Partnered with Debra Tosch
Search Dog Foundation Executive Director
Former Handler with Los Angeles City Task Force 1
Abby, a female Black Lab, was born October 30, 1997—the only girl in a litter of seven. She was born in the bedroom of the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) founder Wilma Melville. Abby lived with Wilma for the first seven weeks of her life. She only weighed one pound at birth, but quickly grew to be a good-sized puppy.
After leaving Wilma’s home, Abby went to live with a woman named Kim, in Ojai, CA, as part of her “Prep Home” training. She stayed with Kim for eight months, was given heaps of love and affection, and learned good discipline.
At ten months old, Abby went off to Sundowners Kennel, our then training facility in Gilroy, California. She learned all of the basic skills for becoming a Search Dog, and at the end of her training was partnered with Debra Tosch, then SDF’s Program Director.
Abby and Debra bonded very quickly. They loved being together and practiced their search skills diligently. After only seven months, they attained Basic Certification for disaster search from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Three months later, they attained Advanced Certification and were considered one of the top canine/handler search teams in the nation.
On September 11th, 2001, their skills were put to the ultimate test when they were called into action as one of 13 SDF Search Teams deployed to Ground Zero. On 9/11, Debra and Abby were training with other SDF teams in Washington State and missed going to New York immediately with the Los Angeles City Task Force. As all plane flights were cancelled, they drove down to San Diego and made the second wave of the deployment by flying to New York on a military transport with the San Diego Task Force.
The assignment was extremely dangerous and demanding, climbing over twisted metal and sharp, hot slabs of concrete, breathing in dust and smoke. But the SDF teams were completely prepared for the challenge. The dogs are always eager to search—they enjoy it and even thrive on it! Debra and Abby searched the rubble in 12-hour shifts. The rest of the time was spent caring for the dogs and sneaking in a few hours of sleep. At the end of the deployment the teams were exhausted, but proud for having served their country and having met a profound physical and emotional challenge.
Debra and Abby’s next major deployment was to the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympics. They were stationed a helicopter ride away from the games along with other search teams and emergency personnel.
In 2005, Debra and Abby were deployed with eight other SDF teams to assist with rescue efforts in a deadly mudslide in La Conchita, California. They appeared with Paula Zahn on CNN to talk about the rescue operation. They were also deployed to help with rescue efforts after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Abby was truly enjoying her work as a Search Dog. She was fearless in her approach to any new obstacle she had to tackle in training, and moved with confidence when searching over rubble. For two years, Debra served as captain of the Ventura County wilderness canine team. This gave Abby the distinction of being one of a few SDF dogs that have also trained for wilderness rescue. The team also served as part of the Los Angeles City Task Force and, when deployment was required outside the U.S., as part of the Los Angeles County Task Force.
In January of 2005, Debra was selected to represent California and Washington on the FEMA Canine Sub-Committee. This committee makes recommendations to FEMA on the disaster search program in the U.S. And in June of 2005, Debra was appointed as the new Executive Director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, with Abby by her side!
It wasn’t long before Debra and Abby added yet another deployment to their resume, responding to the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. For several grueling weeks after the floodwaters subsided, Debra and Abby searched abandoned homes, insuring that no one was left behind.
Upon returning from the hurricane deployment, Debra found that she had to make an important decision—continue being Abby’s handler or pour all her energy and effort into leading SDF. Ultimately, Debra decided that she could do more good as Executive Director, leading more than 70 Search Teams, than as a single Search Team with Abby.
The problem was that while Abby was nearing retirement age she still had plenty of searching left in her! Debra asked fellow handler Ron Weckbacher, who had recently retired his Search Dog Manny, to take over as Abby’s handler. Ron had trained with Abby since she was a pup, deployed with Debra and Abby several times and spent nearly as much time with her as Debra—so there was no better match.
After achieving FEMA Certification, Ron and Abby responded to their first deployment in December 2007, staging for a mudslide in Orange County, CA.
By this time, Abby was ten years old, the age at which Search Dogs typically retire. Ron knew that she would retire soon but felt she still had the desire and ability to search and continued to train with her. In September 2008, Ron and Abby responded to Abby’s last deployment, a Metrolink commuter train crash in Chatsworth, CA. Abby did very well, thoroughly searching the wreckage of the derailed train cars, making sure no survivors were left behind.
When they returned home, Ron called Debra and shared with her that, while Abby did a great job at the Metrolink deployment, it was clear that it was becoming harder for her to traverse the piles of metal, wood and concrete—it would soon be time for her to retire.
Abby continued to train with Ron and on her 12th birthday—October 30, 2009—Abby completed her final search during training. Ron walked her to the rubble pile, released her with a “Search!” command, and when Abby found her “victim”, she found Debra buried deep beneath the concrete. Handlers are never “victim” for their own dogs but, with Ron as her handler, Abby was surprised and excited to give her final tugs on that fire hose toy with one of her favorite people in the world.
After training, all of the handlers that had trained with Ron, Debra and Abby throughout the years, SDF staff and friends gathered in SDF Founder Wilma Melville’s airplane hangar for a retirement party for Abby. With plenty of luxurious presents like doggie beds, toys and food treats (which she was never allowed during her career), Abby entered her golden years with lots of swag.
Abby has always and will continue to serve as a shining example of an exemplary working dog for generations of Search Dogs to come!