Training Dogs to Become Heroes

Hometown Heroes, People
on October 15, 2006

When Wilma Melville, of Ojai, Calif. (pop. 7,862), retired as a physical education teacher in 1988, she created a “to do” list that included: “Learn to train a dog to do something significant.”

“As a youngster I always had a dog, and I would train them to sit, stay and come,” says Melville, 72. “But I wanted to do more.”

So Melville began disaster search and rescue canine training, which involves a handler giving a dog signals to sniff out a live person trapped under rubble. After three years of training once a month with local handlers in Southern California, Melville realized she and her dog were not making progress, however. “I knew (the training) was being badly taught because I was a teacher,” Melville says.

Determined, she began lessons with professional dog trainer Pluis Davern in Gilroy, Calif. (pop. 41,464). Within a year and a half, she and her black Labrador, Murphy, passed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) certification test for search and rescue dogs and joined a disaster response team, the Southern California FEMA Task Force.

On April 9, 1995, FEMA deployed Melville and Murphy to Oklahoma City to aid in recovery efforts following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Melville was startled to see other task forces arriving without rescue dogs and to realize Murphy was one of only 15 FEMA-certified dogs in the country. “If everybody is getting trained the way I had been trained originally,” she recalls saying, “it’s no wonder there are so few certified dogs.”

Within months, Melville founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation to train more search and rescue canine teams. In that first year, she put $44,000 of her own money into launching the foundation. By 1997, the foundation graduated its first class—three Sacramento, Calif., firefighters. “I had already decided that I needed to work with firefighters,” she says. “They are the first on a scene of disaster, and they have the time to train.”

Today, the foundation is funded through private donations and picks up the $10,000 tab for each student’s training. Nearly all students are firefighters, and classes are grouped together based on geography. The foundation generally looks for dogs at animal shelters, then sends the dogs to Davern’s training center in Gilroy for six months. The dogs are then paired with handlers, and their training as a team lasts one year. If the students live locally, training sessions occur at the foundation’s headquarters in Ojai. Foundation trainers also travel to conduct classes for out-of-town students.

In 2005, 16 teams of handlers and dogs graduated from the training program and 20 teams are expected to graduate this year. Since its creation, the foundation has trained 31 of the 100 FEMA-certified disaster search and rescue canine teams.

Mike Conners, 50, a firefighter with the Coral Gables (Fla.) Rescue Department and his dog, Hobbes, are one such team. Last year, the duo put their training to good use. “We went to New Orleans for 28 days after Hurricane Katrina,” says Conners, who completed his canine rescue training in 2000. “Everything we’d trained for at Search Dog we ran across in New Orleans.” Last June, Melville stepped down as the foundation’s executive director, but she continues to help with fund raising and acts as Search Dog’s spokesperson.

“To me, Wilma is an amazing woman,” says Debra Tosch, the organization’s new executive director. “Few people would have had the perseverance to get through all of the obstacles she faced to get the foundation off the ground. Wilma took a vision and turned it into something that has made a difference in our country.”

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