From Rescued to Rescuer

By Giving List Staff   |   January 2, 2021

When the debris flow hit Montecito on January 9, 2018, Riley was ready. 

Having been deployed to the tsunami in Japan and a devastating earthquake in Nepal, Riley and his partner, a Santa Barbara County fire captain named Eric Gray, search for survivors amid the scenes of unbelievable chaos. 

Unlike Gray, Riley is a yellow lab, who was too rambunctious for the family that had adopted him. The pair was one of 18 National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) teams working the devastating aftermath of the debris flow in Montecito. 

That Riley and his fellow canines are so exceptional is no surprise given the impressive nonprofit organization that does their training. SDF was founded in 1996 by Wilma Melville, a FEMA-Certified canine handler who worked the Oklahoma City Bombing where 168 people lost their lives. 

Melville quietly made a commitment to train 168 search dog teams for every one of those victims, a goal recently achieved by the organization. 

To get there, Melville and her successors, including current CEO George Haynes, built a 125-acre training center in the mountains of Santa Paula. Board Chair George Leis calls it a “simulated search city,” replete with a downed airplane, derailed train, and replicas of buildings torn apart by earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. 

It is here that dogs like Riley go through an intensive eight-to-twelve-month training ahead of the stringent FEMA or state certification process.

During the debris flow, 13 of the teams stayed overnight at the Santa Paula campus, turning it from a place to train for future disasters, to a staging area for an unfolding one.

Beyond preparing search teams for the herculean task of saving lives during disaster and tragedy, the SDF team is also saving dogs from otherwise certain fates.

“Most of our dogs come from shelters,” Haynes, the CEO, says. “These are extremely high-drive, intense dogs. Absent them being rescued, likely they would be euthanized.” 

And once in the SDF family, the organization ensures each dog is cared for through its entire life. 

 In 2019, after 11 years of service, Riley retired and Gray took on another SDF search rescue dog – a Belgian Malinois, aptly named Waffles, who was, himself, a shelter rescue. Now, over the next decade or so, Gray and Waffles will serve Santa Barbara, their country, and the world when called upon to respond in the aftermath of a disaster.


National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

Donate now!
(888) 4K9-HERO
(805) 646-1015
Executive Director: Rhett Mauck


Our mission is to strengthen disaster response in America by rescuing and recruiting dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.

Begin to Build a Relationship

We know you care about where your money goes and how it is used. Connect with this organization’s leadership in order to begin to build this important relationship. Your email will be sent directly to this organization’s Director of Development and/or Executive Director.

Watching the Search Dog Foundation grow from a small group of ardent volunteers into the nationally recognized organization it is today has been an inspiration and an honor.
As a longtime philanthropist and volunteer for many organizations through the years, the sense of passion and perseverance and collective drive toward reaching a goal is one of the hallmarks of a great group of people united for a cause. The Search Dog Foundation’s staff, Board of Directors, volunteers, and many supporters across the country have an insatiable need to keep growing and improving their work and the services provided.
As a team, we know we will continue to strengthen disaster response in this country. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of so many – both human and canine.
George Leis, Chair, Board of Directors, National Disaster Search Dog Foundation; President & Chief Operating Officer, Montecito Bank & Trust

What We Need: Future Canine Heroes For America

The frequency and strength of recent disasters are stark reminders that they can strike at the heart of any community. In the search for victims, a search dog’s remarkable nose and hard-earned skills mean the difference between days versus minutes, lost versus found, uncertainty versus hope. The National Search Dog Foundation (SDF) works diligently to ensure canine search teams across America can deploy at a moment’s notice when needed, which includes preparing the next generation of canine heroes.

From the day they arrive on campus to the day they are paired with first responders, SDF spends approximately $60,000 to train a search dog over 10 to 12 months. 

SDF is raising $1,020,000 to train the next search dog graduates. Donors at $20,000 and above can become sponsors of a search dog in training, receiving updates on their progress and milestones throughout their career. Sponsor one or even a pack of canine heroes to be Part of the Search!

Key Supporters

George Leis – Board Chair
President and COO,
Montecito Bank & Trust
Richard Butt – Board Vice-Chair
Retired EVP, Executive Creative Director, VMLY&R
Mike J. Diani – Secretary
President, Diani Building Corp.
Christine DeVries
Management Consultant
Robert Harris
Battalion Chief, Los Angeles
County Fire Department
George R. Haynes, Ph.D.
CEO, National Disaster
Search Dog Foundation
Crystal Wyatt
Leadership in Board Governance and Creative & Sustainable