From the Tragedy of the Oklahoma City Bombing Was Born a Human-canine Bond That Relentlessly Saves Lives

By Giving List Staff   |   November 18, 2022
The bond between handler and canine provides the solid foundation for their work together, and extends into all aspects of their lives, whether at home or on the job.

When two children got lost during a hike in rural New York with oncoming rain commingling with the darkening night, it wasn’t drones or thermal heat sensors that found them. It was Luka, a Belgian Malinois search dog. His enthusiastic signal led his handler away from the search area to a steep ravine, where they were found in the dark, cold but unharmed.

It was only a few years earlier when Luka himself needed rescuing. Found by an animal control officer in Central California as a stray, a rotating host of temporary owners deemed Luka “un-adoptable.” That is, before the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation found him.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is unlike any other organization in the U.S., having pioneered a model that has helped hundreds of dogs, created highly skilled search teams, filling a critical need by pairing the rescued with rescuers. 

Teams have been part of search-and-rescue efforts including 9/11, earthquakes in Haiti, the Camp Fire (in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; this was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California’s history) and the deadly mudslides in Montecito in 2018. 

Oddly, certain behavioral traits that often make dogs poor pets make for great rescue dogs.

“These dogs won’t quit,” says Denise Sanders, senior director of communications and handler operations. “We look for those that are super high energy, toy obsessed, and have laser-like focus on the job at hand. That’s what you need to ensure resilience during deployments when there’s difficult terrain and rough conditions.”

The foundation combs shelters, finding dogs that train for up to 12 months at their 145-acre National Training Center in Santa Paula, California, and are teamed with first responders across the nation to complete their certification. The foundation also provides a lifetime commitment of care for the dog and ongoing training for handlers.

“The reason that these search teams are able to do this work so well is because of the relationship between handler and dog,” Sanders says. “Our handler training program focuses on the depth and longevity of that bond, building on the historical foundation that humans and dogs have always partnered and been companions.”

This vision was born in 1995, when founder Wilma Melville combed through the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing with her search dog, Murphy. That harrowing experience made her realize the need for more highly trained search teams. 

She started with the goal of training 168 certified canine disaster search teams to honor the 168 victims of the bombing. The foundation exceeded that goal in 2020 and has now trained and certified more than 229 teams, with 84 currently working across the country assisting with landslides, missing persons, and collapsed structures this year alone, including 21 in the Los Angeles area (12 in the Bay Area and 57 across California). 


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.

Over the years, the Search Dog Foundation has paired many canine disaster search teams that serve the Bay Area and we are grateful to have these canines as a resource to call upon when needed for our urban search and rescue team as part of the San Francisco Fire Department and California Task Force 3. The search dogs are a vital part of any deployment response – whether earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides, or missing person searches, these highly trained canines are instrumental in completing our search missions. The Search Dog Foundation provides these canines as invaluable assets for our department and part of Task Force 3 free of charge, ensuring we stand ready to serve our community when called upon to help.
Jeanine Nicholson
Fire Chief, San Francisco Fire Department

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