It was in April 1995 when Wilma Melville and her black Labrador, Murphy, were deployed to the rubble of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City â€“ an experience that would reveal to the retired New Jersey schoolteacher the relative dearth of trained search dog and handler teams.
Determined to help address the need for more canine teams to assist in the wake of emergencies, Ms. Melville founded the Search Dog Foundation (SDF), which helps turn rescued dogs into rescuers.
The mission of Melvilleâ€™s nonprofit organization, based in Ojai, Calif., is to enhance disaster preparedness across the country by partnering dogs rescued from shelters and breed rescue groups with firefighters to help find victims buried in the wreckage of disasters.
“The dog, rescued by a shelter and recruited by SDF, is the winner in this, as the dog fulfills his destiny,”Â Melville says. “The handler is the winner as he receives an outstanding partner. Society is the overall winner as the chance of surviving a disaster has been greatly increased.”
It all started when the retired physical education teacher indulged in her dream of owning a highly trained dog. She was connected to a trainer based in Gilroy, Calif., and attended training for the Advanced Search Dog certification program offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Their first major test in the field came following the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, when they assisted first responders by joining other teams to help locate victims buried in the rubble.