A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

When the Rescued Become the Rescuers

In Japan, some special dogs comb the wreckage

Riley and Eric Gray at their graduation. Photo by S. Hanzelka

Riley was a real handful. The rambunctious puppy would bowl the children over, and he had altogether more energy than his family could cope with.

He’d already been given up once. His previous family, an elderly couple, just hadn’t been able to cope with him. When they got sick, they’d surrendered Riley to a California rescue group, who had placed him with his new family. And the new family didn’t want him to be given up a second time.

While trying various obedience and training classes, they came across Kate Davern, who trains dogs for the Search Dog Foundation. Davern told the family that everything that made Riley a handful as a house pet gave him enormous potential as a search dog. The family agreed that this would be the best thing for their dog, and he was adopted by the Search Dog Foundation.

A few months later, in October 2009, Riley was paired with Eric Gray of the Santa Barbara Fire Department, and seven months later, he and his new partner received FEMA Certification. Riley was ready for action.

On March 11, Eric and Riley deployed to Japan as one of six Canine Disaster Search Teams trained by the Search Dog Foundation and mobilized by USAID to comb the wreckage left by the earthquake and tsunami.

Riley works with Eric in Ofunato City. Photo by AP/Search Dog Foundation

Based in Ojai, Calif., and founded by retired schoolteacher Wilma Melville, the Search Dog Foundation recruits dogs from shelters and rescue groups and sponsors their training for search and rescue.

“We ensure lifetime care for every dog in our program,” Melville said. “Once rescued, these dogs never need to be rescued again.”

Since it began in 1996, Melville’s organization has provided 74 search teams to state search-and-rescue departments across the country. They work locally, nationally, and when necessary, internationally.

While most of us assume that the main work of the dogs is to find survivors, an equally important part of their mission is to “clear” whole areas so that other rescue teams aren’t wasting time searching through wreckage where there’s no one to be found. In Japan, there were very few people to be found in the widespread devastation of the tsunami. So the crucial work of the dogs was to clear as many areas as possible as quickly as possible.

“I’m so proud of what these teams did,” Melville said. “They just kept going, day after day. It was cold and wet and snowy, but they never gave up.”

Here’s an album of some of the work of the Search Dog Foundation teams during their week in Japan:

The Search Dog Foundation teams arrive in Japan. Photo by USAID Sgt. Marie Brown

Getting organized at the gymnasium in Ofunato City. Photo by CA-TF2

Hunter, one of the search-and-rescue dogs searches the wreckage in Ofunato City. Photo by Bill Monahan

Hunter goes to check out an upstairs area. Photo by Bill Monahan

Hunter and Bill in the snow. Photo by CA-TF2

Joe and Hunter take a break between searches. Photo by CA-TF2

Hunter sniffs through the wreckage inside a building. Photo by Bill Monahan

Joe takes a break with his handler, Linda. Photo by Bill Monahan

Sara Rathbun at a rest stop with (left to right) Cadillac, Joe, Baxter, Pearl, Riley and Hunter. Photo by Joe Monahan

Homecoming. Eric Gray and Riley are met by Search Dog Foundation founder Wilma Melville.