Since 1996, CNN hero Wilma Melville’s organization has been saving, training and deploying shelter dogs, giving them a new lease on life, and benefiting both man and dog in the process. The Search Dog Foundation locates shelter dogs with search dog potential. Once identified, the rescued dogs undergo extensive training before being paired with a firefighter or rescue worker who continues training while living, and eventually working with the dog.
“The Search Dog Foundation is the only group in the nation that gives a highly trained, professionally trained dog, to a handler and then stays with that handler for the rest of the team’s life together,” said Melville, 77. “We provide health insurance for the dog. … We provide food for the dog. The big thing is, we provide ongoing training for that dog and handler.”
To date, the group has now offered free training to 131 teams from across the nation. Search Dog Foundation teams have assisted with just about every natural disaster and catastrophe one could name since the mid-nineties, including last year’s Haiti earthquake, Joplin, Mo., Japan, and the September 11 attacks on New York’s twin towers.
Despite the tremendous success of the program and numerous accolades, Melville is not one to rest on her laurels: the Search Dog Foundation is building a 125 acre national training compound between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
She says she was inspired to found the organization after being deeply affected by the devastation of the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City. And although 131 Search Dog Foundation teams are available at any given moment to assist in case of disaster, she has a very specific goal in mind.
“In my heart, the number 168 is forever engraved,” she said. “I still want to train 168 canine disaster search teams – one for each of the persons who died in Oklahoma City. Now, I see that it is possible – it’s even likely within my lifetime. I wonder who number 168 will be.”