National Disaster Search Dog Foundation Puts First Responder Boots – and Paws – on the Ground

By Giving List Staff   |   November 17, 2023
Seven canine search teams trained by the Search Dog Foundation searched the many square miles of rubble in Turkey after the devastating earthquake in February.

In the wake of Maui’s tragic 2023 wildfires, relief organizations and the goodwill of the world at large poured into the affected areas. Amid this bustling influx of aid, three California task force workers and their dogs quietly made landfall and began methodically working through the smoldering ruins. These National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF)-trained Human Remains Detection (HRD) teams would be instrumental in the painstaking search for victims in Maui’s devastated communities.  “We say they’re like the Olympic athletes of the canine world,” says Denise Sanders, Senior Director of Communications & Search Team Operations at the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. “They train up their stamina so their energy doesn’t flag in the course of these long searches.”

Search dogs and their handlers train together weekly to stay ready in case of deployment. The Search Dog Foundation campus contains disaster training props that help prepare them for any disaster scenario they may face on deployment.

  In 1996, FEMA-Certified Canine Search Specialist Wilma Melville founded SDF to address the troubling shortfall of rescue canines she’d seen working the ruins of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing the year before in Oklahoma City. Melville drew up a training curriculum and model for an organization she envisioned as a mission of mercy – both for future victims of disaster, and for the unwanted dogs she would retrieve from shelters and transform into incomparably specialized, deeply loved rescue animals. 

“She needed to set up a system,” Sanders explains, “that could take all these different types of dogs – and all these different types of humans – and figure out the best way to recruit, train, and partner them.”

 In 2017, the SDF’s privately funded National Training Center (NTC) launched near Santa Paula, California. The NTC is a sprawling, 145-acre forensic mock-up of all the disaster scenarios for which SDF’s canine rescuers are arduously and lovingly trained. A map of the NTC includes such place names as Rubble Pile, Train Wreck, Collapsed Freeway, Tilted House, and more. “The tilted house is built to code, believe it or not,” Sanders says with a smile.

 Dog lovers may wonder if all shelter dogs complete the program, and what happens to those that don’t. “Once rescued, they’ll never have to be rescued again,” Sanders says. “That is our lifetime care promise to any dog that enters our program. It’s not just about the disaster search program, it’s about helping each and every dog.”

 The foundation offers its services to first responders with a two-word caveat: No Charge. “We all know that these first responder budgets have become strapped in recent years,” Sanders says. “We’re not charging fire departments or task forces for anything. Taxpayer dollars are not going towards these dogs. We’re able to do that because our donors believe in the work we do. These dogs and their loving handlers are out there training each and every day in preparation for something that we hope never happens.”


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.

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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