Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners

Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners

by Wilma Melville, Paul Lobo


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Lola was a buckshot-riddled stray, lost on a Memphis highway. Cody was rejected from seven different homes. Ace had been sprayed with mace and left for dead on a train track. They were deemed unadoptable. Untrainable. Unsalvageable. These would become the same dogs America relied on when its worst disasters hit.

In 1995, Wilma Melville volunteered as a canine search-and-rescue (SAR) handler with her Black Labrador Murphy in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. At the time, there were only fifteen FEMA certified SAR dogs in the United States. Believing in the value of these remarkable animals to help save lives, Wilma knew many more were needed in the event of future major disasters. She made a vow to help 168 dogs receive search-and-rescue training in her lifetime—one for every Oklahoma City victim.

Wilma singlehandedly established the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to meet this challenge. The first canine candidates—Ana, Dusty, and Harley—were a trio of golden retrievers with behavioral problems so severe the dogs were considered irredeemable and unadoptable. But with patience, discipline, and love applied during training, they proved to have the ability, agility, and stamina to graduate as SARs. Paired with a trio of firefighters, they were among the first responders searching the ruins of the World Trade Center following 9/11—setting the standard for the more than 168 of the SDF’s search-and-rescue dogs that followed.

Beautiful and heart-wrenching, Hero Dogs is the story of one woman’s dream brought to fruition by dedicated volunteers and firefighters—and the bonds they forged with the incredible rescued-turned-rescuer dogs to create one of America’s most vital resources in disaster response.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250179913
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/08/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 132,553
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

WILMA MELVILLE is a retired Physical Education instructor and grandmother of six, Wilma founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) to address this gap in our nation’s disaster response network. Still active within the Foundation, Wilma serves on the Board of Directors and is involved with the planning of the National Training Center. When time permits, Wilma enjoys piloting her experimental airplane, an RV7A, based at her hangar at Santa Paula Airport.

Read an Excerpt



I knew we were in for a show the instant I dropped the leash.

Murphy was off so fast her paws barely touched the ground. Only sixteen weeks old, the Black Labrador was nowhere near her adult size, but her hips and chest were thick with corded muscle and every ounce of her body — every fiber it seemed — was engaged in the run. She blasted across the training area near Bakersfield, her legs a blur, kicking up rooster tails of red California dirt. A few yards in front of her, and growing ever closer, was an odd conglomerate of large blue plastic tubes, lined up in a row like someone had laid down a giant pan flute on its side. The tubes were as wide as large oil drums and stretched over ten feet long. Somewhere in those tubes was a person in need of rescue.

It was 1993 and I'd been training to become a canine search-and-rescue (SAR) handler for a few years. I'd done my part. Now the determination of who would be my partner was up to Murphy.

She suddenly cut right so fast her tongue maintained its former trajectory and flapped out to the side like a pink flag. As she flew past the first couple sealed tubes, I felt my stomach knot in doubt. Perhaps I'd been overconfident coming into the session. Perhaps she wasn't ready for this level of search yet.

Murphy had been seven weeks old when I'd purchased her from a family who professionally bred hunting dogs. The transaction had been quick — just long enough for the breeders to give advice on feeding patterns — then the tiny pompom of a pup had been placed in my arms like a furry receipt. Silent and docile, she'd slept all the way home. I was a little worried. Search dogs need to be bursting with energy. Cute as she was, I couldn't help but wonder if I'd purchased a dud search dog. I didn't wonder long.

I mixed her a bowl of the prescribed food while she sat uninterested in the corner. Without much thought, I lowered the bowl toward the kitchen floor.

Murphy exploded out of the corner like a rocket. This dark projectile launched toward me and punched the food bowl out of my hands. The kibble sprayed into the air and rained down onto the kitchen tile. I was frozen in disbelief. Murphy was not. She morphed from rocket into vacuum cleaner and sucked down every morsel of food within minutes, leaving the kitchen tile looking as if nothing had ever happened. Murphy licked her chops and, with a yawn, retired behind her indifferent puppy façade. My shock gave way to glee. It looked like I might have a search dog on my hands after all.

Nine weeks later I was watching Murphy zip across our volunteer group's SAR proving grounds. A number of Swiss disaster search dog trainers had flown in to teach advanced canine search techniques and evaluate some of our up-and-coming dogs. When it came to canine search, the Swiss were the gold standard. They pioneered canine search around 1800, patrolling the Great St. Bernard Pass and other high peaks in Switzerland for lost outdoorsmen. If Murphy truly had what it took to be a search dog, the Swiss trainers would know.

Now, one of the trainers waited, hidden in a blue tube, as Murphy closed in. My dog would need to complete two tasks. First, locate the tube where the trainer was hiding and give a bark alert — bark consistently at the hidden human until that person was revealed. After she succeeded in locating the "victim," Murphy would still need to show a continued drive — what we call "prey drive"— until she got her reward. In her case, the reward, or "prey," being a worn-out chew toy. These tasks would show not only that Murphy could use her nose to find a buried human, but also be motivated to continue searching after the initial victim was found. Both tasks would need passing grades if I wanted to consider her for serious search dog training. There was no middle ground.

Murphy zeroed in on the middle tube and stopped dead. Her tail started lashing back and forth and she launched into a chorus of barks. I heard the muffled praise from the hidden trainer. Murphy kept up her consistent bark alert. So far, she was performing a textbook search. One box checked, one to go.

The lid of the blue tube popped open. We'd now see if Murphy's drive would hold strong until she received her reward. Time seemed to pause as the trainer began to squirm out of the tube.

Then Murphy charged forward. The trainer's feet hadn't even cleared the lid as Murphy plowed over him and into the tube, searching for the chew toy he was hiding. I heard the delighted hooting of the trainer as he wrestled and teased Murphy with the toy, making her work just a little more. Then both emerged, the trainer smiling broadly and Murphy strutting triumphantly with the toy dangling from her mouth. It was beautiful.

"You can make many mistakes with this one," the trainer said with a thick German accent, patting Murphy's head.

He meant the dog had such a strong prey drive, the handler wouldn't need to do much except get out of the way. In search dog parlance, he'd just given Murphy the equivalent of an A+. She still had a long way to go before she was deployment ready, but there was now no doubt in my mind Murphy was a special dog.

What I didn't know was that, for what was looming over the horizon, she would have to be.



I didn't know why the line wasn't moving. I craned my neck over the firefighter in front of me, trying to identify the holdup. The long column of search dog handlers and rescue workers stretching down the bus's main aisle would move forward a few steps then stop abruptly, causing a bumper-car effect for everyone still confined on the bus. Step. Stop. Bump. Repeat. What on earth was going on?

I dislike inaction in any form. That was part of the reason after I'd retired from teaching I'd wanted to become a search dog handler. But a disdain for inaction was only part of the equation.

I've been known to push limits. Have my entire life. Initiative and persistence — the broken-down-then-rebuilt-until-strong kind of persistence — are an integral part of my personal philosophy. I'm not a hard case; I just feel the world is never outside an individual's power to change. To me, if you feel something is the right thing to do, there's only one option: you commit to doing it. I was sixty-one years old in 1995, but ever since grade school when I'd taken to hauling my wiry mutt Toffee up into a shaky tree house to help me eat my PB&J sandwiches, I'd always wanted to train a dog to do something special. Thus, I was drawn to SAR. There are many types of canine SAR — cadaver search, water search, avalanche search, wilderness search — and each requires unique training. Disaster search is where the dog searches for live victims trapped in a structure collapse or crashed vehicle or landslide or any other event that might shield victims from the eyes of rescuers. Most important in my mind, in disaster search, my dog and I could potentially save a life — about as special a purpose as I could think of.

I had four boys already in college and was just starting a casual retirement with my husband, John, but it probably surprised no one when I shrugged it off and instead quite literally found a spot on the bus in the company of Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) Los Angeles Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force. They needed canine disaster search teams, and I had a well-trained Black Lab. So on the morning of April 21, 1995, while the rest of the shocked world mourned the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, I gathered up Murphy and boarded the shuttle with the first wave of disaster USAR workers.

It was taking us longer to get off the bus than the drive from our staging area at the Myriad Convention Center, where the FEMA USAR Task Force organized late the previous night. We knew the damage to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was extensive. The perpetrator, Timothy McVeigh, had detonated nearly five thousand pounds of homemade explosives, which lifted nine stories of the federal building into the sky and pancaked them down in a 460-ton avalanche, killing 168 innocent people. But as the bus had rolled by the front of the building this morning, the rubble hadn't looked too bad. This would be my first major deployment with the now two-year-old Murphy, and the glimpse I caught of the site made me feel a little better. The search might even be easy.

I was confident in Murphy's abilities. She'd charged through canine SAR certification required for deployment like the black fur-missile she was. I was even a little excited to see my high-octane dog in action — if I could just get off the bus!

Step. Stop. Bump.

I inch-wormed to the bus's front and tried to see out. It looked like the firefighters ahead of me were captivated by something as soon as they exited. Finally, the path cleared and I made my way out the door. Step.


The front of the federal building had been a deception. The building's rear — where the bomb had detonated — stared back at me. A massive gouge cut through the long side of the rectangular building like a hemorrhaging wound. Wires and cables and pipes spilled out the side of each room on every floor. The offices that once contained fourteen federal agencies were now a honeycomb of dark, dead caves.

I could only stare back with the horrified reverence usually reserved for soldiers on the battlefield — yes, one human could really do this to others. I'd seen ghastly deeds on the news before, but by then there'd always been a rebuke — justice or a good deed — to balance out the bad. But here amid the smoky destruction, there was no justice. There was no good. For the first time in my life, I felt only the chilly shadow of evil.

How could any good come from this?

No one offered an answer as our solemn procession shuffled off the bus.

* * *

TWO DAYS LATER, I noticed the young man lingering at the edge of the newly erected fence around the federal building's rubble pile but paid him no mind. I had to stay focused. Almost eleven hours of searching unforgiving debris, and the job was getting tough. Sweat and dust coagulated into a kind of pliable cement that covered my body. It made breathing laborious. It made thinking laborious. Only three days earlier I'd been on vacation with my husband in Palm Springs, and now I was walking through hell on earth.

Stay positive, I reminded myself. It was a mantra I would repeat throughout the entire search.

Murphy glanced back at me. She could sense the slightest change in my mood. There is debate about the extent of a dog's emotional facilities, but it is commonly agreed that a dog can pick up any negative emotion from the handler and fixate on it. The constant search, which search dogs view as an enjoyable game, would suddenly become undesirable. A chore. The dog will worry about the handler and stop paying attention to her nose. The search will break down.

I tapped my remaining reserves of mental toughness and kept my emotions stable. My dog was counting on me. The families of 168 innocent souls were counting on us.

Still, I was on shaky ground — in every sense of the phrase. I was a civilian volunteer on the biggest rubble pile I'd ever seen. Up until this point, search and rescue with Murphy had been nothing more than a weekend endeavor, a way to occupy my time between horse rides. We were well beyond casual pastime now. That pungent and unmistakable scent filling my nose was death. Real death.

We finished our search and began the somber march off the rubble and down a narrow, fenced passage to the buses. That's when I noticed the man again.

He'd been hovering around the edge of the fence for a while. Perhaps hours. But as the man saw me approaching, he began to deliberately walk my way.

As he neared, the man raised his arm and held something out to me.

Maybe a card, or flowers, I thought. I was wearing my FEMA USAR Task Force uniform and helmet, so people easily mistook me for a firefighter. They'd been bringing gifts for the first responders to the disaster site for days now.

It wasn't flowers.

Shocked, I looked at the man's face and saw something that will be forever engraved in my memory. I don't remember his physical features; they were overshadowed by the complete devastation in the man's eyes.

He was holding a photograph in his outstretched hand. The photo showed a young woman with raven-black hair and a bright smile. In a quavering voice, he asked, "Have you found her yet?" Almost four days after the bombing, the man was still searching for his young wife.

I felt my stomach enter free fall. I didn't have the heart to explain that the overpressure from a bomb blast can literally turn organic tissue to mush. Or that the bomb had lifted and dropped nine stories of metal and concrete on anyone lucky enough to survive the blast. My dog could indicate with her body language where a deceased victim might be, but any chance of visual identification would be impossible.

I knew the man needed closure. Murphy might not be the answer to finding the remains of this man's wife, but she sure as hell was part of the team that would.

I summoned what was left of my courage and adjusted my glasses. I placed a hand on the man's shoulder and looked him directly in the eye. "We won't leave until we do," I said.

As I let Murphy lead me quietly away, I made a decision. Something good had to come from this disaster.

* * *

AND SOMETHING GOOD did emerge from the shadow of evil, but not until the winter of 1995, long after all the victims had been accounted for. It started with an idea.

Murphy had performed extremely well in her searches at Oklahoma City. I had seen what was possible with search dogs, and it wasn't only searching for remains of the deceased. Dogs were faster than any artificial technology at finding live people buried in rubble. With enough trained dogs in enough places, they had the potential to put human lives back on the board when disaster struck.

But my research indicated there was a severe shortage of search dogs — fifteen at the time, only a tiny fraction of the number I estimated were needed. If another large-scale disaster hit the United States, live victims trapped in rubble could be left behind. How would it be if that man's wife had survived the building collapse only to perish because search teams did not have the assets to find her fast enough? In my mind, that was unacceptable.

It would take a massive effort to overcome the search dog deficit. Canine disaster search training and certification would have to be revolutionized. At the time, the majority of search dog training was volunteer-run. Egos and politics were rampant, and time constraints often slowed the process to years. Five years for a trained dog was not uncommon.

A new, ahem, breed of dog handler would also need to be instituted — someone with disaster response instincts beyond what weekend warriors could provide. Someone with the mental fortitude to endure the shock of a major disaster and look a victim's family in the eyes afterward.

Above all, the right dogs would need to be selected. I knew Murphy was special. I would need more like her. Dogs that could focus on a single scent amid the chaos of a disaster site, dogs that had the stamina of a professional athlete, the fearlessness of a soldier, the cunning intellect of an escape artist, and the compassion of a nurse. But top- bred dogs matching these characteristics could cost in the thousands of dollars, and for what I had in mind, they'd have to be free. Or damn close.


Excerpted from "Hero Dogs"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Wilma Melville with Paul Lobo.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I,
One: Watch Her Go,
Two: From the Shadow of Evil: Oklahoma City, Ok,
Three: Finding the Talented Misfits,
Four: Princess Ana,
Five: Dusty Girl,
Six: The Good Soul,
Seven: Enter the Master Trainer,
Eight: Training Begins,
Nine: The Wobbly Monster Cometh,
Ten: Trial by Fire,
Eleven: The Poop Bag Decree,
Twelve: All Together Now,
Thirteen: Our New Home is the City Dump,
Fourteen: Part-Time Means Full-Time,
Fifteen: The Shermanator and Stretch Armstrong,
Sixteen: Duke and the Velcro Dog,
Seventeen: The Drama Queen and the Gunshot Survivor,
Eighteen: The Tipping Point,
Nineteen: Irondog,
Twenty: September 10, 2001,
Part II,
Twenty-one: September 11, 2001,
Twenty-two: September 12, 2001,
Twenty-three: "They're All Dead",
Twenty-four: The Storm and the Question,
Twenty-five: Down We Go,
Twenty-six: Reinforcements,
Twenty-seven: "Where Can I Get Dogs Like That?",
Twenty-eight: American Made,
Part III,
Twenty-nine: Left for Dead,
Thirty: Fire and Ice,
Thirty-one: Broken Beyond Repair,
Thirty-two: Not Quite Making the Cut,
Thirty-three: Recon Against the Machine (or the Monday Night Football Incident),
Thirty-four: A New Era,
Thirty-five: Nothing Left but Splinters,
Thirty-six: The Search Must Go On,
Thirty-seven: Buried Alive: Haiti,
Thirty-eight: Hollywood Hunter,
Author's Note,
About the Authors,

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Hero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
CharJones2525 More than 1 year ago
I was totally moved by this story of Wilma Melville, who began the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation after seeing the need for better trained search and rescue dogs after the Oklahoma City bombing. She choses dogs needing rescue themselves and builds a crackerjack team. A must-read for every animal lover! Thanks to the author, the publisher and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are mine. Pub Date 08 Jan 2019. #HeroDogs #NetGalley
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you enjoy stories about dogs or about search and rescue, this is a book you must read. I warn you though - you may cry through large sections of it - but it will be worth it. The book traces the beginnings of the Search Dog Foundation from Wilma Melville's time helping after the Oklahoma City Bombing and her realization that many more SAR dogs were necessary. The author describes how the program came to use dogs from animal shelters, the training program, and matching the dogs with their human partners. The text also describes how the teams worked in various disasters, including 9-11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Readers will find details about what conditions were like, the lengths that dogs and handlers went through to find victims, and how the dogs also served as unofficial therapy dogs for rescue workers. Between the tales of the difficulties some of the dogs had before they were chosen by the SDF, and then reading about the horrors rescuers had to endure to search the disaster sites, some of the passages were very grim. Not that this book is a downer, but it is accurate and some sad facts are inescapable. The overall benefits of the foundation and the work of the canine SAR teams are the silver lining and make persevering through the more heart-wrenching parts well worth the effort.