, found herself treading over blasted concrete, shattered glass, and charred paper confetti. She and her specially trained and FEMA-certified black Labrador Murphy were navigating through the debris field surrounding the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Just days before, the Murrah building had been a bustling federal office building—the workplace of about 550 people, some of whom dropped their children off at America’s Kids, a daycare center in the building, before reporting to work.

In a hideous act of domestic terrorism, the building had been bombed and Melville and Murphy were one of a handful of FEMA-certified search and rescue canine teams deployed to recover victims.

They moved through the rubble searching for survivors, but sadly, they only found cadavers. The blast had injured more than 680 people and killed 168, including 19 children under the age of six.

A challenging mission

Search and rescue is a difficult and grueling task made more so when the team fails to find any survivors.

As Melville made her way back to the control center, a distraught man waved a photo in front of her. It was his wife. She had worked in the building. Had Melville seen her?

Answering the man’s simple question was gut-wrenching. Melville felt his pain and it stuck with her for days nudging her to find a way to increase the odds of delivering good news to the next person looking for a loved one lost in a disaster.

“I returned home determined that, out of that unfathomable tragedy, some good must come,” says Melville.

“At the time, there were only 15 advanced certified canine search and rescue teams in the U.S. It was clear to me that many more were needed. I knew someone had to make it happen and realized that this someone was…me.”

Melville devised a plan. To ensure that future survivors would have better odds of being located quickly, she decided to establish a nonprofit foundation to train more teams. As a way of honoring the victims of Oklahoma City, Melville’s goal was to train 168 new teams.

With no prior training in running a business, operating a nonprofit, or even training search and rescue canines beyond the program she and Murphy had gone through, Melville started the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to train canine search and rescue teams.

Revolutionized training

From the start, Melville knew that to succeed, she would have to revolutionize the entire process.

Before she started SDF, Melville says, “it took three to five years to train for certification—to say nothing of the owner spending upwards of $15,000 on training equipment, travel, veterinary care, training group fees, and the purchase of a dog from proven working lines.”

Without a lot of capital behind her she couldn’t afford to purchase well-bred animals. She would have to find strays and rescues with potential, then train them faster than the training program that existed at the time.

To reduce training time for human handlers, she paired her dogs with firefighters who already had disaster experience. She was able to get teams trained and certified in just 18 months. Today, some teams achieve that goal in just five months.

It was rough going for a while. SDF sought financial contributions, but at times, especially early on, Melville dipped into her own bank account to keep the project going.

As SDF teams were deployed to devastating disasters like the 9/11 World Trade Center Attack and Hurricane Katrina, the foundation gained some notoriety when news organizations featured profiles of them. After that, the financial situation eased as when the American public showed their support and gratitude for SDF by sending in contributions allowing Melville’s program to grow and thrive.

Looking back and looking forward

Melville, along with author Paul Lobo, details how she started SDF from nothing in Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America’s Greatest Disaster Search Partners (St. Martin’s Press, 2019). The book also gives fascinating accounts of what it was like for SDF teams deployed to the World Trade Center and other disasters.

Since it started, SDF has trained more than 130 canine disaster search teams and currently has 67 active teams. Among the highlights of their service is when they found 12 survivors buried beneath the rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.

In 2017, SDF opened its National Training Center in Santa Paula, Calif. It is the first state-of-the-art facility in the country solely dedicated to the training of canine disaster search teams.

She has accomplished so much, but for Melville the work continues. “We will produce the best canine disaster search teams this country has ever seen,” she says. “Not because we want to, but because we have to.”

For more information or to make a donation, visit searchdogfoundation.org.