Loyal friends, gone but not forgotten.
- Oct. 1997—Sep. 2011
- Apr. 2000—Jan. 2013
- Jul. 1995—Nov. 2008
- Jun. 2001—Jul. 2014
- May 2001—Jul. 2014
- Jul. 1999—Aug. 2008
- Apr. 1992—Mar. 2007
- Jan. 1996—Aug. 2010
- Jun. 1998—Jan. 2009
- Jan. 2000—Jun. 2011
- Jun. 2000—Jan. 2013
- Aug. 1997—Aug. 2011
- Mar. 1999—Dec. 2013
- Feb. 1995—Mar. 2007
- Jun. 2007—Dec. 2014
- Feb. 2001—May 2014
- May 2003—Apr 2016
- May 2001—Jan 2014
- Apr. 1997—Jan. 2001
- Dec. 1994—Nov. 2006
- Sep. 2000—Jan. 2005
- Mar. 2002—Aug. 2015
- Sep. 2000—May 2013
- Sep. 2000—May 2015
- May 2008—May 2015
- Oct. 2000—May 2010
- Oct. 1997—Feb. 2009
- May 1998—Dec. 2012
- Jun. 2001—Sep. 2015
- Aug. 1995—Sep. 2000
AbbyOct. 1997—Sep. 2011
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!
AceApr. 2000—Jan. 2013
The story of “Mace” began tragically. This Yellow Lab began his life in Fremont, CA, with an owner who abandoned him and, unbelievably, tied him to a railroad track. He was then sprayed with mace and left to die. He was found and taken to an animal shelter, where he was scheduled to be euthanized.
But this Lab was a survivor! At the eleventh hour, Mace was rescued by one of SDF’s firefighters, who had been alerted by a shelter employee. After a short recuperation, Mace’s potential revealed itself and he was soon on his way into the SDF program. Mace was placed in one of our loving Canine Prep Homes to regain trust and confidence in people, and was given his new name, “Ace”. He displayed the characteristics ideal for a search dog: high energy, tenacity, endurance, strength, speed, and a strong “play/prey” drive.
After three months, Ace moved on to Sundowners Kennel to begin formal training. The trainers agreed that Ace had the vigor, fortitude, and skill to become a successful Search Dog. By the end of six months of training, he was partnered with Teresa Ortenberger with California Task Force 7. Teresa and Ace achieved FEMA Certification together and in September of 2005 they deployed to Hurricane Katrina.
Enter Rob Cima, a fellow SDF handler and Assistant Fire Chief with El Dorado County Fire near Sacramento. Rob had lost his Search Dog Harley to cancer in November of 2006. Teresa had two certified dogs—Ace and Remi—and, out of respect and admiration for Rob, decided to give Ace to him. They were an excellent match, and in March of 2007 Rob and Ace achieved FEMA Certification and were then Re-Certified in December of 2009 in Sun Valley, CA, ensuring that they maintained deployment readiness.
After his lengthy career, Ace enjoyed a happy, active retirement at home with Rob and his family in El Dorado Hills, CA. With the right amount of patience and affection, an abandoned pet on the brink of death had become a highly trained, much loved, and well cared-for Disaster Search Dog.
Sadly, on January 24, 2013, Rob had to make the hardest decision of a canine handler’s career when he said goodbye to Ace at the vet’s office. Ace’s health had been steadily declining and Rob made the heartbreaking choice to not let his partner suffer. At twelve years old, Ace crossed the Rainbow Bridge with Rob at his side—gone but certainly not forgotten.
AnaJul. 1995—Nov. 2008
Ana, a female Golden Retriever, was born on Independence Day, July 4, 1995. She was very special to all of us at the Search Dog Foundation as the first dog in our program.
Ana was in a litter that we call “a backyard breeding.” The owners of Ana’s mom were asked not to breed the dog to just any Golden, but to allow the breeder to choose the best stud dog. However, to save money, the folks went ahead and bred Ana’s mom to an unregistered Golden. The litter was then sold without any regard to proper placement of the pups—not an uncommon occurrence.
Ana was very energetic and impossibly active. Relegated to the backyard, she did what most pups do: barked a lot and dug up every plant in sight. She got thrown out of a couple of homes but, just before being shipped off to a local shelter, Ana came to the attention of the original breeder of Ana’s mom. Knowing that she had little time and that Ana’s future was in doubt, this breeder was able to take Ana to a friend, Bonnie Bergin. Bonnie served as the Executive Director of the Assistance Dog Institute in Rohnert Park, California, a program that trains canines to assist disabled persons.
In very short order, Bonnie could tell that this handsome youngster had too much energy for most people to deal with—especially a wheelchair-user. Bonnie quickly called SDF founder Wilma Melville. Wilma told Bonnie of her new plan: to professionally train dogs with high drive to become search dogs, train firefighters to become search dog handlers, and offer the team to fire departments at no cost. All agreed that Ana was a perfect match for this new foundation, and that’s how Ana became SDF’s first search dog.
Ana got more than our usual six months of preparation at Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy because one dog in that first group was slower than the other two. All three had to graduate from Sundowners at the same time, so Ana got an extra helping of training. At graduation, Ana was paired with Rick Lee, a Fire Captain with the City of Sacramento. The two couldn’t be better suited for each other. Ana was wonderfully responsive and Rick was a good handler. In fact, he is one of our true success stories as Rick had never owned a dog prior to Ana. But what a fine addition she made to this man’s life! Ana enjoyed a happy family life with Rick, his wife, and their teenage son.
Rick and Ana achieved Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after just seven months of training. This is the highest level recognized in the United States. They were deployed to search at Ground Zero after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and a building collapse in Sacramento. They have taught and supported many new teams through the years, and set the highest standard for all to follow. Ana will be greatly missed by all of us, but her legacy lives on in a new generation of search dogs.
Captain Rick Lee:
“We had absolutely no idea what we were getting into when we started the program—the level of responsibility, the time commitment, or the impact it would have on our lives. As the first handlers in SDF’s program, we were driven to prove ourselves to the search and rescue community.
After four years of training, in 2001 we were deployed to the World Trade Center. By mid-afternoon on September 11th we were flying under military F-16 fighter jet escort. The experience at Ground Zero was devastating. Life there was heartbreaking, horrific—a treacherous challenge for rescuers. During the days that followed there were agonizing hours wondering where and when we would be needed. Then suddenly we would be called, when areas were uncovered that only the canines could search. Ana traversed the twisted metal, often over void spaces so large it was like walking on a high wire. Then there were spaces so small the dogs could barely fit.
The canines’ speed in clearing an area enabled rescuers to move more quickly on to other areas. As the dogs searched, all of the rescuers silently waited. The other firefighters were amazed at the dogs’ skills. All their training was paying off. We never dreamed we would have this much responsibility.
Ana never lacked confidence, not for a single moment. She had boundless energy and enthusiasm. She gracefully negotiated the twisted terrain as if it were another day in the park. She performed beyond her training and my expectations. I know that Pluis Davern, her trainer, would have been very proud to see her student fly across this debris. I know I was.
We will be forever grateful to the Search Dog Foundation for the experiences, and the life-long friendships these experiences have given us. The new handlers will need to have a passion for the SDF program, not just for their dogs. They’ll need to understand all the responsibilities involved—someday they may be making life or death decisions. With their training from SDF, they’ll be up to the challenge.”
SDF Founder Wilma Melville:
“Ana’s importance to SDF’s fledgling program cannot be overstated. I was looking for a model both in the selection of dogs and in training them for disaster search that would be successful and could be replicated. Ana’s amazing agility, bubbly personality and “can-do” attitude were just what I was looking for.
Rick’s wife Luann and his teenage son have loved and cared for Ana like a member of the family. Their support of Rick and Ana, even when sacrifices had to be made, set a high standard for other search team families to follow. Harley and Dusty, her classmates, have passed on, leaving Ana as the first to be recruited and the last to leave us.”
AndyJun. 2001—Jul. 2014
Andy, a handsome Golden Retriever, came to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) by way of Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRRoW). Andy had lived with two different families prior to ending up in a midwest shelter, because his energy and enthusiasm were more than either could handle. GRRoW discovered him at the shelter, and observed right away that this dog wanted a job. Adolescent Goldens usually have high energy, but Andy’s was off the scale. He needed direction for his energy! And GRRoW knew just whom to call.
Andy’s training was paid in part through a memorial fund established by the Haberman Family of Wisconsin, who lost their daughter, Andrea, in the World Trade Center attack. He was named Andy to honor her memory when he was accepted into SDF’s program.
Before beginning his search dog training, this enthusiastic dog moved into his Canine Prep Home with SDF employee Kerry Ballantine, charming his way into her life. After leaving Kerry, Andy would spend the next six months completing a vigorous and specialized training program at Sundowners Training Kennels in Gilroy, CA. His seemingly endless energy was more than enough to endure the SDF training program, a process that involves learning advanced obedience, understanding verbal and non-verbal commands, searching rubble piles, walking on shifting and unstable surfaces, climbing ladders, distinguishing the scent of a live “victim” from all other scents, and signaling with a “bark alert” when a live scent is detected. Andy completed his training, continuing to demonstrate his high energy level as well as a newly-found focus on his work.
Andy was paired with two other handlers before being matched perfectly with his true partner, Russell Tao, in 2005. Russell is an experienced SDF handler, having achieved Advanced Certification with his first disaster canine partner, Harry. Tragically, Harry died suddenly of a heart condition in January of 2005. It was very important to Russell to continue on as a disaster search dog handler with a new canine, despite his loss. So Andy was in need of a new handler and Russell was in need of a new canine partner. The two could not have been happier and quickly formed a strong bond.
Within months of being paired, Russell and Andy achieved advanced FEMA Certification and began assisting with rescue efforts following several important events, deploying to:
Mudslide Pre-Staging – Orange County, CA on December 6, 2007
Hurricane Gustav – Louisiana on September 1, 2008
Hurricane Ike – Galveston, TX on September 8, 2008
Following a successful career, Russell decided to retire his faithful four-legged partner on July 6, 2011—his tenth birthday. And so Andy spent the rest of his days as a beloved family pet in Russell’s home.
Sadly, Andy crossed the Rainbow Bridge on July 9, 2014 due to natural causes. He is very much missed.
To this day, Russell keeps a photo of Andrea Haberman in the front pocket of his search vest, never forgetting her incredible story and the human-canine bond that he shared with his partner, Andy.
AspenMay 2001—Jul. 2014
Aspen, a male Yellow Labrador, was rescued by the Humane League when he was just a puppy and then raised by SDF supporters Jeff and Jill Wenig of Santa Paula, CA. The family had heard about the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) and knew something about the kind of dogs we were looking for. They brought Aspen to our attention when they noticed that he had considerable agility and a remarkable prey drive. Also, thanks to the training he received at home, Aspen was exceptionally obedient and well-mannered.
Aspen was evaluated by SDF staff and passed his tests effortlessly. Soon, he was off to Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, CA for six months of formal training to become an SDF disaster search dog. Aspen excelled in their training program. At the end of his training phase in October of 2002, a group of new handlers came to Sundowners to be trained and partnered with their own search dogs. Based on their personalities and training styles, Aspen was partnered with Kelly Gordon of the Montebello Police Department near Los Angeles. Aspen enjoyed an active, happy life with Kelly at their home in Rancho Cucamonga, near Los Angeles.
This outstandingly regal Yellow Lab achieved a milestone in his life in June of 2005. He and Kelly became part of an elite group of disaster search dog teams when they achieved Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). With this status they were recognized as being among the most prepared canine/handler deployment teams in the nation.
Kelly noted that Aspen did a great job during this day-long test, and they passed without difficulty! But this achievement did not come overnight. Kelly and Aspen had been working and training diligently together for some time in order to accomplish this goal.
Aspen was a very well-rounded dog, according to Kelly, and she considers this one of the best personality traits for a search dog. After certification Kelly said he had a good “on and off switch,” meaning that he had a very good sense of his role when on-duty as opposed to off-duty. He would be relaxed and social during down time but when it was time to work, he was ready.
When describing off-duty hours, Kelly said, “He’s kind of like the class clown. He’s a big goofball. He’s fun and he makes you laugh.” At those times he loved anything outdoors. Like a good Labrador, he loved to swim and hike. One of his favorite things to do was to run alongside Kelly when she went mountain biking. He also had a monstrous tug and loved to play. At the end of the day, Aspen was happy to get his reward for a hard day’s work: his favorite toy and a good night’s sleep.
Kelly continued to work on the San Diego Task Force as a police officer. In 2005, she and Aspen were deployed to help with rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2006 they deployed again, this time to search for survivors in the wake of Hurricane Ernesto.
By 2008 their original FEMA Certification expired—teams must re-certify every three years—but as expected the team passed again with flying colors. They went on to enjoy weekly trainings with their task force teammates, committed to remaining deployment-ready at a moment’s notice.
When Aspen reached the age of ten, in June of 2011, Kelly and her Chief decided that Aspen should not be re-certified a third time, as he had slowed significantly on the rubble and they did not think he was physically capable of going full term, should they be sent on a lengthy deployment. In order to keep Aspen happy and healthy, he lived the life of a spoiled pet in Kelly’s home.
On July 27, 2014, Kelly said goodbye to her partner and friend of 12 years. Aspen peacefully crossed the Rainbow Bridge with Kelly at his side. We are grateful to Aspen and Kelly for they dedication to the citizens they served.
BaronJul. 1999—Aug. 2008
BellaApr. 1992—Mar. 2007
It is with much sadness that I tell you all of the passing of my beautiful, beautiful BELLA.
I remember the first time I saw her. She was only eight days old, and I fell in love with her right then and there. Who would have known what a wonderful and amazing life she was going to have. She touched so many people with her big heart, and would do almost anything I asked of her.
Most of you know what a GREAT search dog she was—certified in disaster, wilderness, and cadaver searching.
Here are a few other things that she loved to do: she enjoyed going to schools, earthquake/safety preparedness fairs, scouting events and, of course, Search Dog demos, I think even more than I did! She was a gentle soul, to my daughters and all children. She loved to “mother” every type of baby animal that came her way. We had goats, kittens, ducklings that she mothered, her own pups and her grandchildren, but her favorite were her CHICKENS! She would herd them around the yard the best she could, even though chickens don’t herd worth a darn, but she didn’t care. Her favorite time, after retirement, was when I ordered about 50 baby chicks through the mail. When they came she was in “hog”—or should I say “chick”—heaven for several weeks. Some of those chickens became her buds, would come over to her when she was lying down, pick through her fur and then climb up on her back for a rest. Bella would do her best not to move and disturb her feathered friends.
Bella was a remarkable girl. First certified in wilderness at about 18 months old, then cadaver at about 22 months old, shortly after being certified in disaster in March 1995 we were deployed the following month, with the Orange County USAR Task Force to the Oklahoma City Bombing. There she found the four last victims (cadaver) before the building search was called off. We continued to go on many wilderness and cadaver searches for several years.
In Feb 2001 she was diagnosed with cancer of one of her front legs. After 18 treatments of radiation, she was on the path of recovery. She was placed back in service about five months later in August. In mid August she located the body of a missing murder victim, Megan Barosso, in a ravine near Simi Valley, California.
Then, in September 2001, we were deployed with my own LAFD USAR FEMA Task Force to help with terrorist attacks on 9/11. While in New York my shining star located over 25 victims.
Less than six months later, we were once more deployed with the LAFD USAR Task force to “stand by” for the Winter Olympics in Utah.
Bella retired in 2003. She developed vestibular disease, got through that, then developed liver and kidney disease. She was maintained well for a few years on medications. The last few months she needed to be given subQ fluids every day when she had her breakfast. She took it like a champ.
Bella really only had one or two tough days in the end, and she was surrounded by four people who loved her when she was put to rest on March 17, 2007.
Bella was truly a remarkable dog. She has about ten offspring, most of them grandchildren, that are search and rescue dogs, four of which are disaster certified dogs with the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Way to go, Bella!
I want to give a special thanks to all the people who donated money to help her (and me) with the cancer treatment costs. It’s because of your generous contributions that she went on to do her most difficult and important mission. The “Bella Fund” has helped other search dogs with medical problems.
Bella was my student, but even more than that, she was my teacher. She taught me that with patience, love, faith and some good old squeaky toys she would become one heck of a “wonder dog”.
Thank you my dear friend, I will never forget you—you will always be my #1.
Have fun herding your chickens in the sky, and may you never run out of squeaky toys.
Your friend, Deresa
BillyJan. 1996—Aug. 2010
The black Lab named Billy began his career with the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) staying with SDF Founder Wilma Melville and her late husband John at their home in Ojai, CA. Wilma evaluated his toy-drive and soon found she had nothing to worry about:
“Billy was outside the wrought-iron fence and my husband, John, threw a toy over the fence and into the pool. Billy went through the vertical wrought iron fence into the pool to retrieve that toy. Yes, Billy yelped as he shoved himself through, but through he went and he was one happy critter because he had the toy. Billy simply had to have a toy. If there was not a toy available, Billy would find one. Be it a bush, a rock, a plant—you name it, it became a toy if there was nothing else.”
In November 1998 Billy was paired with Mike Scott, an 18-year veteran with Heartland Fire & Rescue. Though Mike’s work included ten years with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue Task Force, he had yet to try his hand at being a canine handler. After watching a fellow firefighter work with a dog from SDF, Mike called to inquire about becoming a handler himself and quickly found his true calling.
Mike and Billy quickly formed a solid bond as Billy went to work with Mike and spent countless hours training for the moment they would be called upon to serve their country. That moment came all too soon when they were deployed for seven days to the devastating scene of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
“We were scheduled for 12 hour shifts,” Mike recalls, “but in reality they were 16 to 17 hour days because of the briefings, travel time, and other logistics. There was steel everywhere and lots of sharp objects—really rough terrain, so we had to let the dogs negotiate it on their own and search independently. The terrain really slowed them down but the dogs searched very well.”
When Mike and fellow SDF Handler Steve Swaney returned from New York City, they realized that although teams must continually train even after becoming certified, even dogs with Billy’s expertise do not have the opportunity to train for a disaster as large as 9/11. This led the two handlers to recommend to SDF that an annual workshop exposing the dogs to unusual conditions to test how well they work when facing a disrupted routine would be incredibly beneficial. Mike and Steve’s suggestion is what SDF handlers now know as the annual IronDog competition, testing the deployment readiness and advanced search skills of SDF’s Certified Canine Disaster Search Teams.
In addition to their deployment to the World Trade Center attacks, Mike and Billy also responded to a landslide and retaining wall collapse in San Diego in June 1999 and the Torrey Pines Bluff collapse in December 2004. Mike and Billy served America together as a FEMA Certified Canine Disaster Search Team for six years and Mike shared that, even in retirement, Billy’s eyes would still light up at the sight of a toy!
During his retirement, Billy had increasing difficulty moving around and sadly, on August 16, 2010, Mike could no longer watch his partner of twelve years suffering. Billy crossed the Rainbow Bridge with Mike by his side at the veterinarian’s office.
Even in his darkest moment, Mike still saw the good in what he and Billy had done and the canine program that they had helped build. In an email to SDF, Mike shared, “I am so proud to have had the chance to experience the reward of having a search dog and the chance to be a part of NDSDF.”
We were proud to have the chance to work with a great Search Team like Mike and Billy and know that Billy will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
BrieJun. 1998—Jan. 2009
CappyJan. 2000—Jun. 2011
Cappy, a sturdy, energetic Black Labrador Retriever was born on January 13, 2000 to a line of champion competition field dogs. When Ray Goodrich adopted him, Cappy seemed destined to carry on the family tradition.
But Ray quickly realized that Cappy’s talents and temperament lay in another direction. Cappy’s physical prowess, coupled with his strong prey drive and intelligence, made him a perfect candidate for the Search Dog Foundation. He was also trusting, well-mannered and related well to his human companions—all vital attributes for a dog who would be expected to work closely with a human partner for long hours in dangerous conditions. When Ray offered him to SDF, we accepted gratefully.
Although Cappy’s initial evaluation proved that he had “The Right Stuff”, acceptance into the program was only the beginning. Cappy was immediately sent off to Sundowners Kennel for several months of training to give him the specialized skills he would need to be a Disaster Search Dog. Upon successful completion of his training, he was ready to be partnered.
Great care is always taken in the assignment of partners. Both dog and handler are evaluated and teamed up based on working styles and temperaments. Occasionally a pairing between a canine and handler does not work out for a variety of reasons, and this is what happened with Cappy’s first assignment. But SDF is committed to finding just the right partner for all of our canines, so Cappy was next assigned to Captain Gary Smith of the Ventura County Fire Department. Gary was no newcomer to the program. He’d already had a successful partnership with a charming, great-hearted dog called Kelly. After ten years of active duty as a disaster search canine, Kelly had retired, but continued to serve as a training dog, helping to teach new handlers until her death in April of 2006.
After months of hard work and training together, Gary and Cappy received FEMA Basic Certification in June of 2005. It wasn’t an easy accomplishment. Along with basic search and rescue skills, Cappy had to become accustomed to the stresses of rapid and extended deployment. He had to learn to be comfortable traveling, sleeping in tents, working long hours in rough conditions, and mingling with strangers. Included in his preparation was participation in the SDF’s Iron Dog Competition—a tough, five-day training exercise that simulates a deployment, and exposes the dogs and their handlers to the types of conditions they can expect to deal with in the field. Cappy came through it like a trouper, and Gary didn’t do too badly either!
Gary and Cappy were deployed to Houston in September of 2005 to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. Gary and Cappy trained with SDF’s Ventura/Santa Barbara training group consistently throughout their career, but finally decided in August 2010 that it was time for both to retire. After 30 years with the Ventura County Fire Department, 13 of which were spent training with Search Dogs, Gary and Cappy moved to Fairfield, Virginia to enjoy their retirement years.
Sadly, Cappy became gravely ill and, after taking him to the vet, it was determined that Cappy had a large tumor in his stomach that had grown very quickly and was untreatable. With his partner of seven years by his side, Cappy passed away at the vet’s office on June 1, 2011.
CodyJun. 2000—Jan. 2013
Cody wasn’t destined to be a laid-back couch dog. Sure, he was everything a family dog should be: friendly, loyal, handsome and smart. But while he loved his family, he seemed to want more out of life. He honed his skill as an escape artist, sometimes using paws, nose and rump at the same time to release latches and outsmart any attempt to contain him.
Unfortunately, Cody’s “creativity” was too much for most families to handle. By the time he was 18 months old, Cody had lived in seven homes! He tried hard to fit in, but Cody simply had no Off switch, so one after another, his families gave up on him.
Eventually he ended up with Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRRoW). They took one look at Cody and saw he had Working Dog written all over him. GRRoW had learned of SDF through our involvement with search efforts at Ground Zero after 9/11. They contacted SDF and a screening test was arranged. With his exuberance, strength, and exceedingly high play/prey drive, Cody passed with flying colors!
Next stop: Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, CA, where all SDF dogs trained at the time. Though Cody was ready, willing and able, he posed a real challenge to his trainers. Like many of us, he wanted it “his way or the highway!” Then one day, lead trainer Pluis Davern finally made real eye contact with Cody. “He seemed to realize, at that moment, that he had just landed the job of his dreams.” From that point on, Cody became a star pupil at Sundowners, mentoring rookie dogs during tough training assignments.
After graduating, Cody was partnered with Linda D’Orsi, a firefighter from Chula Vista, CA. He quickly settled in with Linda and her family at home and went to work with Linda, where he had a second family in her crew at the firehouse.
Linda said Cody couldn’t wait to get out of his crate when he arrived at a training site and he performed his job joyfully, with determination, focus and endless energy. If Linda is called out to a fire, Cody sits patiently in the fire truck with his seatbelt on—recognizing the difference between his search job and Linda’s other responsibilities as a firefighter.
When those who have known him best describe Cody, the first words that come to mind are: fearless, all business, a dynamo, a source of boundless energy. Cody carries his tail up high for his breed. It signals like a flag waving when he’s on the rubble. He also has a terrific “bark alert”–the signal that he’s found what he’s looking for–critical in search-and-rescue. He musters up a continuous, loud, and deep bark (not typical for his breed) that can be heard over the noise and commotion at a disaster site.
As a team, Linda and Cody achieved FEMA Certification in September of 2004, re-Certified in June of 2007 and again in April of 2010 in Las Vegas.
In February of 2012, Linda made the decision to retire Cody. The team enjoyed a long and successful partnership and we were pleased that Cody was able to spend his retirement years comfortably with Linda and her family.
On January 6, 2013, at 12 years of age, Cody’s body began to give out. He enjoyed one last raw steak bone before crossing the Rainbow Bridge at the vet’s office with Linda, his partner of ten years, at his side.
Career Deployments with Handler Linda D’Orsi:
<li>September 2009 – Building collapse, San Diego, CA</li>
<li>October 2007 – Soledad Mountain Road landslide, La Jolla, CA</li>
<li>August 2006 – Hurricane Ernesto, Atlanta, GA</li>
<li>August 2005 – Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, LA</li>
<li>December 2004 – Torey Pines bluff collapse, San Diego, CA</li>
DukeAug. 1997—Aug. 2011
Duke, a male Chocolate Lab, was born on August 22, 1997. Purchased by Doris and Larry Bilderback of Salinas as a hunting dog, Duke demonstrated very early on that he had other aspirations—he knew he was much better suited to the life of a Search Dog. That’s when they decided to contact SDF.
Evaluated as a potential Search Dog, Duke passed the tests with ease. He was soon brought to the home of Debra Tosch, SDF’s Executive Director, in Ojai, California where he lived for two months. Debra prepared him for his official training program at Sundowners Kennel—the facility in Gilroy, California where all SDF dogs trained.
Duke was paired with his handler, Howard Orr—a firefighter with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department—in 1999, where he found a real home and they became a valuable team. Duke and Howard were loyal partners on the job and formed a strong bond through their continual training schedule. This schedule meant they trained every week with the other canines and handlers in their SDF Training Group. They worked continuously on search and rescue skills, maintaining top form so they would be ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. They also achieved Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), making them able to respond across the nation as a Canine Disaster Search Team.
Part of Los Angeles City Task Force 1 (CA-TF1), Howard and Duke responded to numerous deployments during their 9-year career, including the La Conchita mudslide in January 2005, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005, the Paso Robles Earthquake in 2003, the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, and their very first deployment at the Echo Park Building Collapse in 2000. However, out of all the deployments they responded to, the one they are most recognized for is their response to Ground Zero in the days following the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
After many years of searching, Duke retired to spend time with Howard and his family at home in Thousand Oaks, CA. He still loved his toys and an easy search every now and then, but certainly enjoyed his retirement.
After struggling for months with several health issues, Duke crossed the Rainbow Bridge on August 8, 2011, with Howard by his side. As one of the founding teams in the Southern California area, Howard and Duke helped form the solid foundation that many of our current Search Teams have relied on when first beginning their journeys as disaster search canine handlers. Duke will be greatly missed by those who knew and worked with him, as well as those who may never have met this great dog but admired his work from afar. Duke’s pawprints will be big ones to fill and we will all miss him immensely.
SDF Executive Director Debra Tosch:
“Duke has a very special place in my heart as a member of my training group. In the old days we had a “Prep Home” program. I was the prep home for Duke and have many stories to tell about the time Duke spent with me. This was “pre-Abby”. Duke and Abby were actually “kennel mates” up at Sundowners.
Our Community Relations Manager, Celeste, remembers Duke as ‘that dog that pulled Debra along the bike path’ as I ‘walked’ this 85 pounds of pure energy to our first office. I remember taking Duke to a training and Wilma telling me, ‘Just hold on to him until I say release him, and then just tell him to search.’ Yeah, easy for her to say—I only out-weighed this dog by 10 pounds at the time!
Before Howard, Duke was assigned to another handler named Dave Conner, a handler in San Diego. My handlers’ course was Dave and me with Wilma as our instructor. During our ‘week’ at Sundowners, we were informed that Wilma had committed us to a ‘Career Day’. Of course I was nervous as could be, but Dave was a pro and helped me through this. Duke was Dave’s second dog. His first dog was a ‘mix’ that did not make it through the program. It did not work out with Dave due to departmental issues, and Duke was assigned to Howard. BTW, Dave was Howard and Duke’s Search Team Manager at the World Trade Center.
I was there the day that Howard was introduced to and paired with Duke. I have never seen a brighter smile from a handler. Howard had raised a puppy to do canine search but Ember did not quite make it; therefore, Howard was chosen to receive Duke. We were at a rubble pile with Duke and Dave. Howard said, ‘What do I do?’ and Dave said ‘Just tell him to search’. Howard released Duke and said, ‘Search’. Duke ran up the pile, did a two victim search, and looked at Howard like, ‘that’s it?’ Howard went home one happy camper.
Duke and Abby paralleled their careers and went on multiple deployments together.
I have many fond memories that I will always carry of Duke and Abby: me waking up in the middle of the night to a ‘burglar’ noise just to find out it was Duke playing in his crate with a tennis ball he had snuck in; Abby’s one injury at 9/11 coming from Duke and Abby playing after a stressful deployment; Duke launching himself out of a fire department van at a training while still in his crate; Duke jumping into a mud hole right before catching the bus to take us to the airbase during 9/11; Duke chewing up the electrical cord at our old office and surviving it, etc.
These dogs all have their own stories to tell and I am honored to be part of those stories!”
SDF Founder Wilma Melville:
“Duke wagged his tail with such vigor that the tip of it received an open sore. No matter what Howard tried, no matter what vet care, that tail wound continued to open up. Finally, amputation was the only answer. Duke lost about a third of his tail—but the tail was so long that losing one third did not matter and the wound healed very nicely.
With Duke’s passing there is sadness as well as smiles as we remember the big guy. Actually he, like the others, will never be forgotten. We’ll see to that with the Canine Memorial at the NTC.”
DocMar. 1999—Dec. 2013
High drive! What’s the downside of having too much energy? Well, if you’re a rambunctious Chocolate Lab puppy hoping to become a guide dog for the blind, you just might have to find another occupation! And that’s just what happened to MoDoc, a.k.a. Doc.
It all started in 1999. Doc, along with litter mates Mocha and Marc were bred by Guide Dogs of America (GDA) to become Guide Dogs.
As a GDA puppy-in-training, Doc joyfully lived with his foster mom, Mary Deets. Along with Mary’s other pets, he was part of a happy group which often traveled together to Lake Arrowhead, the High Sierras, Florida, San Francisco and Pennsylvania. They camped, swam, went on hikes. On less active days they went to bring cheer to the infirm and elderly as well as autistic children. Doc joined in all activities and was always well-behaved.
A year later, however, when they went for their evaluations by GDA, Doc and his siblings were labeled with “high drive”—dog lingo for being very energetic and busy-minded with a high prey-drive. These characteristics aren’t usually compatible with the serious focused work of a Guide Dog.
According to Kellee Matthews of GDA, this litter of Chocolates was very special. They were the “cutest little ones ever” and their foster families loved them and found them challenging, to say the least. “They were full of fun, fun, fun! We all kind of knew as they were maturing that they were not the norm for our program, so we had our eye on them for a while. We would never force a dog into a life of working for the blind if that dog displayed the will to do otherwise. Labradors love to please and, with that in mind, we thought we could give them an outlet for their natural drives in the field of search and rescue.”
Facing a career transition, Doc became a candidate for the Search Dog Foundation (SDF). Mary Deets continued to train Doc, now focusing on a search and rescue training regime. Doc trained with gusto and truly enjoyed his new calling. Mary found many activities to continually build Doc’s stamina and agility. He particularly enjoyed his swimming adventures in the High Sierras, always willing to dive deep to find and retrieve the stick.
Doc left Mary after about a year and continued his search-and-rescue training with Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, where all SDF dogs trained at the time. Mary says of her time with Doc, “Doc was very loving, well-behaved and determined. He adjusted whether with children or elderly adults and was enjoyed by all.”
The trainers at Sundowners praised, “[Doc] is good on obstacles but needs more confidence on the rubble. He barks for the toy and at the alert tube. Obedience is his strong point. Doc is a fellow that really wants to please those that work with him. He does dynamic alerts and that is the core of what we need.”
Doc has other fans, too. Debra Tosch, SDF Executive Director, has a fond memory of Doc as a graduate from Sundowners. “I was very impressed with Doc…although he might have whined through the piles of rubble, he never quit.”
Doc was then teamed with Carrie Henger, a firefighter from Alta Loma, CA. Carrie rode a Harley and had an incredible zest for action. She was formerly a stunt woman and animal trainer before joining the Los Angeles County Fire Department at age 35. Her movie and TV credits include Police Academy 1 and 2, Hill Street Blues, American Gladiator, as well as numerous commercials. Carrie also has the distinction of being the first woman on the California Task Force 2 team (CA-TF2). She joined this task force with her first working dog Spanner, a very special and devoted yellow lab that was also trained as an arson canine. In fact, Carrie actually started the canine program with Spanner for the LA County Fire Department in 1994. Tragically, Spanner died in a traffic accident while on route to an FBI terrorist training at Vandenberg Air Force Base. But Carrie now trains with Doc and an arson specialist canine named Sprocket.
Carrie stated that Doc was not a “cuddler” like Spanner was, but “likes lying quietly next to me on the floor. Doc is obsessed with the toy, but doesn’t know how to pace himself…he will go ’til he drops!” Carrie proudly stated that Doc “gives 1000%, loves to play hard and tirelessly, and would swim 24 hours a day if he could.” His eyes “sank” when he got tired and Carrie then knew she had to hydrate him and make sure he paced himself. “He is always wagging his tail [and] loves people…all due to the great job Mary Deets did with him as a puppy raiser.”
Carrie and Doc were deployed to the Waterman Canyon mudslide in San Bernardino, sat at March Air Force Base trying to get to Iran to help after the earthquake, were used twice looking for missing people, assisted with search efforts at the deadly mudslide in La Conchita, California, and with rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During the slow times, Carrie would demonstrate Doc’s capabilities to other firefighters who always came back from these demos in awe of what they’d witnessed. They’d go back to their own fire stations to spread the word, “Wow! That Chocolate Lab found me in less than a minute!”
Carrie and Doc were a great team and worked together until 2009, when Carrie was diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, the world lost a wonderful woman and canine handler on March 4, 2010. Carrie’s last wishes were that Doc and her arson detection dog, Sprocket, not be separated, and so Doc retired and lived out his remaining years in the loving home of Carrie’s husband, Bob.
At the age of 14<sup>1/2</sup>, Doc peacefully crossed the Rainbow Bridge on December 18, 2013. Upon breaking the news of Doc’s passing, Bob told Debra Tosch, “He was a supremely fantastic dog and had such great drive even to the end, but his body couldn’t keep him going anymore. He was also the kindest dog I had ever been around.”
Thank you, Doc, for your wonderful work ethic and service to the nation. You will be missed but not forgotten.
Researched and Written by SDF Volunteer, Judy Friedman
DustyFeb. 1995—Mar. 2007
As all of you know by now, we in the Metro family, NDSDF, OES, FEMA, and CA-TF7 have suffered a huge loss. On March 12th at about 7:30 in the evening, Dusty, one of our veteran search canines, was struck by a vehicle in front of Station 62. Dusty was on duty with her handler and partner, Captain Randy Gross, at the time. Dusty sustained severe trauma to her lungs and was rushed to the Sacramento Veterinary Surgery Center where she suffered a heart attack secondary to the accident and passed away March 13, 2007 at about 1645 hours.
Ironically, Randy had just announced Dusty’s retirement at a National Disaster Search Dog event in Seaside, Monterey County, on March 10, 2007. After more than 10 years of intense training and dedicated service, Dusty was going to take it easy and become a family dog.
What a lot of you don’t know is the rest of the story.
Dusty and Randy deployed to the World Trade Center with California Task Force 7 on September 11, 2001. It was there that she became one of the most photographed dogs in the nation. Dusty has been honored by the Federal Emergency Management agency (FEMA) and was featured on their website. Her TV credits include an appearance on Animal Planet. She also closed the New York Stock Exchange on September 19, 2001, the only canine to be asked to perform such an honorable task. Not to mention many political leaders have given Dusty a well-deserved pat on the head including President Bush (twice).
Dusty, born in 1995, was one of the very first dogs trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, established by Wilma Melville, for the Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Program. In 1997, Dusty, along with Ana and Harley, were the first three dogs recruited for training and use in the US&R arena. All of these dogs were assigned to firefighter handlers from California Task Force 7 in Sacramento. Ana and Captain Rick Lee of Sacramento Fire, as well as Harley and Assistant Chief Rob Cima of El Dorado County Fire, experienced the same level of success as Randy and Dusty. The combination of firefighter handlers and highly trained dogs like Dusty was new to the disaster search world. The Foundation Program and the dedication of all of the canine search teams have contributed to a remarkably successful program that has changed the way we in USAR conduct operations.
<img class=”size-full wp-image-1139 alignleft” src=”http://searchdogfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/rb_dusty3.jpg” alt=”rb_dusty3″ width=”225″ height=”300″ />Dusty and Randy learned their trade from a legendary team in the dog world, Pluis and Kate Davern. Under the watchful direction of Pluis, Dusty honed her skills in new areas that would eventually produce one of the finest search dogs in the Nation, while Randy learned the subtle art of ducking and dodging from the correcting hand of Pluis. Randy learned obedience and how to respond to Dusty’s “directional control” and “bark alert”. When Dusty found a victim she would let Randy know with a strong repeated bark. For those of you that understand canine training, the USAR dogs that come out of the Foundation all have very strong “toy drive”. Like a lot of firefighters I know, Dusty would work her tail off for a little recognition and her toy.
Dusty’s formative years were reported to be entertaining for the Foundation, Sundowners Kennels, and Randy. Golden Rescue in Salinas, CA donated Dusty to the Foundation and they sent her to the Sundowners Kennels. The one-two punch of Sundowners and the Foundation provide a nice mix of boot camp, charm school, and finishing school all rolled into one. Dusty was a little larger than some search dogs—those of us that were friends like to say she was big boned. She had high energy and drive—both great qualities for a rescue dog—but challenging for a handler. Stories abound of being out of control, not responding to commands, and refusing to stay on a leash. But eventually they were able to get Randy trained. Dusty had similar problems, too!
The handlers tell me that one of the secrets to the success of the Foundation is the marriage—the special relationship between the handler and dog. I don’t know if Wilma, Pluis, or match.com arranges the match, but you can’t argue with success. Randy and Dusty were paired up in 1997 and went on to set the standard in this new experimental program, clearing the path for future Fire Fighter teams to follow. I always called her his girlfriend—sorry, Donna. The depth of their relationship cannot be understated.
Two such examples: during a fairly recent training I watched as Dusty and Randy worked a pile. The seemingly effortless manner in which handler and canine searched and communicated was truly inspiring. The familiarity between the two could only come from years of constant work, training and understanding. During the search, Dusty would react to the subtle changes in Randy’s body language that years of experience had taught how to respond without any verbal direction. Randy would watch and know what the slightest lift of her head, twitch of her tail, or position of her body meant. It was these slight, intuitive signs between dog and handler that controlled the search. When Dusty found a victim and was waiting for her reward—remember the toy—her whole body would shake, her tail would wag, her jaw would quiver—sounds like Randy at a CE. At her age—no I won’t tell—she could still give the young pups a run for their money. I don’t know who was happier—Randy or Dusty.
<img class=”alignright size-full wp-image-1138″ src=”http://searchdogfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/rb_dusty2.jpg” alt=”rb_dusty2″ width=”200″ height=”300″ />Another such example was in the early stages of 9/11: the Blue Rescue Team of TF7 was working the night shift and searching in the lowest levels of the WTC complex some six stories below ground. We were searching the subway terminal and as Dusty approached one of the train cars she stepped off of the platform and onto what appeared to be a solid surface of a slightly darker color. The area she stepped into was actually the subway track some 5-6 feet deep filled with sludge—a mixture of water runoff from the ongoing firefight and all of the oil, gasoline, and other products that a six-story underground parking garage produce. She had a difficult time getting out of the water-filled track area due to the darkness and all of the colors blending together in the glow of cyalume sticks and flashlights. When she finally made her way out of the goo my first thought was “When did Randy get a black lab?” or “My, black really does make you look thinner!” Dusty was covered in sludge and all you could see of her, given the dark eerie lighting, were her tongue and her eyes. Dusty did not seem the least bit concerned, she was pulling on her leash, and wanted to continue the search. She knew the job wasn’t done. She had unbelievable drive, that one. The team was now six stories below grade and the decon area was at ground level several blocks away. Our adventure into the subway took several hours and Randy and I were concerned that whatever she was contaminated with could cause some serious issues.
We made our way out to TF7 forward Base of Operations (BoO) in about an hour. The most direct route out took us through some areas that were still smoldering, very hot, and covered with soot. Dusty was trying to rub against anything and everyone she could in order to get the stuff off of her. The FEMA system provides a VMAT (Veterinary Medical Assistance Team) on such incidents and they were waiting for Dusty when she got there. They tried several different brands of soap—liquid, solid, and other dog shampoos, but nothing would cut the oil. Nothing worked at the VMAT BoO so one of Metro’s very own, Ray Winsor, recommended that Dusty try some of the citrus-based liquid hand degreaser in the cache at our BoO. Dusty received a military escort several blocks back to our BoO at Church and Dey Streets. Dusty soon had a glowing grey coat and the drive to search. Being the dedicated team that Randy and Dusty were, they finished their shift at about 0800 hours that morning. Later that same morning a rep from the VMAT team recommended Randy to try some “Dawn” liquid detergent. While this isn’t a product endorsement, it worked. They use Dawn to decon animals contaminated in crude oil spills. The girl had a way of making a big splash.
The life of a canine search team is incredibly sexy (read with sarcasm here). The first two to three years are filled with at least 20-30 hours of training every week, hundreds of miles of travel in order to find “the right pile”, and thousands of dollars of expenses in food, vet care, canine accoutrements, and the like—and all of this before you have even been certified. (Remember, us firefighters are all about the reward—that period when preparation meets opportunity at a disaster). After you’re certified, there are 5-10 hours of training every week with all of the same travel and care expenses.
A big tip of the hat to Randy, Dusty, and Wilma Melville, the founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, as well as Debra Tosch, the current executive Director, and every canine search team out there. Dusty as the first, you have set the bar high—THANKS!
Dusty’s drive to search, and commitment and trust in Randy, led to a unique team. She would search anything, anywhere, anytime without hesitation under extreme conditions.
As a Search Team Manager, as a friend, I will miss her.
Captain Dave Stoddard
FletchJun. 2007—Dec. 2014
In June of 2008, Karen Klingberg, SDF’s then Program Manager, made her first trip to Idaho to look at a few canine candidates and build partnerships with shelters and breed rescue groups there. Guided by Jan Peterson and Nick Demarco, both puppy raisers for Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), she visited the Canyon County Animal Shelter, the Idaho Humane Society, the Wood River Valley Animal Shelter, and McPaws Regional Animal Shelter.
Karen particularly enjoyed meeting Beverly and Michael Anderson, whose family had helped found the McPaws Regional Animal Shelter in McCall, Idaho. There they met a long-legged Black Lab/Hound mix named Fletch, who immediately caught Karen’s eye. That March, Fletch had been found wandering the streets of McCall. No one came looking for him, and with summer approaching, the chances of this dynamic dog getting adopted were slim.
They took Fletch into the shelter’s yard as the snow began to fall. Yes, snow in June! It was barely 30 degrees, but Fletch didn’t care–all this handsome boy wanted was the tug toy! Happily, Fletch’s hip and elbow X-rays came back looking great, and a local vet cleared him to travel to California by plane. This Idaho street urchin was on his way to a new career!
Fletch did very well in training at SDF’s training kennel in Gilroy, CA, graduating in nine months, and was paired with San Diego firefighter Brent Brainard in March of 2009. By June of 2010 the team had achieved FEMA Certification in Memphis, TN, and they re-certified June of 2013 in Virginia Beach, VA. Brent and Fletch continued to train daily to be ready at a moment’s notice should disaster strike.
Unfortunately Fletch developed a neurological disorder believed to be epilepsy. The unpredictability of his seizures made it unsafe for him to continue to work on rubble. He was retired from California Task Force 8 on December 1, 2014 as his seizures became increasingly uncontrollable on larger doses of medications. Sadly, Brent and SDF made the heartbreaking decision to let Fletch cross the Rainbow Bridge when it was determined that his quality of life was severely compromised. Brent stayed at his partner’s side until the end and we are comforted to know that Fletch is in a better place now. He lived a wonderful life with Brent and we all feel fortunate to have had him in our lives.
GatorFeb. 2001—May 2014
Gator was one of a select few canines accepted to the Search Dog Foundation program as a puppy in the early 2000’s. He was donated by Mary Jane Hunt, a breeder from Florida—hence his name—and an acquaintance of SDF’s lead trainer at the time, Pluis Davern. As a breeder, Mary Jane knew what qualities to look for in a search dog candidate. She soon recognized Gator’s strengths and knew the Black Labrador would be a good fit in our program.
Gator started out training at a young age with SDF Prep Home volunteers Bob and Peggy Seay of Ventura. While in his Prep Home, he regularly attended a training class where he became very confident on the obstacles and enjoyed obedience training. Bob and Peggy said that Gator really enjoyed watching dogs on TV and they would routinely tune in to animal shows with him. Whenever a dog came on, he loved to bark at it, a guilty pleasure that his handler, Athena, says he continued to enjoy all his life.
After completing our formal training program in Gilroy, California, it was felt that Gator would be best paired with a handler who would be quiet, soft, and supportive. Pluis found a perfect match in Athena Robbins, a career Lieutenant and firefighter/paramedic on Ohio Task Force 1. Gator returned with Athena to Bellbrook, Ohio, a small city near Dayton. There he shared his new home with a cat, two parrots, two ferrets, and Cooper, a young Golden Retriever.
Gator was Athena’s partner at the Bellbrook Fire Department where she was in charge of Emergency Medical Services for the department. She was on duty for a 24/48 hour shift, splitting duties between the administration building and the fire station. Gator had his own crate in both places as well as an outdoor kennel and agility site for training at the rear of the station. While at the administration building, Gator loved to greet the women from the water department office across the hall before he settled into his crate. At the fire station he knew that at six o’clock in the evening, when the test tone alarm sounded at the firehouse, it was time to eat! He would instinctively go to his crate whenever a fire alarm would sound, without ever having been taught to do so. Gator was a favorite with the crew and loved to get his ball out for the other firefighters to throw. He especially loved truck-washing time when he could play with the hose and bite at and jump in the water stream.
As part of their continual training process, Gator practiced his obedience and agility skills with Athena nearly every day. He loved agility training and was very methodical about it, often climbing ladders without being commanded. Athena had this comment concerning Gator’s enthusiasm for training:
“I had sent Gator to search a new pile that was very difficult. He got off the pile on the backside and headed for the agility site where he started to climb a ladder. I whistled for him to return and he completed the search. However, it just goes to show that he wanted to gain confidence by doing something he knows!”
Gator proved that he was a good teacher on days when Cooper, Athena’s young Golden Retriever, joined in with training. Without prompting, Gator was known to show Cooper how to master a particular exercise if he seemed to be struggling to grasp it.
Athena and Gator achieved Basic Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in February of 2004. Early on, they proved their skills as a disaster search team by participating in several lost person searches in Ohio. They were also deployed to Hurricane Isabel for five days during the 2003 Atlantic hurricane season.
Perhaps it’s just a coincidence since Gator was born in Florida, but he and Athena made deployments to hurricanes regular events.
In the 2004 hurricane season, they worked steadily for five days following Hurricane Ivan, waking up at 5 a.m. daily. Ivan’s damage was severe. Ranging from a cement slab where a house once stood to structures still intact but unsafe, the areas this search dog team were responsible for were many and the obstacles immense. In the town of Milton, Athena and Gator worked 16-hour days and stayed in a local school for the few hours of down time each night. Along with three other search dog teams, this was considered a ‘light task force’ or Type 3 Deployment, which generally means that it is smaller than a full deployment. This didn’t slow down these motivated teams from clearing over 1,000 structures in a few short days.
From fully collapsed homes to those with little damage, Athena and Gator worked tirelessly, meticulously going from house to house, meeting residents and making sure all the occupants were and safe accounted for. The task force did sweeps of large areas with the other dogs, and Gator mostly searched residential homes. Before searching even began, the group did a lot of road clearing in order to reach the areas affected. This had the added bonus of giving residents much needed access.
Traveling with a structural engineer, damage assessment was of primary concern after search and rescue. There were also some tenuous moments with situations that mimicked a bad reality show, such as when they were working in an area near the zoo and discovered that some of the animals weren’t accounted for, including an alligator!
As always, there are the “normal” dangers on the job, such as broken glass, nails, and building materials. At one point, Gator cut a pad on one of his paws, which brought out the best in people even during their time of turmoil. Residents were more concerned about Gator than their own situations, asking if they could help the team—an odd but gratifying turn of events.
All through the deployment Gator was a stellar worker and Athena had nothing but praise for her best friend and partner. When asked how Gator was received in a situation such as a hurricane, Athena spoke again of the interaction between Gator and the residents: “One thing that really has rung true for any disaster is their appreciation for what we do and gratitude for our presence, even after they have lost everything.”
Living in Ohio, there were times when “Team Gator” was deployed to the aftermath of a local tornado. Athena cited one of these times, describing it as “an incredible thing to see the dogs work so well, do what they’re supposed to do…and do a great job.”
Athena also expressed how much Gator changed her life. “He’s taught me a lot about patience, and about being a better person.” She felt grateful to SDF for giving her the opportunity to work with such an exceptional dog. There were training challenges along the way, but Athena saw this as a positive contribution. “If it had been an easy process, I may have taken it more for granted. In the long run, it’s better. It has created more of a focus, caused me to be more driven; it has made me a better handler.”
Gator’s activities outside of search and rescue work kept him and Athena very busy. Butler, a veterinarian pharmaceutical company in Columbus, Ohio contributed $10,000 to SDF and had “adopted” Gator. Gator became a famous face on the cover of their catalog. He also wowed the crowd, making personal appearances at many company events, including being the guest of honor at a company conference in Las Vegas.
Gator’s favorite leisure activity involved water, like most Labradors—playing in the sprinkler spray at the firehouse or jumping in a nearby creek. According to Athena he was quite the ham and loved to show off to other dogs, especially when she wasn’t looking. “He butts them out of the way, and shows them how it’s supposed to be done.”
Since Athena spent so much time at the fire station, she was very pleased that Gator felt so comfortable there. At the time she shared, “He pretty much owns the place; it feels like home for him.” Make no mistake though—Gator knew the difference between work and play. Off duty is off duty, but when work called, “all bets were off.”
Athena credits his Prep Home family. She remarked that they are wonderful people and had a lot to do with his being such an exceptional dog. All things considered, Gator showed Athena what the word “unconditional” really means, and she would not have traded him for the world!
Sadly, on May 29, 2014, Gator crossed the Rainbow Bridge. That day, friend Scott Hall told the world, “The Bellbrook Fire Department and Athena Robbins Haus lost their first Search and Rescue dog ‘Gator’ today…Gator and his human partner Athena put in thousands of grueling hours of training and traveled to numerous national disasters as a FEMA K-9 Disaster Search Team…their passion and drive embodied the spirit of the human-canine bond—one I was very proud to witness and support for many years. RIP Gator…we will all miss your gentle demeanor.”
GlacierMay 2003—Apr 2016
GirlMay 2001—Jan 2014
Girl was a German Wirehair Pointer, born on May 22, 2001 and donated to the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) by Rhonda Ridgley of Daisy Dog Rescue in San Jose, California. She was a very stubborn and determined dog, and her intense toy-drive was an immediate draw for SDF canine evaluators. The very attributes that would make her difficult for a family to enjoy made her an ideal candidate for a career in Urban Search and Rescue!
Girl was old enough when donated in 2002 to go directly to Lead Trainer, Pluis Davern, at Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, California, which trained all SDF candidates from 1996 to 2012.
Due to her intensity, Girl sometimes had challenges while in training, so the directions had to be clear. She worked wonderfully as long as she understood what was wanted of her. Girl soon realized she needed to focus on the task at hand in order to avoid having to perform a “redo” of an exercise, one part of training she truly did not enjoy. She lived up to the high standards of her trainers and definitely wanted to please!
Upon graduation from Sundowners, Girl was paired with Brad Brazeau, a Kern County firefighter from Bakersfield, CA. Girl always went to work with Brad. The firehouse was her place of work, too, and Brad kept her on a strict schedule for training. She had both a crate in Brad’s room and an outside kennel and doghouse. Part of her professional life also involved giving school demonstrations. The children loved her beard, and Girl was the perfect presenter, remaining mellow and calm around the kids.
Brad and Girl achieved their initial Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in October of 2005 and officially retired in June of 2008. Upon retirement, she became a “pet” in Brad’s home with his family. Girl was especially devoted to their son, Jordan, playing with him during the day and watching over him through the night.
Sadly, shortly after New Year’s day in 2014, Girl was diagnosed with cancer. Discovered quite late, the cancer was aggressive and Girl lost her battle only days later. When she passed, Brad wrote to SDF staff, “I also want to thank Wilma [Melville], Debra [Tosch], Pluis [Davern] and anyone else who was involved with pairing Girl and I together. I’ve had a lot of great dogs in my life, but Girl has truly been the best. She was an incredible dog and a wonderful partner and friend. Ultimately, Girl didn’t have a really long and storied search career with far-reaching, impressive deployments, but that doesn’t diminish the incredible dog she was, the intelligence she had or the ability she possessed. It certainly doesn’t speak to the strong will, drive and dynamic personality that was at her core.”
We are very sad to have lost Girl. She was the best of partners to Brad and a beloved family member of the Brazeaus’, but we are relieved that she now rests peacefully and are grateful for our time with her.
GusApr. 1997—Jan. 2001
Gus was a Golden Retriever born on April 23, 1997. He was purchased to be a hunting dog and was sent to a trainer. Gus did not react well to this kind of training, and his owner was displeased, so Gus was taken to a Golden Retriever Rescue Group and left there. The Rescue Group tried valiantly to find Gus a home, but on each placement he was found too rambunctious to make a good house pet. Finally Gus was placed with Ann Frank of Novato, California, who recognized that he was a fine candidate for Search Dog training. Ann donated Gus to the NDSDF.
Gus and his handler, Dan Solis, did very well and reached Advanced FEMA certification on August 19, 2000. Only a few weeks after certification, however, Gus was diagnosed with leukemia, and given only a short time to live.
Gus never lost his will to search. Near the end of his life, Dan brought Gus to a training site. Even though Gus was weak and his fur had been shaved to facilitate medical treatment, Dan knew that Gus would be happiest if he could continue to do what he loved best: being a search dog. When Dan let Gus out of the car they were across the parking lot from another handler who was explaining to an observer what makes a good search dog. The handler, not knowing Gus and Dan were there, picked up a toy and threw it, to see if the observer’s dog would run after it. The dog was not interested. Imagine everyone’s surprise when Gus, from several yards away, streaked past the startled observer, grabbed the toy and immediately brought it back to the handler. That, the handler explained with tears in her eyes, is a search dog.
Thank you, Gus, for being <em>Part of the Search</em>.
HarleyDec. 1994—Nov. 2006
In 1996, a very special Golden Retriever came into my life. A friend had heard that I was looking for three dogs to start a program of placing professionally trained dogs with volunteer firefighters. “Go check out the local Humane Society,” she said. “There’s a very energetic, high-drive male Golden there who needs a job!”
Harley joined two other rescued Goldens, Ana and Dusty, as part of our Pilot Program. All three were destined to blaze a trail for search dogs nationwide. Their handlers, Rob Cima (Harley), Randy Gross (Dusty), and Rick Lee (Ana), all from the Sacramento area, were as determined a group as one could ask for. Looking back, I think I was excessively serious about our learning effort. I was determined that the Pilot Program prove a success—and it did!
The dust and debris had not settled at the World Trade Center when the Sacramento Task Force was on a plane to New York. Harley, Ana, Dusty and ten SDF canine colleagues were in for one of the biggest tests of their lives. They came through in every way, exceeding all of our expectations.
Life as a disaster search dog has been a fine one for these high-energy pooches. Harley has enjoyed going to work each day with Rob, and is much loved by Rob’s family. Training has been the highlight of his week, and deployments the highlight of his working life. In addition to 9/11, Harley was part of the Hurricane Rita rescue efforts in 2005. He served his community and country well.
To our great sadness, Harley was put to sleep on November 13th after a serious bout with cancer. Losing one of our first dogs is painful to us all. His death is felt throughout the close family that made up his life for the past ten years.
But what a fine life Harley had! I’d like to celebrate the legacy that Harley has left to those that follow. Harley set the bar high. He will always be remembered as a Founding Search Dog—one of the first, the best, and most beloved.
HarrySep. 2000—Jan. 2005
A true hero was memorialized on Saturday, January 29, 2005, among a devoted group of firefighters and their canine partners. Harry, one of SDF’s most beloved Search Dogs, had died quietly and unexpectedly in his sleep a few days earlier. According to Harry’s veterinarian, his heart just stopped—like a top high school athlete suddenly collapsing on the field.
During Harry’s four short years of life he proved himself to be a tireless worker and devoted partner to SDF handler Russell Tao, a firefighter with the Montebello Fire Department. Just the week before his death, he and Russell had completed a grueling three-day search for victims of the tragic La Conchita, California mudslides.
Widely covered by the media, Harry’s memorial service included twenty SDF handlers and their dogs, SDF Prep Home families, representatives from Guide Dogs of America, local wilderness teams, and a host of friends and supporters. All paid tribute to this remarkable team.
In the tradition of fire departments, when a firefighter passes away an alarm sounds, signifying the firefighter’s “last call”. In keeping with this custom, at 11:15 a.m. on the day of the memorial, canine-firefighter teams across the country blew the recall command on their whistles or called out “Harry, here!” This was Harry’s “last recall”. At the highly emotional service, Harry was eulogized, prayers were said and, as bagpipers played Amazing Grace, the firefighters and their dogs formed a touching processional. Russell gently draped Harry’s leash and collar on the corner of his cherished partner’s photo.
Harry’s life began with the Guide Dogs of America. Although initially bred to work with the blind, it soon became apparent that Harry was much too energetic for this type of work. His strong play/prey drive made him a perfect candidate for search and rescue, and SDF was alerted.
SDF Founder Wilma Melville’s late husband John and a young neighbor, Nathan Henson, raised Harry together, and named him after the Melville’s third son. Harry was such a quick learner that after only four months with John and Nathan he set off for SDF’s six-month professional training course at Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, CA.
Harry was the youngest dog to ever go through the rigorous program and he rose to the occasion with gusto! He matured rapidly, became strong and agile, while keeping a very gentle nature. After being partnered with Russell, the team attained FEMA Advanced Certification. During their time together the pair shared truly life-altering experiences. In addition to their search work at the mudslides in La Conchita, Russell and Harry were deployed to the Waterman Canyon mudslide in San Bernardino County and the City of Commerce Train Derailment in 2003.
From the very beginning of their extraordinary partnership, Harry and Russell were inseparable. They lived and worked side-by-side, 24/7, sharing both tragedies and happy, carefree times. Harry will always be remembered for his contribution as a Disaster Search Dog, and for the spirit and unbridled enthusiasm he brought to the job. Although Russell is grieving now, he cannot imagine his life without having a canine partner. When the time is right, he will be paired with another SDF search dog to continue with the vital work that is theirs, bringing comfort and hope to disaster victims and their loved ones.
On hearing the news of Harry’s death, Russell was deluged with condolence messages. Here are just a few of the many heartfelt words that speak volumes of the impact Harry made on so many lives:
You and Harry were such a team—my heart goes out to you. Harry did such a great job in La Conchita. I enjoyed watching you guys grow as a team. I know only too well the loss you are feeling and the big emptiness you feel whenever you go anywhere you used to go with Harry. Remember that our loved ones live forever through the memories we hold in our hearts. They can never be taken away. You were the best partner Harry could have asked for and you were a great “dad” to him. God bless, and again my heart and prayers are with you.
— Carrie Henger, SDF handler, L.A. County Fire Department
From everyone here at Guide Dogs of America, our deepest sympathy and all of our love to you and your family. We will always keep Harry in our hearts—he is part of our extended family and a very lucky boy to have spent his life with you doing amazing work.
— Kellee Matthews, Director of Animal Health, Guide Dogs of America
Miki Klocke, Liz Harward, Linda Anderson and I picked Harry and his siblings out of their litter when they were about seven weeks old. It was a great joy to see Harry grow with the guidance of John Melville and Nathan. Our weekly gatherings of the “chocolate puppies” were a high-octane gas, with many laughs and smiles. It occurs to me that Mr. Harry had a regrettably short yet extremely rich life that was crowned by getting to do the work he was born to do with you at La Conchita last week. My husband Tom and I send you our deepest regrets; our thoughts are with you.
— Bo Stevenson Harper, SDF Canine Prep Home “Mom” to Harry’s brother, Hobbes
HeroMar. 2002—Aug. 2015
HigginsSep. 2000—May 2013
Higgins started out his life as a guide dog candidate for Guide Dogs of America (GDA). Their breeding program allows them to routinely train and match specialized dogs with the visually impaired. Occasionally, one of their canines may have a more exuberant nature than is ideal for this line of work, in which case GDA will contact the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) and let us evaluate the dog for a career in Search and Rescue.
Before Higgins, GDA had previously donated three high-drive Chocolate Labradors to SDF, known as the “M” litter, which means all of their names began with the letter “M”, and we jumped at the opportunity to work with puppies from another litter as well. SDF adopted five from this newest litter and GDA kept four of them. Higgins, originally named JD, was actually one of the four that GDA kept. He was raised by Mary and Don Ball for GDA before it was decided that he was destined for a different kind of work, and GDA had SDF staff member Miki Klocke test him for our program. Though he was not allowed to play with toys while he was a guide dog candidate, as soon as Miki pulled out a toy to test his prey drive, she knew this bouncing puppy would sail through Search Dog boot camp.
Upon being accepted into our program, he went straight to Sundowners Kennel, SDF’s training facility at the time, located in Gilroy, CA. There he was re-named Higgins in honor of Point Higgins School in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the students and faculty had held a walk-a-thon in the snow to raise money for SDF following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Higgins showed great promise at Sundowners, and made it through our six-month training program with no problems.
Higgins initially spent a year with a handler in Ohio, but it was determined that he would be better suited with Al Duncan of the Presidio Fire Department in California. Higgins and Al trained with their training group weekly and stayed prepared to respond to disasters in California.
Higgins retired and lived out his remaining years with Al and his family in Northern California. In May of 2013, Higgins peacefully crossed the Rainbow Bridge with Al at his side.
HobbesSep. 2000—May 2015
HulaMay 2008—May 2015
In June of 2009, Hula, found herself in the Humboldt County Animal Shelter in McKinleyville, CA, picked-up as a stray. The shelter staff evaluated this energetic Catahoula and thought she might have some of the qualities we look for in a Search Dog. Hula’s evaluator had these things to say about her: “This is a very talented dog. Her high energy and focus are very extreme. She doesn’t care if a toy is in tall weeds, at the bottom of a gully or under our motor home — she finds it. Her determination is unbelievable.”
The shelter staff contacted SDF for a formal evaluation. Paula Carpenter, one of SDF’s trained volunteer evaluators, made the six-hour round-trip drive to evaluate this pooch. SDF received a phone call later that day saying that this dog was certainly worth another look. Arrangements were made for the dog to be brought to Redding, CA for boarding and another evaluation. After the evaluation, we determined this would be a fabulous candidate!
Hula was transported to Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, CA for final evaluation. She passed with flying colors and began training immediately. After only six months of training, Hula was ready to meet her handler.
In January of 2010, Hula was partnered with Handler Patti Krafft, a Lieutenant with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department. Hula has continued to sharpen her skills with Patti, and in December of 2010 they passed their initial State Urban Search and Rescue (SUSAR) Type II Certification test in Tulsa, OK. Then, on June 25, 2011, the team achieved SUSAR Type I Certification in Oklahoma City, OK, making them ready for any disaster where lives can be saved.
JazzOct. 2000—May 2010
It was with great sadness that the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) family said goodbye to Search Dog Jazz last week as he crossed the Rainbow Bridge. After seven years with his handler Luis Garcia, and 11 deployments as part of Baja California Task Force 3, Jazz was a wonderful ambassador for the urban search and rescue program and will be greatly missed.
Born in October 2000, Jazz came to SDF from Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin, which also sent us Search Dogs Andy and Cody. After completing his training at Sundowners, Jazz was paired with Luis in March 2003—a day that Luis remembered well throughout their career: “I remember driving up to Sundowners in Gilroy with my fellow handlers. As we had the first contact with the canines, for some reason Jazz caught my attention; he was so full of energy that it worked like a magnet on me.”
This close bond was apparent throughout their career as Luis and Jazz responded to 11 deployments in Baja California, including several earthquakes, landslides and building collapses. Most recently, in early April 2010, Luis and Jazz deployed with fellow Canine Disaster Search Team Fidel Gomez and Krissy, to search for anyone trapped beneath the rubble following a large earthquake in the Mexicali region. In recognition of their efforts and career, the teams met the president of their country and received his thanks for their dedication to the urban search and rescue program as well as for their service to Mexico.
Between their commitment to weekly training sessions and their many deployments, Luis and Jazz set the bar high for Mexico’s newly developed Baja California Task Force 3 (BC-TF3), which is similar to FEMA’s task forces in structure and deployment procedures. Jazz will be sorely missed but his legacy lives on in the work his fellow Canine Disaster Search Teams and BC-TF3 have done and will continue to do in future deployments.
JeffOct. 1997—Feb. 2009
JessieMay 1998—Dec. 2012
Born May 28, 1998, Jessie’s story began with SDF handler, Jeff Place, who raised him from a pup before bringing him to Wilma, SDF’s founder. Wilma and SDF soon found him a Prep Home with Donna Stevens and her family. It was with the Stevens family that Jessie started to make his mark. At the time, he just couldn’t sit still. He was super active and happy, with a “win your heart” expression on his face.
In the midst of all this exuberance, Jessie began displaying the qualities that make a terrific search dog: he was a very diligent searcher and was always willing to do what was asked of him.
After one year, the Stevens family turned Jessie over to Pluis, SDF’s lead trainer at Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, CA. Pluis noted that he was a very responsive dog with high drive, and that he was extremely sensitive to his first handler, Ron von Allworden, an engineer with the Sacramento Metro Fire Department. He was very much in tune to Ron’s body language.
Ron and Jessie deployed to two small tornadoes in the Sacramento area, where they were able to help determine that the buildings they searched were abandoned. They were also sent to help with rescue efforts in Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Ron and Jessie were close to going to 9/11, being fifth on the deployment list. However, only four Canine Disaster Search Teams from Sacramento Task Force 7 (CA-TF7) were selected to go to Ground Zero, so Ron and Jessie stayed behind.
Unfortunately, Ron was unable to continue working with Jessie and in Spring 2007, he returned Jessie to SDF’s kennel. At the same time, SDF handler Mike Taul was looking for a second Search Dog and Pluis thought they would be a great match.
Mike works for the Novato Fire Department in Northern California and trained with Jessie every day, along with the rest of the Oakland Task Force 4 (CA-TF4) Training Group. In November 2007, Mike and Jessie achieved FEMA Certification, making them deployable across the country.
In August 2008, Mike and Jessie were deployed to Galveston, TX, in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which thrashed the Gulf Coast of the United States that summer. Searching abandoned, flooded homes for miles on end, Jessie made sure no one was left behind after the storm.
By this time, Jessie was ten years old and Mike knew it was time to retire him from search work. Jessie enjoyed his golden retirement years at home with the Taul family in Pleasant Hill, CA, fetching as many tennis balls as he liked.
Sadly, on December 27, 2012, after watching him having more and more trouble eating, Mike made the difficult decision to let Jessie go. At 14 years old and after an eight year career in urban search and rescue, Mike said goodbye to his partner of five years as Jessie crossed the Rainbow Bridge.
JezzieJun. 2001—Sep. 2015
A beautiful Black Lab with loving eyes and a wagging tail, Jezzie had been sitting for many weeks on death row at the Sacramento County Animal Control. Thankfully, Jezzie’s last day at the shelter was different from the others. She was given a second chance at life.
On that fateful day at the shelter, Julie Lupkin & Rhonda Ridgley from Daisy Dog Rescue saved Jezzie from her scheduled euthanization. Seeing in Jezzie the characteristics of a first-class Search Dog, they contacted the Search Dog Foundation, and within days she was off to her new life as a Search Dog candidate.
When Rhonda recalled the day she met Jezzie, she said, “When I looked into her eyes, they seemed to say, ‘Just give me a chance and I won’t let you down!'”
Rescue groups routinely make visits to shelters in an attempt to give dogs another chance to find their place in life. Luckily for SDF, individuals like Julie and Rhonda have learned what characteristics we seek in future Search Dogs and are able to contact us when they come across a dog that seems like a good fit for this type of work. Rhonda says, “SDF has since become my first choice for the dogs we rescue. The dogs have a great life and they’re doing a tremendous service. These dogs will give everything they have for their handler and their job, and the Foundation recognizes and understands that each one of these dogs is special. SDF has proven to me that they are dedicated to insuring that never again will any one of these dogs be a ‘throw-away’ again.”
In March of 2003, after six months of formal training, Jezzie was partnered with Antonio Galvan, one of SDF’s Handlers in the State of Baja California, Mexico. Spunky, feisty and spirited, Jezzie earns praise and affection from Antonio. “She’s great!” Antonio beams with pride. “My family loves her. I am very happy. She likes to run, really run. At first, I thought she would run away, but now she comes back. She really listens and I trust her a lot.”
When first paired the team was still working on obedience. “She gets excited,” Antonio said back then, “And she likes to jump, but she’s starting to settle down. She’s learning that her training is serious.” Antonio and Jezzie practice their search techniques on the rubble that was part of a local landslide. Antonio is confident his Jezzie will have no problem testing to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) standards.
Montebello Firefighter and Tijuana Team Leader Fernando Pelaez is very proud of Jezzie and Antonio. “The first year is such a challenging time. But the team is starting to gel. They’re sealing the match. Six months ago Antonio couldn’t walk down the street without Jezzie wanting to take off. But now, Jezzie accepts Antonio as his boss. Jezzie used to look at Antonio as if to say, ‘I’m tired. I don’t know what you want. Be more specific.’ Now Antonio is learning how to read his dog,” says Fernando.
“Antonio is the perfect partner for Jezzie,” says Fernando, who praised Antonio for his determination to work with his dog. “Jezzie is smart and testy; Antonio is easy-going. Jezzie wants lots of attention and Antonio gives it to her.”
Fernando has had to work hard, too. As team leader, he has four other dogs and their handlers to bring up to FEMA Advanced Certification standards. Sometimes he has to be tough on the handlers and he pushes them to push their dogs. “I tell them to treat each practice search like a real-life disaster scenario. The dogs have a job to do. It takes discipline, balance and a good work ethic on the part of the handler and canine partner. The dog has to understand that they’ll get their reward when they find the ‘victim.'”
In their first two years together, Jezzie and Antonio deployed to four disasters in Tijuana, including wall collapses and mudslides. Then, in 2006 they responded to a trench collapse in Tijuana. In all cases, they were able to determine that no one had been left behind.
By SDF Volunteer Alice Kane
KellyAug. 1995—Sep. 2000
- Mar. 2001—Apr. 2013
- Nov. 2000—Aug. 2015
- Jan. 1997—Apr. 2004
- Sep. 2003—May 2015
- Jul. 1997—Mar. 2002
- Dec. 1999—Apr. 2009
- Mar. 1999—Jan. 2012
- Jul. 2002—Aug. 2014
- Mar. 1999—Aug. 2011
- Jan. 1996—Aug. 2007
- Oct. 2000—Aug. 2012
- Nov. 1999—Jan. 2012
- Sep. 1998—Sep. 2013
- Feb. 1997—Jun. 2011
- Feb. 2006—Aug. 2013
- Dec. 1998—Dec. 2013
- Nov. 2001—Aug. 2014
- Mar. 1996—Sep. 2009
- Oct. 1997—Sep. 2011
- Oct. 1996—Oct. 2012
- Jul. 1998—Dec. 2008
- Oct. 2000—Nov. 2010
- Jan. 1998—Jul. 2012
- Apr. 1998—Jan. 2010
- Aug. 1996—Jul. 2010
KrissyMar. 2001—Apr. 2013
“The Australian Shepherd is an intelligent dog with strong guardian instincts. Australian Shepherds are delightful and loyal companions. They love to be part of the daily hustle and bustle. They diligently carry out their responsibilities. They are easy to train, and eager to please.”
We don’t know a lot about Krissy’s history, but we do know that this general description of Australian Shepherds fits Krissy to a tee. When Aussie Rescue of Southern California learned about this beautiful dog, they knew she was very special. They donated Krissy to the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) because they saw the wonderful qualities in her that would make her a great candidate to become a disaster Search Dog.
Krissy spent only a short time in a Prep Home in Ojai, CA with Donna Stephens and her family. She was quickly able to join a group of new canine recruits at Sundowners Kennel for formal training.
Throughout Krissy’s training she showed the exceptional high energy and drive that are so important to a successful career as a disaster Search Dog.
Krissy met her match when she was paired with Fidel Gomez, her new Handler from Tijuana, Baja California. It is a close competition between the two of them to decide who has more energy and drive. Fidel has the kind of energy and drive that most of us only dream of. He is a volunteer EMT for a Rescue Squad in Tijuana. Fidel is also an attorney, teaches law at the University of Tijuana, and owns a hardware store. To top this off, he also has boundless energy for his family.
As Fidel describes his first experience with Krissy, “I went to the van to bring out the last of the dogs in training that we were working with that day. I opened the door of the kennel and out came a very beautiful red and white Australian Shepherd that had an ear tip down and a sassy look on her face. For some reason that looked stayed with me, and I had a feeling I would be partnered with this dog.”
Fidel attended the initial Handlers’ Course, when they were actually paired with their canines, and all of their training sessions with SDF trainers after they were paired. If this was not enough time spent, he also voluntarily translated SDF’s Handlers’ Manual, and many FEMA documents pertaining to disaster search teams, from English to Spanish for all the Tijuana handlers to have for their training.
In March of 2003 Fidel was teamed up with Krissy, the red and white Aussie with the tipped down ear and that sassy look.
Krissy and Fidel quickly became a very strong team. It didn’t happen overnight, but pretty near to it. Every day they worked together their communication skills became more refined and their teamwork grew stronger.
The team had plenty of opportunity to put all of their training and practice into action over the years in the Baja California region, and is to date the most deployed team in SDF history:
2004 – Four mudslides
2007 – Landslide
2008 – Earthquake and missing person search
2009 – Missing person search
2010 – Earthquake
2011 – Building explosion
2012 – Landslide
2013 – Landslide
In all cases the team was able to determine that no survivors were left behind.
Krissy and Fidel always took the time to spread awareness among public servants, new generations of EMTs, and the general public to promote the importance of rescue canines in the state of Baja California. Fidel explains, “We have a firm conviction that by educating people we will ensure long life for the Search Dog program here in Tijuana, Baja California.” Krissy and Fidel’s high energy and teamwork helped ensure the continued success of the program as well. Together, they make a difference.
Over the years, Krissy and Fidel helped strengthen Baja California Task Force 3 (BC-TF3), one of Mexico’s three national urban search and rescue task forces. The team has paved the way for future Search Dogs, making the canine program an integral part of Mexico’s disaster response system.
Sadly, on April 2, 2013, Krissy crossed the Rainbow Bridge with Fidel at her side. Krissy collapsed at home in front of Fidel and his wife Lidia and was not breathing nor had a pulse when he checked her. As Lidia drove them to the veterinary clinic, Fidel performed CPR on his canine partner of ten years until the veterinary staff took over, but unfortunately Krissy was unable to be revived.
As one of the founding members of Baja California Task Force 3’s canine program and one of SDF’s most deployed Search Dogs, Krissy leaves quite a legacy for future Search Dogs and will be greatly missed.
Written and researched by Rachel Edelstein-Penn, Dunkin’ Donuts, Inc. Volunteer, Canton, MA
Lilly-BelleNov. 2000—Aug. 2015
Lilly-Belle was a small Golden Retriever with a reddish coat and a “never give up” way about her. This was a good thing, because the road that brought her to SDF was a long one with several twists and turns. Lilly-Belle, who was then known as Lilly May, lived with a family in New York when she was a puppy. The father of the family had just lost both his wife and his Golden Retriever within a very short period of time. He thought a new puppy would be good for him and his teenage daughter.
The father and daughter soon found a breeder who was willing to give them a Golden Retriever puppy, which is unusual for a breeder to do for a “non-performance” home. But, given their recent losses, this breeder was willing. Though the family meant well, and tried very hard, Lilly-Belle did not form the bond they were hoping for with the teenage girl, and the father was just too busy with work to give this energetic dog the attention she needed.
Their family vet referred them to Golden Retriever Rescue of Central New York (GRRCNY). Carol Allen, the President of GRRCNY, recognized the potential in this very special dog and soon contacted the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to see if we would provide Lilly-Belle with the opportunity to channel her high drive and energy into becoming a Disaster Search Dog.
Lilly-Belle was soon on a plane, traveling first-class, with an off-duty American Airlines flight attendant. She traveled cross-country from New York to California and directly to Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy.
At Sundowners, Lilly-Belle proved she was made for the SDF program. She had the energy, enthusiasm and high prey drive necessary to do well in the training program. After six months, she was paired with a firefighter from Ohio who was one of a new training group of four handlers in that state.
Although Lilly-Belle seemed to be finally finding her niche, a couple twists were ahead in the road for her. Lilly-Belle spent time with two different handlers in Ohio. Each handler had the best of intentions, but in each case, the match did not quite work. So, it was back on the road again. This little dynamo of a dog then flew back to California to spend a month at Sundowners for a “refresher” course.
SDF Executive Director Debra Tosch and Julie Padelford-Jansen, a new handler from the City of Miami Fire and Rescue who had just arrived at Sundowners for training, picked up Lilly-Belle from the airport. Julie found herself in an unusual situation at Sundowners: Though she was being trained as a new handler, SDF did not yet have a dog for her. But as luck would have it, Julie was able to work with Lilly-Belle that week, and the two formed a real bond.
After Lilly-Belle spent a month at Sundowners, Lead Trainer Pluis Davern felt Julie and Lilly-Belle would make a good team. Pluis brought Lilly-Belle out to Florida with her while she was there for follow-up training with the Florida training group. On January 11, 2005, Julie and Lilly-Belle officially became a team.
Julie says, “Lilly-Belle is all personality. She is a pistol. Lilly-Belle is a turbo-charged dog, with a mind of her own, and likes to go a mile-a-minute. She likes to get the job done.” According to Julie, she and Lilly-Belle are a lot alike, both with a go-go-go approach to life. Julie says there may be other dogs to work with who have easier personalities, but she feels the two of them are a good fit.
Julie and Lilly-Belle achieved their FEMA certification in October of 2006, and they deployed to Hurricane Ike in 2008. They recertified in October of 2009 in Virginia Beach, VA, and then again in February of 2012 in Miami, FL, ensuring they will continue to be deployable to disasters across the nation.
By SDF Volunteer Nancy May – Webster, NY
LolaJan. 1997—Apr. 2004
Tennessee veterinarian Lauren Wiltshire first saw Lola, a beautiful black Lab, running loose on a highway near Memphis. Lauren picked her up there and then and discovered that she was full of buckshot. After nursing Lola back to health—along with the other adopted dogs in her care—she noticed something unusual about her.
One of their games was “throw the stick in the pond”. She noticed that every time the stick sank, Lola would dive in and swim down to the bottom to get that stick. This was a dog with <strong>high</strong> retrieval instincts! After seeing an article about SDF in her local paper, Lauren called SDF Founder Wilma Melville. “Let’s test her, and we’ll see how she does!”
Lola passed with flying colors. “We have to have this dog! But how to get her here?” This was our first dog from outside California, and we had no American Airlines Angels helping out as we do today. Wilma’s husband, John, was co-opted to fly to Tennessee to bring Lola to Ojai.
Back in California, Lola moved in with then-SDF Program Director Debra Tosch. Preparing Lola for formal training was a labor of love. The dog excelled in training and at graduation was partnered with Justin Milligan, a volunteer firefighter out of California City in Kern County. Justin loved Lola. Together they achieved Basic Certification and were looking forward to many rewarding years together as an SDF Search Team.
Sadly, in 2002, Lola was diagnosed with Addison’s disease and had to retire. Although they could no longer train together, Justin kept Lola at his side, sharing the medical expenses with SDF, and giving her the best possible care.
Gradually Lola’s illness worsened. Realizing that her time had come, in April we made the very difficult decision to have her euthanized.
Lola will always be remembered, and held close to our hearts, along with the other beloved Rainbow Bridge canines.
LolaSep. 2003—May 2015
Lola, a black Labrador Retriever, began her saga as so many of our dogs do—at a shelter. Lola was on 24-hour euthanasia alert, meaning she had just that amount of time left to be adopted. She was sick with kennel cough, a common contagious illness among shelter dogs, but one that can turn deadly if left untreated. A local rescue group stepped in and rescued her, but had no foster home lined for her while she recovered from her illness.
Early in September 2005, the rescue turned to the Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center in the Bay Area for help. They asked the Center to board Lola for a short time while they looked for an appropriate foster home. Dr. James Pogrel, a veterinarian at the Center, was with his last appointment for the day when he received their request. “We could not keep her at the hospital, but I could foster her,” he recalls, “She was a good dog with a little too much energy.”
Once in the Pogrel home, it was evident that Lola was not going to be an easy foster. Dr. Pogrel’s wife didn’t feel comfortable with her because of her hyperactivity, so she put Lola into training to make her more manageable. The trainer worked with Lola for two weeks and reported that she would be a great dog, but only if she was worked every day—she needed a job.
Dr. Pogrel cares for several SDF search dogs in the South San Francisco Bay Area, and is aware of the type of dogs SDF looks for. It seemed natural that Lola should try out for a job as a Search Dog.
Shortly after Dr. Pogrel’s revelation, Lola was enrolled in the SDF canine “boot camp” at Sundowner Kennels in Gilroy, CA. Lola had everything needed to be a Search Dog—high drive, crazy energy, and she would retrieve all day. Kate Davern, one of the Search Dog trainers, recalls, “Lola was an independent cuss, obstinate and happily stubborn.”
In May 2006, Lola was paired with firefighter-handler, Johnny Subia, of the Seaside Fire Department. They began training together, and Johnny had to work very hard to gain Lola’s respect.
In September 2007, Johnny and Lola passed their Foundation Skills Assessment, and in February 2008, they became FEMA Certified. Back at the hotel on the day they certified, Johnny gave Lola permission to get up on the bed as a treat. Johnny says Lola got the cutest look on her face that seemed to say, “I don’t know what I did, but obviously it made you very happy.”
Lola and Johnny have logged plenty of air miles together. They routinely attend veterinary conferences on behalf of their corporate sponsor, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Inc. (BI), the makers of Metacam®. They regularly visit Las Vegas and Florida, and have also traveled to BI conferences in Missouri and Virginia. Lola serves as a great ambassador for her fellow Search Dogs at such events—encouraging the general public to learn more about the special search work she is trained to do.
Johnny reports that everyone at the firehouse loves to see Lola come to work, and he and Lola get great support from the Department and from their Chief. No matter how much everyone else loves Lola, no one thinks as highly of her as her handler. As Johnny says, “She’s my girl.”
LucyJul. 1997—Mar. 2002
Lucy was a Golden Retriever born in July, 1996, that we received from Joan Marsh, who lives in Sacramento. Lucy went to Sundowners Training Kennel on April 1st of 1998.
At first we had a hard time finding just the right match for Lucy. Ron von Allworden received Lucy when she came out of Sundowners, but only kept her for about six months before it was decided that it was not a good match. Lucy was then re-assigned to Russell Sechler. In May of 2002 Russell decided he could not continue with the program. Then Lucy and Gary Smith found each other and a beautiful partnership was born. They worked together brilliantly as a team and were close to certifying when Lucy, a high energy Search Dog in training, showed signs of slowing down. Lucy was taken to a local vet and then to a specialist in Los Angeles. She immediately received a blood transfusion and was taken in for exploratory surgery. Ron Weckbacher and Debra Tosch, two of our handlers, visited with Lucy for an hour before surgery. When they left her to go to surgery she was tugging on her toy even while having tubes attached to her. During the exploratory surgery Lucy was diagnosed with malignant histiocytosis, a deadly form of cancer. The cancer was so far advanced that the decision had to be made not to bring her out from anesthesia.
Thank you, Lucy, for being <em>Part of the Search</em>
MannyDec. 1999—Apr. 2009
Manny, a male Border Collie, was born December 6, 1996. He was purchased by Bobbie Farquhar, the head of Border Collie Rescue (BCR), as a stud dog. But during his stay with BCR, he displayed all the characteristics of a disaster search dog. Bobbie called the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) and told founder Wilma Melville about this very special dog. Manny was evaluated, and showed he indeed had the makings to be a fine search dog.
Manny then came to live with Wilma and her late husband, John, in Ojai. He was a terrific dog, but the vivacious, high-strung Collie was wreaking havoc in a house full of Labradors! So Wilma came up with a plan – she paired Manny with new handler Ron Weckbacher to see if Ron could handle a dog like Manny. After a week, there was no doubt about it; Manny and Ron were made for each other.
Normally we find that we have the greatest success partnering our trained dogs with firefighters, police and other rescue personnel already poised to respond in disaster situations. In Manny’s case, an exception was made. Ron was very serious about becoming an SDF handler, was very persistent, and he turned out to be a perfect match for Manny.
Manny and Ron worked so well together as a team that they attained their Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within 14 months of training together. They continued to train every week with the other SDF canine handlers in their Training Group, where Ron was the Training Group Leader.
On September 11, 2001, Manny and Ron were one of 13 SDF teams that were called to serve in recovery efforts at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in New York City. At the time, Manny and Ron were in Washington State with seven other SDF teams for a FEMA class. Unfortunately, when all commercial flights were cancelled on 9/11, they were stranded there and were unable to deploy with their own Los Angeles City Task Force. Showing their dedication to being a Canine Disaster Search Team, Ron and Manny drove back to LA with the other SDF teams also stranded, just so they could be reassigned to another Task Force.
The conditions at Ground Zero were extremely challenging for all teams involved. It’s hard to imagine the incredible amount of debris that had to be searched, including twisted metal and sharp, hot slabs of concrete. The terrain was very treacherous and demanding at times and recovery workers were continually breathing in dust and smoke. But the training that is required of all SDF teams more than prepared them for the challenges they faced. Our dogs truly enjoy the search—you could even say they thrive on it! Ron and Manny searched the rubble for twelve hours at a time. Between shifts, handlers took time to care for the dogs and were able to catch a few hours sleep. At the end of the ordeal the teams were exhausted, but honored to have served their country in this great time of need.
Manny and Ron have proven their dedication as a team time and time again in deployments that include a train derailment in Commerce City, California, and the Winter Olympics in 2002. In January of 2005, they were sent along with eight other SDF teams to help with rescue efforts at a deadly mudslide in La Conchita, California. Later that year, they were deployed to assist with rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Manny retired in December of 2006 after eight years of service with Ron. Manny spent his retirement years relaxing at home with Ron and his family in Thousand Oaks, California.
Sadly, in April of 2009, Manny passed away with Ron by his side. He was an amazing dog who set the bar high for all search teams to follow. He will be greatly missed by all who knew or worked with him.
MarcMar. 1999—Jan. 2012
MaverickJul. 2002—Aug. 2014
MochaMar. 1999—Aug. 2011
Mocha was a female Chocolate Labrador Retriever born on March 22, 1999. She started her professional career as a dog-in-training for Guide Dogs of America (GDA).
It was soon apparent that Mocha and her sibling Marc had too much energy to be guide dogs. So GDA decided to contact the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to see if they might be better suited for a career as disaster search dogs.
Miki Klocke (then an SDF volunteer, later our Canine Manager) had arranged to meet with GDA volunteer Diana Davis in Sylmar, CA. She was to pick up a Border Collie that had been tested and approved to begin training with SDF. So Miki and Diana agreed to test Mocha and Marc, too. SDF had not tested GDA dogs previously to see if they possessed the high energy and vigorous discipline required for a career as a disaster search dog. Therefore, expectations weren’t too high that these dogs would be a good fit for our program. However, Miki and Diana were amazed and delighted at how well the two siblings performed during testing, and Miki snapped them up right on the spot! And the pleasant surprises kept coming. Mocha and Marc had yet another sibling that came to SDF a few weeks later—Modoc aka “Doc”—who also possessed the talent and skill required to train as a disaster search dog.
At Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, CA, where all SDF dogs were trained, Mocha took to her training like a true pro. Aided by her past training at GDA, when Mocha donned her search vest she immediately clicked into business mode. She had always had lots of spunk and energy. When doing search exercises, Mocha not only found the “survivors” that were hidden and buried in search tubes, but also wanted to try to pull them out of the tubes herself! At her graduation ceremony, Mocha showed off her boldness and drive at the ceremony by tackling “the wobbly monster”, the most difficult training obstacle at Sundowners. She maintained her balance like a pro while walking across the narrow boards as they shifted underneath her paws. Mocha looked like she was walking on water!
After Mocha completed her training at Sundowners, she was paired with John Thomas, a firefighter with the City of Murrieta Fire Department in California. Wherever John went, Mocha followed. Whether at home or going about their daily routine at the firehouse, they were always together, always a team.
John once described Mocha as having two personalities. Off duty, Mocha was sociable and loving, and loved to play tug-of-war with whoever was willing to go up against her. But when Mocha was working, she completely focused on succeeding at whatever task she was presented with. When Mocha practiced finding “survivors” in large piles of rubble during her training exercises, John said that all anyone could see was a huge cloud of garbage flying through the air as Mocha aggressively dug through the pile to find that “survivor”!
In January 2007, Mocha and John achieved Advanced Certification with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the highest level recognized in the United States. During their career John and Mocha were deployed to the California mudslides in December 2003, Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and Hurricane Dean in August 2007.
In 2010, Mocha entered retirement and spent her golden years at home with John as he trained with his new Search Dog, Jack.
Sadly, on August 14, 2011, Mocha crossed the Rainbow Bridge with John, her partner of nine years, by her side. While we will certainly all miss Mocha, we are glad to know that John is carrying on her legacy with his new Search Dog, Jack, and will continue to train to save lives in the future.
PupDogJan. 1996—Aug. 2007
RangerOct. 2000—Aug. 2012
Ranger, a male Border Collie, was born on October 15, 2000 with all the characteristics of a Disaster Search Dog. Recognizing this, his owner, Deresa Teller, decided to donate him to the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to receive professional training.
Ranger was placed with volunteer Rosemary Schumacher for his Canine Prep Home stay to learn basic obedience. He soon went on to his training course at our Sundowners Kennel in Gilroy, California. After six months, Ranger was ready to be partnered with his new handler.
Deresa Teller is a paramedic for the Los Angeles City Fire Department and an experienced Search Dog Handler. Deresa and her first Search Dog, Bella, were deployed to the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, and were part of the group of SDF-trained Search Teams that responded to the call from Ground Zero, searching for survivors for days after the September 11th tragedy.
Bella was getting close to retirement, so Deresa was on the lookout for a new SDF canine partner. SDF can rarely partner a newly trained Disaster Search Dog from our program with its previous owner. This is because our success in preparing a dog for the important and demanding job of saving lives depends to a great extent on instilling a whole new set of behaviors in the dog, and on pairing the dog with the optimal partner. Therefore, Deresa didn’t have high hopes of being paired with Ranger.
But at the end of his six-month training program, guess who was found to be the best fit for Ranger—Deresa! Ranger loved being back home with Deresa and her two daughters in Simi Valley, CA. Their bond and friendship were stronger than ever. They trained every week with the other canine-handler teams in their training group. Their schedule demanded they continually work on search-and-rescue skills to be ready to help anytime, anywhere.
Ranger had boundless energy, a real sign of a great Search Dog. He always showed he had what it takes to be a part of this demanding career. His drive to get his toy was always strong. This trait is important in SDF Search Dogs because a tug toy serves as the reward for a job well done in our training program. Ranger also developed quite a “bark alert”—the bark sounded when finding a victim in need of immediate attention from firefighters. These skills are part of what made him such a great Search Dog!
After attaining Advanced Certification from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ranger and Deresa were deployed three times in 2005. In January, they were deployed along with eight other SDF teams to help with rescue efforts at a deadly mudslide in La Conchita, California. In August and September, they were sent to help with rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. For years they were one of SDF’s top Canine-Handler Disaster Search Teams, among the most highly skilled teams in the nation.
Over the course of his career, Ranger was generously sponsored by the Allstate Insurance Foundation, the Rotary Club of Simi Sunset, and CFWC Women’s Fortnighly Club.
After a battle with cancer, Ranger peacefully crossed the Rainbow Bridge on August 25, 2012, with Deresa and her family by his side.
In Deresa’s Words:
“When Ranger was a pup of about six or seven weeks, it was the end of November and I was starting to get out my decorations for the holidays. He followed me into the storage area under my kitchen area and was ‘assisting me’ by pulling on boxes and other festive ‘toys’. I thought to myself that I needed to call Ms. Wilma and tell her about this amazing pup. I brought him with me to John and Wilma’s holiday party and everyone fell in love with this wild boy. Rosemary Schumacher was there and stepped up to be his puppy raiser. She did a fantastic job, even leaving a fallen tree in her yard so Ranger would have a jungle gym to play on.
Ranger and I were paired up about 18 months after he left my home, and what a blast it was to have such a great dog in my life. He was such an incredible Search Dog, and that was his true passion in life. When he would search a rubble pile for a test or training in front of people who had not seen him before, they would always ask me, ‘Where did you get this dog?’ and ‘Do you breed any more?’
When we would travel by plane and Ranger would wear his Search Dog vest, he would often go and smell certain people’s luggage. Of course they would ask me ‘What does he search for?’ And me being me, I would tell them he searches for drugs! The looks those people would get were sometimes priceless, but I would let them suffer for only a few seconds before telling them that he loves cats and they probably had a cat that helped them with their carry-on luggage. Laughter quickly replaced the stares and the person in question would say that their cat(s) love to sit in their luggage.
Something most people didn’t know about Ranger was the special bond he had with my 19-year-old daughter, Jesa. Jesa was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 8 years old. Ranger became part of our household when Jesa was ten. I was divorced at that time and on the nights Jesa stayed at my house, Ranger always slept in her room. Even though Jesa was very aware of the diabetes and would wake up if her blood sugar started to drop during her sleep, Ranger would start jumping on and off her bed. She knew if that was happening she needed to get up, check her blood sugar and get a snack. Talk about an amazing boy!
Being a Border Collie, Ranger of course loved to herd other animals. When he was assigned to me and came to live with us, we had goats. He would run around his favorite pine tree that was next to the goat pen so much to watch the goats that a large circle or moat developed around it. He also would climb this tree so he could watch the goats from a different angle. He would also herd the chickens, cats and any small dog that would come to visit. In his golden years he also herded the tortoises, and would nip at them if they weren’t moving fast enough.
He was always a crowd pleaser at any SDF event we went to, and was extra gentle with any children. Now the flip side of him—and you men all know who you are—sorry about the ball-busting he did to you. I told you what position to assume when he brought you his tug toy! And I did NOT train him to do that!
Ranger’s last day was filled with some of his favorite things. A short walk with mom, a little direction control, some ‘bunny vision’—he was actually let in with the bunnies instead of watching from the outside—a trip to the duck park. And not only were Jesa, Calena, Carrie, and myself there, but his most fascinating cat ‘Kittypants’ (I don’t know why he found this cat so amazing) came along with him to the vet to send him on his journey.
We will certainly miss this fantastic dog. He was a great partner and friend.”
ReconNov. 1999—Jan. 2012
Partnered with Jim Boggeri
Marin County Fire Department
Oakland, California Task Force 4
Born November 19, 1999, Recon was originally donated to the Search Dog Foundation by Lab breeders Bethanie and Mike McGahan. Although they loved this beautiful Yellow Lab “Ice”, as he was then called, they saw that he had the energy and drive SDF looks for in a Search Dog candidate, and knew he would be happier as a working dog. Recon was evaluated and there was no doubt he had the makings of a great Search Dog.
After being accepted into the program, he spent a month in an SDF “Canine Prep Home” where his Prep Home “Mom”, Donna Stephens, prepared him for formal training at Sundowners Kennel.
For many years, Marin County Fire Captain Jim Boggeri had tried to get his Department Chief to authorize a canine team for their department, but the Chief remained unconvinced that there was truly a need—until September 11, 2001. No sooner had the dust settled over Ground Zero than Jim got the go-ahead to enter SDF’s training program.
In October of 2001 it was matchmaking time at Sundowners. Jim waited along with two other new handlers to find out which dog would become his canine partner and lifelong companion. Jim had his eyes on Recon. “As the dogs were brought out to meet us, Recon came bounding over at 60 miles per hour. I took one look and knew we were made for each other!” remembers Jim. Fortunately, SDF Lead Trainer Pluis Davern agreed.
A special dog, Recon’s name has a special story behind it. Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, SDF Founder Wilma Melville received a phone call from Stephen Doyle, a firefighter and member of the FDNY hockey team. His hockey teammate and best friend, FDNY firefighter Timmy McSweeney, had died in the line of duty at the World Trade Center. To honor Timmy’s memory, Stephen asked that an SDF-trained Search Dog be named after Timmy’s FDNY ladder company, “Recon”. That’s how the Yellow Lab formerly known as “Ice” became “Recon”.
After being paired, Jim traveled to New York to meet with Stephen Doyle and Timmy’s family. “It was one of the most influential, moving moments in my life, knowing that my fate could have been the same as Tim’s. I vowed then and there to honor Timmy’s legacy through steadfast commitment to work and family.”
Recon is significant to another family, too. In April of 2005, Police Officer Steven Zourkas of the Niles Police Department near Chicago was killed in the line of duty. To honor Steven’s memory, the Niles community and the Department contributed $10,000 to a Memorial Fund. Steven’s wife, Ivy, decided that sponsoring a Search Dog would be a fitting tribute to her husband, a former Fire Department Paramedic. Ivy and her two children chose Recon: “I wanted something meaningful to carry on Steven’s legacy–he was always so committed to helping others. When I learned about the Search Dog Foundation, I instantly knew I had found it.”
During their career Jim and Recon deployed to several disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Mill Valley mudslide in 2006, and Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008. On May 29, 2010, Recon officially retired from service, and enjoyed his golden years with Jim’s second SDF Search Dog Nino and the Boggeri family.
After ten vital, fulfilling years with SDF Handler and SDF Board Member Jim Boggeri, it was found that cancer had spread throughout Recon’s body, causing great distress. Recon passed away at the vet’s office on January 12, 2012, with Jim, wife Kim and son Dante by his side.
RosaSep. 1998—Sep. 2013
RossFeb. 1997—Jun. 2011
RowdyFeb. 2006—Aug. 2013
Sometimes the path from shelter to Search Dog is an arduous one, with many dedicated people helping along the way. When a rescued dog concludes the first 30 days of training at Sundowners Kennels, it is cause for celebration! This is Rowdy’s story: from neglected stray to Search Dog in the making.
In August of 2007, then SDF Canine Manager Karen Klingberg was traveling the length of California seeking potential Search Dogs. One stop was at Calaveras County Humane Society in Lodi, where Bark Force member Ellen Endres brought to Karen’s attention a young dog she had in mind for SDF’s program. Unfortunately, during the evaluation the dog showed no toy-drive, so Karen thanked Ellen for trying, and told her he would make a nice pet for someone.
Ellen couldn’t find a home for the dog. She sent him to the San Francisco SPCA where more people would see him, but still no one was interested. The SPCA staff became concerned that he was developing an unhealthy possessiveness with his toys. They returned the dog to Ellen, who sent him to Margaret Blair of Twin Cedar K-9 for obedience training.
Unaware of SDF’s earlier attempt to recruit this dog, in October of 2007 Margaret called us to say she had a potential Search Dog. SDF trainer Sharon Hanzelka visited Twin Cedar K-9 and determined the dog was definitely SDF material! She brought the dog to Sundowners Kennels, and it was agreed he was a keeper.
And so this young and energetic Border Collie mix, now appropriately named Rowdy, began his Search Dog training. When Ellen called Margaret and found out the dog had been placed with a Search and Rescue group, she called SDF and confirmed that the same dog that had failed his evaluation in August was now in formal training at Gilroy!
Rowdy did well during training and was paired with Sacramento City Fire Department Captain Dave Stoddard in January of 2008. As a Search Team Manager for California Task Force 7 based in Sacramento, Dave had experience in Urban Search and Rescue, but being a canine Handler would allow him to develop a new and challenging set of skills.
Dave and Rowdy worked consistently and first became FEMA Certified in December of 2009. The team re-certified in Boston, MA in June of 2012, maintaining their eligibility to be deployed anywhere in the United States that disaster may strike.
Sadly, the search world lost Rowdy unexpectedly when he crossed the Rainbow Bridge in August of 2013.
SandiDec. 1998—Dec. 2013
Sandi, a male Border Collie born on December 5, 1998, was blessed with a great opportunity as a young dog: to train for the job of his dreams. He was first adopted as a pet from the Orange County Rescue Center by someone from Anaheim, California. It soon became clear that Sandi had too much energy and enthusiasm to be suited for life in a small apartment. So, a Border Collie rescue group was contacted to see if there was a better option for this special dog. They quickly determined that Sandi might be a good fit for a life as a working dog and contacted the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) for a test. Sandi passed, no problem, and was soon on his way to becoming a search dog!
The first stop for Sandi: a brief stay in a Prep Home with SDF volunteer Diana Davis for some socialization and obedience training. Then, it was time for six months of formal search dog training at Sundowners Kennels, SDF’s former training kennel in Gilroy, California.
At Sundowners, lead trainer Pluis Davern found that Sandi was one of the easiest dogs she had ever trained. Unlike most Border Collies, Sandi actually had an “on/off” switch. He would drop his calm and sensitive “off-duty” demeanor and become ready, willing, and able to perform training exercises in a New York minute!
Upon graduation, Sandi was partnered with Daniel Solis, a firefighter with the Kern County Fire Department in California, for a very special reason. Dan’s first SDF dog, Gus, had contracted leukemia just after receiving his Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the highest level recognized in the U.S. To everyone’s dismay, the disease was advancing rapidly. Pluis felt that Sandi’s thoughtful and sensitive demeanor would make him a perfect match for Dan. Shortly before Gus passed away, Dan accepted Sandi and the two were an incredible match.
Though Dan needed to maintain a very structured life for Sandi in order to keep his focus as a skilled search dog, there was always time for fun. At home, Sandi enjoyed playing with his good friend Pepper, a male Lhaso Apso who belongs to Dan’s three young children. Sandi went to work with Dan each shift where he had his own kennel area at the firehouse. Although Sandi was a finicky eater, he loved to hang out with Dan and the other firefighters in the evenings and chew on a bone. He enjoyed playing catch and had a particular fondness for fetching socks. In fact, if the firemen didn’t put their socks away, they were fair game for Sandi. He would snap them right up and proudly bring his new prize to Dan! Everyone at the firehouse knew where to go when they were missing a sock or two…
Dan and Sandi achieved Advanced FEMA Certification in San Jose, CA, on August 18, 2001. Upon earning this distinction, the team was able to deploy wherever disaster might strike. Over the years, their skills were put to use as members of California Task Force 2 (Los Angeles) following several deadly disasters:
Iran Earthquake – December 27, 2003
Hurricane Katrina – September 1, 2005
Rosedale Roof Collapse – April 29, 2008
Chatsworth Train Collision – September 12, 2008
Highway 58 Vehicle Rollover – April 19, 2009
When not on deployment, Sandi and Dan loved to visit schools to educate children about the life of a Search Dog Team. The children would hide as part of a mock search, waiting for Sandi to find and “rescue” them. But Sandi loved the kids so much—and vice-versa—it didn’t feel like work to him at all! Sandi also participated in public education exhibitions, where he got to ride on the fire truck with Dan, a ladder engineer.
When his FEMA Certification ran out in October of 2009, at the age of eleven, Sandi retired from the task force and continued to enjoy life at the Solis household as a valued member of the family, only now as a “pet”. He spent several more years living a happy life with his loving family in Bakersfield.
On December 23, 2013, when old age had compromised Sandi’s quality of life, Dan said goodbye to his partner of 13 years. The canine hero was laid to rest, blanketed by the American flag.
SandyNov. 2001—Aug. 2014
On November 8, 2001, the world received the gift of a very special litter of Golden Retriever puppies. A man in upstate New York had bred the litter and was raising them to be hunting dogs. At seven weeks of age, two of the puppies–Sandy and Luke–were adopted by Bicky Townsend of Santa Barbara and her son, Ben Caldwell, who brought them home to California to join their family. Ben took Sandy and Bicky kept Luke.
Both dogs were very energetic and needed a lot of attention. When Ben moved to San Francisco to accept a job, he came to the difficult and emotional realization that he could not keep Sandy. “I couldn’t spend the time with Sandy that I used to; I knew he wouldn’t be happy being home all day by himself.”
Ben’s mom learned about SDF and its mission, and she and Ben both realized that Sandy and Luke would be much better off as working dogs. Former SDF Canine Manager Miki Klocke and SDF Executive Director Debra Tosch met with Bicky, Ben, Luke and Sandy to put the two golden siblings through our canine candidate evaluation. Miki and Debra did not think both dogs would pass–the odds were not good. They were hoping that one would do well enough to be accepted into the SDF program, so you can imagine their great surprise when both Luke and Sandy passed with ease.
“It was very difficult for me to give up Sandy, but it was even more difficult to keep Sandy from doing the work he was meant to do,” Ben said. Sandy was two years old when Ben donated him to SDF. Luke also went on to be trained as a Search Dog, and was eventually partnered with Handler Marc Valentine.
What did dog trainer Kate Davern see in Sandy? She says that Sandy had an amazing On/Off switch. He could be lying peacefully on the floor one minute and be ready to work the next. Sandy also impressed the trainers because he was always willing to try anything, even though his legs would shake while walking across uneven or elevated surfaces in the early days. Another trainer had to stand by on the other end with a toy to coax Sandy across. However, Sandy excelled in direction and control training during his nine months in formal training.
Sandy also had something many of us could use–a lot of patience. When dogs were taken in and out of the kennel, Sandy would never bark or get impatient. He would lie on the grass and wait his turn.
Knowing that Sandy needed to build his confidence and needed someone who would really work with him and give him structure, lead trainer Pluis Davern choose to pair Sandy with South San Francisco Fire Department (SSFFD) Firefighter-Engineer Dave Ramsey. Dave seemed a good fit because he has a very structured life and, although he has a family, his daughters were a little older, giving him the time to devote to Sandy.
Dave has been with SSFFD since 1992. He always had dogs when he was growing up and was considering getting a dog at the time he found out the department was looking into the Disaster Search Dog program. Dave then began training with other Bay Area SDF teams, learning as much as he could about the program and the commitment that was required.
Sandy was just as much a member of the SSFFD as any of the firefighters. “South San Francisco Fire Department USAR K-9” was engraved on the department-issued badge he wore on his collar. At the captain’s discretion, Sandy would ride on the engine when responding to emergency calls. Dave did not usually take Sandy when responding to fire calls because of the likelihood that Sandy would have to stay on the engine for an extended period of time.
In a typical working day, Sandy spent much of his time accompanying Dave as he did his daily check of the engine and performed station maintenance. When this work was finished, and Dave and Sandy were not training, Sandy split his time between the indoor kennel run and his bed in the corner of the day room. The other firefighters enjoyed having Sandy around and gave him a lot of attention, which Sandy loved.
All of the department’s disaster search dogs participated in the annual Day in the Park each September, celebrating the date of the City of South San Francisco’s incorporation, September 19, 1911. The canines demonstrated for the crowds their skill on the agility equipment. In addition, Dave and Sandy would demonstrate moving an injured canine from a disaster site by strapping the 64-pound golden retriever to Dave’s back. Firefighters then lifted Sandy several stories into the air, demonstrating the harness lift.
Sandy also participated in the Annual Junior Fire Academy, a weeklong program held at Station 61 during the summer for elementary- and middle school-aged children. The children got to participate by hiding so that Sandy could search for them.
Dave described Sandy as a great dog and a total love. “He really wants to work hard and train and play, but when we are done he knows it and he’ll lie down and be calm and quiet.” Sandy just seemed to know he had a purpose in life.
At home, Sandy was another family member with Dave, his wife, and their two daughters. But because of Sandy’s job as a disaster Search Dog, Dave immediately set some ground rules for his two young daughters: no feeding Sandy people food and no taking Sandy out or playing with him without permission. Dave’s daughters would also help with Sandy’s training by hiding in the backyard or the house and letting Sandy find them. Another favorite pastime was swimming at a nearby lake.
In July of 2006, Dave and Sandy attained their Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This meant that on a moment’s notice they were ready to serve the nation in the event of a disaster.
They got their chance to serve their community shortly after Certification. On July 31, 2006, Dave and Sandy, as well as teammates Tom Carney and Gypsy, were called to Daly City, CA, when the wall of a supermarket collapsed onto a road during the process of demolishing the building. Gypsy and Sandy were able to communicate to Tom and Dave that, luckily, no one was injured or trapped in the rubble.
The team went on to be re-certified in May of 2009, as all teams must re-certify every three years.
November 8, 2012, on his 11th birthday, Sandy celebrated his retirement from the fire department and his life as a Search Dog. He returned home to the Ramsey household that day as a beloved family pet.
He spent the next two years enjoying his time with Dave and his family. It was not until his quality of life became impaired by his old age that the family made the decision to lay Sandy to rest. In an email sent to the foundation on the day Sandy passed, Dave told us:
“It’s with a lot of sadness that I write to let you know that we had to put Sandy down this morning. I have had a lot of conversations these last few weeks with his vet, Dr. Pogrel, and with my family. We all decided that this decision was best for Sandy. He was still a very happy dog on his good days, but his tough days were starting to outweigh the good days. His mind was going and he was unable to enjoy the things he loved doing the most…and we had to come to this very sad decision.
I wish I could have called you to let you know, but unfortunately at this time it’s just too hard to talk about it without getting very emotional. I hope you can understand this and will relay my message to anyone you think needs to know…My family and I feel so fortunate to have been able to work and live with Sandy and for all the support the foundation gave us through his life. We couldn’t have been given a dog that we loved more than Sandy and we will always be grateful to all of you for giving us the chance to have him in our lives.”
ShermanMar. 1996—Sep. 2009
Sherman, a male chocolate Labrador born in March of 1996, began his life’s journey as a family dog. After just a short time with that family, they found Sherman’s energy and tenacity to be overwhelming, and decided they could not keep him. Diana Davis, who routinely looks for dogs that have basic search instincts for SDF, came to his rescue. Upon testing his natural skills, she found that Sherman would bark for a toy, was very athletic, very focused and exhibited brute force energy. Diana not only saw these typical Search Dog qualities in Sherman, but she also found him to be the best dog she had ever tested.
To the rescue came firefighter Rich Lund. SDF Founder, Wilma Melville, quickly took Rich up on his offer to raise and train Sherman. Sherman and Rich began their time together when Sherman was just nine months old. Wilma worked with Rich in the areas of training Sherman would need. Sherman was a quick learner from the start, learning “down” and “stay” in just five minutes of training! In the two months Rich and Sherman were together he learned many skills and was soon ready for formal training. When the time came for Sherman to move on, Rich found it very difficult to let him go, but knew that it was his destiny to be a Search Dog.
Lead Trainer, Pluis Davern, described Sherman as a “diligent searcher, a true searching machine.” She found Sherman’s body to be insensitive to any injuries he may receive in his eagerness, which would prove to be an asset to him in searching. Although Pluis fondly described him as “a bull in a china shop,” his training went exceptionally well, and soon Sherman was ready to be paired with a Handler.
A true bond was immediately formed when El Cajon Fire Department firefighter Steve Swaney and Sherman met. Steve spent just three days working with Sherman at Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, California, and then into the car they went for their trip home. Sherman quickly climbed into the backseat and laid down next to Steve’s daughter (who was in a car seat at the time). Sherman was very gentle and calm on the ride from Gilroy to San Diego. In fact, even when they stopped for cheeseburgers, Sherman never even raised an eyebrow—he was content keeping the baby company.
From the very first day, training and hard work became a part of their daily routine. Their perseverance paid off as Steve and Sherman earned and maintained the elite status of Advanced Certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after just ten months together. In fact, they were the first team to earn Advanced Certification in all of San Diego!
Steve shared at the time “Sherman is the best dog. He has speed and drive, and he will tackle anything. His whole heart is in the search.” Steve never worried or stressed before the tests because he knew that Sherman will pull him through. Although teams are given 15 minutes to perform the basic test, Sherman and Steve completed one test in just four minutes!
In all the tests Steve and Sherman have completed, Sherman never gave a false alert and, many times, has found the victim in half the time allotted. After Steve fell down during a search and Sherman carried on without him, Steve noted “Sherman is truly committed to his job.”
The “best of the best” search teams were needed subsequent to the 9/11 attacks, so Sherman and Steve were quickly deployed. They arrived at Ground Zero just one day after the World Trade Center towers fell. After ten long days of searching for survivors, Steve said that Sherman never gave up and gave it his all each and every day. Children who had known Sherman sent cards of encouragement, recognizing his dedicated effort at Ground Zero. Steve and Sherman were also deployed to assist with rescue efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September of 2005.
Back at home in El Cajon, Sherman and Steve were involved in many community activities such as open houses for the fire department, many demonstrations for a variety of organizations and school programs, and educating the community on fire awareness and prevention.
Sherman always stayed true to his personality—Steve still described him as that “bull in a china shop” he first met at Sundowners so many years ago. Steve cited an instance when Sherman tried to run through a plate glass window—three times! Steve said Sherman just “tries to use brute strength to get the job accomplished.”
Even during play, Sherman always used his strength. Steve and the other firefighters were amazed when they watched Sherman play with an actual fire hose as though it were a toy. They watched as Sherman pulled and extended the extremely heavy hose 150 feet out. The comments throughout the firehouse were unanimous: “Only Sherman would do that.”
Steve described Sherman as putting “his whole heart into every task he is presented with.” In fact, he said, when other members hid during their training sessions, Sherman searched longer than any other Search Dog. He was also a great source of entertainment, given his exuberance, and earned the nicknames “The Shermanator” and “Sherman Tank” over the years.
As Sherman grew older, it became more and more apparent to Steve that it was time for Sherman to retire. While Steve worked with his new Search Dog, Icon, Sherman enjoyed his retirement and would still occasionally visit the Training Group at their weekly trainings.
Sadly, on the morning of September 9, 2009, Steve had to make the heart-wrenching decision to have his partner of 11 years put down. After a long battle with various medical conditions, the “Shermanator” passed away peacefully at the age of 13.
Written by Kimberly McGuigan; researched by Tia Andrews and Kimberly McGuigan
SierraOct. 1997—Sep. 2011
SkyOct. 1996—Oct. 2012
TammyJul. 1998—Dec. 2008
TinkerOct. 2000—Nov. 2010
On October 20, 2000 a black and white bundle of furry energy was born that would later become a part of SDF’s first international team from the Mexican State of Baja California, based in Tijuana.
Tinker—as this intelligent, energetic Border Collie came to be known—came to SDF through Border Collie Rescue of El Mirage, California. They had taken in this little dog when the family she was with could no longer care for her.
The rescue group noticed that Tinker had an extraordinary attachment to her tennis ball—so strong an attachment that, instead of a leash, they were able to control her by carrying the tennis ball with them. It is this very high toy drive that is one of the most important characteristics of a Search Dog and an essential element in the SDF training program. Recognizing this quality, Border Collie Rescue gave the Search Dog Foundation a call. When Tinker was evaluated, she passed her test to be a disaster Search Dog candidate with flying colors.
Tinker graduated from training at Sundowners Kennel in September of 2002 and a group of new handlers arrived to be trained and partnered with their own Search Dogs. This was a very special group of rescue workers: the first international teams serving the community of Tijuana and ready to respond to calls throughout Mexico, should the need arise.
Tinker was partnered with Oscar Gonzalez, a firefighter at the Tijuana International Airport for over five years. Canines always have been present at the airport, searching for explosives and narcotics, and Oscar thought working with a canine on a personal level would be a wonderful bonus to his job and a growing experience.
“Just being a part of this program was amazing,” Gonzalez said. At Sundowners Kennel with the rest of the handlers from his group, he was introduced to the dogs and received training as a canine handler.
“I had the chance to send Tinker to an alert tube and, as she was alerting, her foot got caught in a wire and Tinker began barking in pain. I rushed to her side. When I reached down to her paw to see what the problem was she immediately went into my arms seeking comfort. In that moment we made a connection.” The next day they were teamed up by SDF Lead Trainer Pluis Davern.
Tinker and Oscar Gonzalez became very close after being partnered, and their lives were changed forever for the better. “I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up for work. She takes care of that. She begins barking as if to say, ‘It’s time to go to work!'”
In July of 2005, these teams helped organize a training event that brought multiple search and rescue agencies from Tijuana together to train using different disaster scenarios. This was the first time multiple agencies were able to coordinate such a training event and it helped test their readiness to serve the community of Tijuana.
Sadly, on the morning of November 4, 2010, Oscar found that Tinker had passed away in her sleep. After eight years together, Oscar had to say goodbye to his partner and friend.
Tinker will be greatly missed but fondly remembered for being part of one of Mexico’s first urban search and rescue task forces, always ready to respond to a disaster in the Tijuana area.
ValJan. 1998—Jul. 2012
WallyApr. 1998—Jan. 2010
ZackAug. 1996—Jul. 2010
The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation said goodbye to a true canine hero on July 20, 2010, when retired Search Dog Zack passed away at the veterinarian’s office with his handler Jeff Place at his side. The pair had been together since Zack was a puppy—he was raised, trained and had searched alongside his handler for 14 years.
Zack was one of SDF’s first Search Dogs who, along with fellow founding canines Ana, Dusty and Harley, was destined to make his mark on Canine Disaster Search in America. In 2001, Zack and Jeff were deployed to the World Trade Center bombing and to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
SDF Executive Director, Debra Tosch, who was a fellow Handler at the time, remembers Zack’s incredible drive to search while deployed at Ground Zero after the World Trade Center towers fell: “One of the other Task Force members had offered to hold Zack’s leash for a minute while Jeff completed another task. The next thing Jeff heard on his walkie-talkie was, ‘Dog loose on the pile!’ It turns out Zack couldn’t wait to search again. He had slipped away from his caretaker and was now searching the rubble pile on his own! That was the kind of dog he was–no ‘off-switch’ whatsoever.”
After retiring from searching, Zack enjoyed his retirement years at home with Jeff and his family in San Ramon, CA. “Until the very end,” says Jeff, “Zack continued to believe that he was just a puppy.”
Zack will be deeply missed by all who knew him, but we know he is in great company over that Rainbow Bridge.
Below is a story that originally appeared in SDF’s 2006 Bark Alert, written by SDF Founder, Wilma Melville:
When I first met Jeff in 1996, he was located in the San Francisco Bay Area and was casting about, determined to be a disaster search dog handler. Because of little local training support, Jeff was willing to do whatever it took to achieve his goal. He did this on his own time and using his own resources, paying for Zack’s training with his own funds. Once Zack graduated from Sundowners Kennel, they traveled two hours to Sacramento twice a week for two years to attain Advanced Certification. Jeff was up against obstacles that would have discouraged most other handlers, but was determined to see it through.
Jeff and Zack were deployed to Ground Zero after 9/11, searching for survivors in perilous conditions twelve hours a day for twelve days straight. This was one of the most grueling, dangerous, emotionally wrenching experiences imaginable. They were also part of the Hurricane Katrina and Rita rescue efforts in Gulfport and Dallas and are on call 24/7 to respond to local, state and national disasters.
Jeff is not only about saving human lives. He also seeks out and cares for abandoned, abused and forgotten canines left at Bay Area shelters. When he spots one with the extreme drive, focus and boldness needed for disaster search, he personally tests the dog and then takes the dog to Sundowners Kennel for further evaluation.
Jeff is an unsung hero, having distinguished himself in service to his community and country with no accolades—totally under the radar. He’s also a devoted family man—Jeff and his wife Tina are the proud parents of five year-old Sydney and three year-old Brendan. Somehow Jeff is able to balance home life with his job as a firefighter, and with his passions—saving the lives of dogs and humans.