Frequently Asked Questions

Founded in 1996, SDF is a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization based in Santa Paula, California. Our mission is to produce the most highly trained DHS/FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) Advanced Certified canine disaster search teams in the nation. These teams are trained to search for live victims of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. SDF is the only organization in the U.S. that recruits rescued dogs, gives them ongoing professional training, and partners them with firefighters and other first responders at no cost to their departments.

There are currently 71 SDF-trained Search Teams located in California, Florida, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Baja California. Thanks to Mutual Aid Agreements between states, these teams can be deployed nationwide wherever disasters occur.

SDF’s ability to deliver highly trained teams at no cost to fire departments is critical as emergency response budgets are cut and resources are strained to the limit. Through our unique public/private partnership, SDF is able to provide a precious, lifesaving resource the fire departments could not otherwise afford.

SDF was founded by Wilma Melville, a retired schoolteacher. In 1995, Wilma and her FEMA-Certified Search Dog were deployed to the site of the Oklahoma City bombing. One survivor was found by a Search Dog, but it was clear that the country had a severe shortage of Canine Disaster Search Teams. Determined to do something about this alarming gap in our national disaster response network, Wilma founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation and designed a program based on the recruitment of rescued dogs and on a streamlined, professional training methodology.
  • Recruit rescued dogs, rather than buying or breeding dogs
  • Recruit highly skilled firefighters and other emergency personnel as handlers
  • Provide professional, ongoing training for both dog and handler
  • Offer these services at no cost to fire departments
  • Make a commitment to Lifetime Care for every dog accepted into the program

If you can’t find people, you can’t rescue them. No technology can match a dog’s speed and accuracy in finding people trapped in the wreckage of a disaster, thanks to its:

  • Remarkable sense of smell and ability to ignore all other scents and noises—even tempting traces of food or other animals or people involved in the search
  • Unparalleled ability to quickly and safely navigate unstable and slippery terrain—a 4-wheel drive on paws!
  • Ability to negotiate dangerous surfaces while keeping absolutely focused on the job at hand: saving a life
  • Ability to work off-leash and get to places humans cannot safely access

Canine Training

A disaster site is a treacherous environment: noisy, chaotic, dust-filled, and sometimes dark.  At Ground Zero, for example, the search ‘pile’ was a mountain of debris eight stories high, composed of twisted steel and wobbly surfaces. It takes an extraordinary dog—with extreme boldness, drive, energy, strength, agility and focus—to approach every training exercise and deployment with energy and determination. These are dogs that LOVE to work, NEED to work, and want nothing more than to be out on the rubble searching! SDF has found that Labs, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, Belgian Malinois, and mixes of these breeds are the most likely to have these qualities.
After a disaster, when buildings have crumbled to the ground, dogs can search much more quickly and safely than people can. By training on simulated rubble piles where volunteer victims are hiding, the canines and their handlers prepare themselves to find people who would otherwise remain buried. 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. The dog must be able to go in a direction that its handler has signaled and stop and wait for instructions.
As the dogs near the end of their training, their future handlers are also involved in an intensive training course. At the end of the course, SDF Master Trainer Sonja Heritage partners each dog with a handler, making certain they are a perfect match and that there is real chemistry between them. The handlers continue to train with their new canine partners under Sonja’s supervision. The dog lives and works with the firefighter, and they train together daily to reach Certification. Once Certified, this highly trained team can be deployed to disasters anywhere in the nation.
SDF makes a Lifetime Care Commitment to each dog accepted into our program: Once rescued, these dogs will never need to be rescued again. If a dog is accepted by SDF but does not complete the training program, it is placed in a Lifetime Care home. The adoption works beautifully for both dog and adoptive family. We closely monitor the needs of all Lifetime Care families and their dogs. If at any time these families are not able to care for the dog, we see that the dog is placed in another loving home. Dogs who are injured or retire remain with their handlers, enjoying life as family pets.

Team Development

There is a severe shortage of Certified Canine Disaster Search Teams in the U.S. It is estimated that 450 teams are needed to adequately respond to disasters. There is only half this number in active service and experienced teams are retiring every year. The demand for SDF’s services is high as fire departments look to the only organization in the country that provides highly trained canines and an ongoing training program with full support and oversight.
It costs SDF up to $20,000 to create a Search Team—to recruit, care for and train each new dog, partner it with a firefighter-handler, and provide the first year of training toward Certification. As a nonprofit organization with no government funding, SDF raises funds from individuals, foundations and companies to underwrite the cost.
SDF has constructed a National Training Center (NTC) for all of America’s Canine Disaster Search Teams, the first of its kind in the U.S.–at no cost to taxpayers. Located at a historic ranch site 90 minutes north of Los Angeles, the Center serves as a disaster response training resource for the entire nation–a place where rescued dogs are taught to become rescuers, and where Search Teams can train for the most challenging deployments.

How does SDF work with handlers?

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) only accepts requests for canines from State and FEMA Task Forces across the United States.

As of October 1, 2015, due to a large number of requests and the importance of our mission to strengthen disaster response in America, SDF has put a temporary moratorium on adding new Task Forces to our current wait list for canines. We expect that this is a temporary hold that will enable us to catch up on the long list of Task Forces we have now awaiting dogs, and that we will be able to welcome new groups at a later date. We apologize for any inconvenience. Please feel free to check back with us in the future.

If you are an individual seeking information on joining a Task Force, please visit www.disasterdog.org to locate the FEMA Task Force nearest you.

Firefighters are the first on the scene in a disaster. They already follow a rigorous training regimen, and can incorporate a search dog into their career and lifestyle. Civilians who are successful handlers must be able to match this training regimen and have a career in which they are able to have the dog with them at all times.
  • Highly skilled search dogs trained by one of the nation’s top canine instructors
  • A proven program of training for the canine-firefighter team leading to DHS/FEMA Advanced Certification
  • Ongoing support to the team throughout the working life of the dog.
In order to deploy to a disaster as part of a task force, certification is required within either the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or State Urban Search and Rescue Alliance (SUSAR) systems. Which test a search team takes depends upon the task force of which they are a member.

Thanks to SDF’s unique program, which pairs a professionally trained dog with a first responder, new search teams are certifying faster than ever as our process continues to evolve! Our goal is that each team achieve certification within eighteen months of being partnered, but for a couple of years now we have been celebrating teams as they certify in as little as five months.