To The Rescue! Finding A Purpose For Rejected Shelter Dogs - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

To The Rescue! Finding A Purpose For Rejected Shelter Dogs

Santa Paula, California (CNN) -- When disaster strikes and people are buried in rubble, there's often no better search tool than a dog's nose.

It's a valuable asset that has already been utilized several times this year. Trained search dogs, along with their human handlers, have provided help in high-profile disasters such as the Japan earthquake in March and the Joplin, Missouri, tornado in May.

"After a disaster, there is a window of opportunity for finding live people," said Wilma Melville, founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. "The first eight hours are critical."

There are about 250 search-and-rescue teams, each made up of a dog and a handler, that are certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Melville says that's half as many as there should be.

"Approximately 500 teams, I feel, would cover the country well for the hurricanes on the East Coast, the great center of the country, which is bombarded and tormented with tornadoes, and the West Coast, which can definitely anticipate earthquakes," she said. "We should have about 500 teams, highly trained, strategically placed, ready to reach a disaster site within 12 hours."

Since 1996, Melville and her organization have been creating and training more of these teams. It starts by finding shelter dogs with the potential to become search dogs. Then it trains the dogs and pairs them with a firefighter or rescue worker who will live, train and work with them.

"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."

Melville's nonprofit has also streamlined the training process so that it can be done in about a year rather than the three or four years it once used to take.

In all, the group has trained 131 teams around the country -- for free. It has responded to 80 missions around the world, including Japan, Joplin, last year's Haiti earthquake and the September 11 attacks in New York City. But it was a 1995 tragedy -- the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City -- that inspired Melville to create it. >>>CLICK HERE TO READ MORE

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