There has never been a facility in the United States solely dedicated to the training of Canine Disaster Search Teams, so SDF took on the challenge of bringing this resource to the nation. Our National Training Center (NTC)—where rescued dogs become rescuers—is where all of America’s Search Teams will receive the preparation they need for the most difficult deployments.
The state-of-the-art facility occupies 125 acres of donated historic ranch land in the beautiful foothills of Santa Paula, CA—90 minutes north of Los Angeles. The site is the ideal place for our specially designed kennels, beginning and advanced training areas, handlers’ accommodations, classrooms and staff offices. In addition, for the first time since our founding in 1996, all SDF’s staff and canine candidates are now together in the same place.
While the center is now operational and used each day for training our Search Teams and Canine Candidates, additional phases of building work are still in progress, with the Frank McGrath Jr. Family Welcome Center and Bechtel Handlers’ Lodge due to be completed in the Spring of 2017. All of the NTC is being built with no government funding and at no cost to taxpayers.
This is a must-do project that calls upon the can-do spirit of America—mobilizing the resources, talents and energy of a committed team to bring a life-saving gift to the nation. Together we will show the nation what a dedicated group of people can do to strengthen emergency response and provide a model for disaster preparedness in the U.S.
The first glimmer of a training center
SDF Founder Wilma Melville first had the idea to create a training center back in 1998. Here are her reflections on the long journey to this point:
The notion of creating an organization to train America’s Canine Disaster Search Teams came to me in 1995. I remember the exact moment: I was standing in my driveway, having just returned from my deployment to the Oklahoma City bombing. At that time, our entire country had only about 15 Advanced Certified teams, and 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.
I teamed up with Canine Trainer extraordinaire Pluis Davern and we devised a plan to recruit rescued dogs, team them with firefighters, and train them efficiently and effectively for disaster search. We started with three Sacramento handlers and three amazing Golden Retrievers, and each year added more teams.
In those days I was driving about 2,000 miles a month to help the teams train—ever in search of the rubble piles that were essential to their training. The piles were few, they were temporary, and they didn’t challenge the teams nearly enough. I knew we could do better. I knew we had to create our own Training Center that would offer complex, changeable, real-life disaster scenarios.
I kept turning these questions around in my mind: Did I know what size property was needed, where it should be, or how much it would cost? Did I know how to raise the money to buy the land and build the Center? Was I prepared in any way to launch such a project? “No, no, and no!” came the answers. That was in 1998. Then, slowly, a group of talented, skilled, passionate people came together to make it all happen…
Thanks to this team, and to the amazing generosity of our donors, today I find myself steering a shiny red electric cart through the NTC as I visit the dogs and handlers in training. I see SDF teams training with other teams from around the country and the globe and learning from one another. I now see a far broader scope for our NTC than I did back in 1998.
As a born risk-taker, I often look at seemingly impossible challenges that can be met with a solid plan and huge perseverance. The National Training Center is my greatest challenge to date. The word “hope” is no longer applicable. I now know we will finish the job.
There will be more challenges and more victories along the way. The planning will continue to be incessant, the pressures unrelenting—but who cares? It’s what we do because we are the Search Dog Foundation. We never quit. We huddle and muddle until the course is agreed and clear.
And we will produce the best Canine Disaster Search Teams this country has ever seen.
What the NTC offers
Canine evaluation and training
Previously, our canine candidates were transported from shelters and rescue groups to SDF’s “boot camp” kennel in Santa Paula, CA, for evaluation and socialization, then traveled to the formal training site in Gilroy, just south of San Francisco. The NTC brings canine evaluation, care and training to one location to give the canines the best possible environment for their intensive 8-month training program.
The Canine Pavilion is the heart and soul of the canine program at the NTC. Here, formerly homeless, abandoned dogs can be given “a new leash on life” through expert veterinary care and training by compassionate professionals. The Pavilion is a state-of-the-art 14,000 square foot facility accommodating 30 dogs, each kennel complete with its own indoor and outdoor runs and plenty of space to rest and play in the fresh air.
It also includes classrooms where Canine Search Specialists share knowledge about training and deployments. These classes and workshops can be transmitted remotely throughout the country—and the world—with the goal of strengthening disaster
response and rescue.
Dogs accepted into the program who don’t have everything it takes for disaster search will be given lots of TLC and obedience training at the NTC before making a career change or being partnered with a loving Lifetime Care Family.
Advanced training scenarios
Each time our Search Teams are deployed to a disaster, they encounter extreme conditions and challenging search scenarios that call for the highest level of training. In order to be fully prepared for any situation they encounter, the teams need to train in an environment that simulates these conditions. In the past, most of our teams trained on piles of rubble found at recycling centers. There were three problems with this:
- The training piles were temporary–they were only there until the boulders or lumber were needed for another purpose.
- The search scenarios, as long as they lasted, were static–the dogs got used to the same search configuration.
- The piles were not sufficiently challenging–a “victim” buried a few feet under concrete doesn’t comeclose to what the teams experience in an actual deployment.
Our new training site features collapsed structures, large-area rubble searches, “deep victim” searches, train wrecks and wilderness ravines. We’re able to reconfigure the “props” to create an infinite variety of challenging scenarios.
A “Home Away From Home” for America’s Search Teams
We want to give our very best to the people and animals who risk their lives for us. Whether the teams are training at the NTC for a weekend, a week, or a month, we want to offer them a “home away from home.” That’s why our plan includes:
- A Handlers Lodge for first responders and their families with a full-service kitchen, comfortable living room and access to hiking trails around the campus
- Top-notch kennel facilities at the Canine Pavilion where Search Dogs can enjoy excellent care and daily training
- A medical suite to serve all the canines’ healthcare needs
- Well-equipped classrooms where handlers can share what they have learned in training and on deployments with fellow handlers
National testing and training and international visitors
The NTC will be made available to all State, Regional, and Federal Task Forces for Certification testing—a requirement before teams can deploy. The NTC will also serve as a venue for joint training sessions with international Urban Search and Rescue agencies.
Photo right: Beijing-based Canine Search Specialist Zhong Sheng at the NTC with SDF Executive Director Debra Tosch and SDF Founder Wilma Melville during his visit to learn about SDF’s training methods – June 2012
SDF requires all NTC contractors and vendors involved in the project to take part in our Community Benefits program and provide a discount or donate a service or product as part of their contract. All savings are being applied to the NTC project or maintenance endowment fund to care for the site. To date, 100% of the firms retained on the NTC project have taken part in our Community Benefits program, collectively contributing over $1M in donated or discounted services.
Community benefits partners:
We are grateful to these companies for being Part of the Search by generously donating a portion of their supplies and/or services:
- ACO Polymer Products, Inc.
- Advanced Geotechnical Services
- All Around Landscape Supply
- Angelus Block Co.
- Ayres Consulting Solutions, Inc.
- Balfour Beatty Construction
- BC2 Environmental
- Blois Construction, Inc.
- Brodersen Associates
- California Land Clearing
- Centennial Woods
- CHP Steel Company, Inc.
- CityScapes, Inc.
- Collings and Associates
- Conejo Archaeological Consultants
- Diani Building Corp.
- DJS Special Inspections, Inc.
- DK Electrical Contractors, Inc.
- DMI-EMK Environmental Services, Inc.
- Dunn Edwards
- Earthform Design
- FGL Environmental
- Fillmore & Western Railway Co.
- Granite Construction Company
- Highwood USA
- Hilgers Grading & Excavating
- Ike’s Pump and Drilling
- James Hardie Building Products
- Jensen Design and Survey, Inc.
- Jensen Precast
- Jog A Dog
- JR Barto
- Kline Construction Company, Inc.
- Kruger Bensen Ziemer Architects, Inc.
- Limoneira Company
- Mac Brown Excavating, Inc.
- Mainstreet Architects and Planners
- Manatt Phelps Phillips
- Marquette Consulting, Inc.
- Mason Company
- McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP
- On Target Transport
- Orion Landscapes
- Paleo Solutions, Inc.
- PACE Advanced Water Engineering
- Precon Products
- R.W. Scott Construction Co., Inc.
- Ray Reiman Construction
- Reyes Masonry Contractors, Inc.
- Rio School District
- San Buenaventura Research Associates
- Signs of Success
- Simpson Strong-Tie Company
- Southern California Laborers Apprenticeship
- Stone Imagery
- Taft Electrical Company
- The Door Stop
- Travis Agricultural Construction, Inc.
- TriStar Vet
- Trussell Technologies, Inc.
- UBU Sports
- United States Army Reserve
- United States Navy Reserve
- Water Resource Engineering Associates
- White Cap Construction Supply