The mission of the Search Dog Foundation is to strengthen disaster response in America by recruiting and rescuing dogs and partnering them with first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters. Our goal is to increase the number of teams in active service, while maintaining the highest skill level and deployment readiness of our existing teams.
“These dogs are trained to find people trapped alive in the wreckage following disasters – earthquakes, building collapse, mudslides, etc. The program was developed after the the Oklahoma City bombing due to a severe shortage of Canine Disaster Search Teams in the country. SDF gained recognition after the World Trade Center disaster, when 13 SDF teams were deployed to search the rubble of Ground Zero.”
"They’re trained on live find versus HRD (Human Remains Detection) – they locate and indicate with a bark alert on inaccessible live human scent. They’re ‘air scenters’ (not tracking dogs) and have a remarkable sense of smell. When a person walks into a building, they can tell that someone is cooking soup – the dog can tell which ingredients are in the soup.
We teach them bark equals toy. They think the person hiding has their toy, so they bark at them until they give them their toy. A majority of our dogs are from shelters and often were on the euthanasia list – Labs, Shepherds, Malinois, Pointers, Border Collies – rescue dogs that have high drive, are fearless, and bold. If you leave them in the house they’ll be an interior decorator or a landscape architect. Even if they don’t make it through our program, they’ll never end up in a shelter again. The Haiti Task Force helped bring 13 people to safety, but it’s not usually some 'Hollywood hero ending,' it’s about knowing that nobody is left behind alive. It helps people’s families with closure. It also brings a morale boost to the crews themselves. They do a lot more than just search."
Victor, a hound mix, was part of a criminal case; his owner went away for life. He loves doing his job as long as there’s a toy involved. Pictured above with his handler Firefighter William Walkenhorst. There are currently 69 active SDF teams and 30 that are retired (most of the time they become the firefighter’s pets upon retirement).
The dogs are ‘front wheel drive’ when they come in and have to learn to use all of their paws.
Sonny was donated by an individual to our organization, and has since been paired with Michael Devine of Los Angeles Fire Department/California Task Force 2.
They come from really horrendous backgrounds sometimes. Some dogs won’t even make eye contact when they come in after being abused by humans.
"Each dog is specialized during a search – one dog is ‘live bark’ and one is ‘deceased bark’. We only train our dogs for live find."
This week is particularly important to the Search Dog Foundation team, because it is the one year anniversary of the devastating Montecito mudslide that killed 21 people and left an additional two still missing to this day. 18 SDF-trained Search Teams responded to that disaster from all over the state of California and searched for just over a week, looking for survivors in the debris.
No technology can match a dog's ability to find people trapped alive under debris. Thanks to their remarkable sense of smell and unparalleled ability to safely navigate dangerous terrain, dogs can find survivors, conscious or not, faster and more safely than any other "tool" in the first responder's toolbox. We are so incredibly thankful for these dogs, who work so hard to save people’s lives.