Hero Dogs

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Hero DogsHero Dogs: How a Pack of Rescues, Rejects, and Strays Became America's Greatest Disaster-Search Partners by Wilma Melville, Paul Lobo
on January 8, 2019
Pages: 336
Genres: Nonfiction
Published by St. Martin's Press
Format: Audiobook
Source: Library

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.

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Once upon a time, I was a puppy raiser for a service dog organization so I have had a glimpse of what it takes to make a working dog.  So many of the trials and tribulations of the search dog scene in the 1990s sound familiar.  

It is hard to believe now but at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, there were only 15 FEMA certified search dogs in the United States.  Search dog training at the time was a volunteer effort.  People trained their personal dogs in their spare time so it took years to get a dog with enough skills to pass the national tests.  Wilma Melville had a FEMA certified dog and was deployed to Oklahoma City.  She decided afterwards that there needed to be a way to get more dog teams ready.  She started a foundation to train stray dogs (because they were cheap/free) full time to try to turn them into search dogs in less than a year.  She decided to pair them with firefighters because they were already trained in disaster response.  

The dogs needed to have high prey drive to want to find people.  They had to be athletic to climb over rubble.  They had to be smart.  She found it all in her first rescue dog, Ana, who was failing out of service dog school for being too active.  When Wilma pulled in the driveway to meet her, Ana the Golden Retriever was standing up in the tree she had climbed.  

Reading about deployments is frustrating.  They don’t find a lot of people buried because they often don’t reach the scene for a day or more.   More teams in more areas could decrease mobilization times.  

This book is both sad and funny.  Stories of fruitless searches and the abuse some of the dogs endured before coming to the school are heartbreaking.  On the other hand, they are still dogs despite all their training and sometimes escape or just refuse to behave at exhibitions.  I loved the story of the dog searching at Ground Zero in New York who found an intact wall of Beanie Babies (his absolutely favorite toy) in a ruined store and had to be taken off the deployment for the day because he was too awe-struck to move on.  

This is a great book for all dog lovers.