Santa Barbarans adore their dogs, but search and rescue dogs are afforded a separate level of respect — especially from locals who watched them work in the aftermath of the deadly 2018 Montecito debris flows.
Beryl Kreisel is one such fan.
The Montecito resident wanted to learn more about the brave search and rescue dogs and their training so she visited the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation in Santa Paula, where the animals are selected and trained.
“These magnificent rescue dogs captured my heart,” Kreisel, who owns multiple rescue dogs, told Noozhawk.
“I wanted to do whatever I was able to aid the organization. That included getting the word out so that others could learn more about SDF and take pride in knowing it is so close to Santa Barbara.”
On a recent afternoon, Kreisel and her husband, Neil, hosted a benefit for the nonprofit organization at their beautiful home, which was not affected by the disaster nearly six years ago.
More than 100 people attended the fundraiser, which featured Wilma Melville, the 90-year-old visionary and founder of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, and was organized by Kreisel and fellow committee members Ann Daniel and Christine Garvey.
The community of dog lovers who attended the event learned from Melville and two staff members — with their own dogs in tow — about her journey while getting a firsthand look at a large black Labrador retriever named Jake as he showed off his skills.
Always a lover of animals, Melville decided in retirement to train a dog to “do something special.” Her next goal was to attain certification as a FEMA canine disaster team handler, which took 24 months.
Not long after came the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that reduced much of a multistory federal building to rubble. The terrorist attack killed 168 people and injured hundreds more.
“Developing skills in rescued dogs and handlers are highly unusual, such as training dogs to climb up and down ladders,” Melville said. “Or to walk upstairs backward, or to find a missing person amid a myriad of confusing smells.
“It’s part of the training.”
According to Melville, at the time of the bombing there were only 15 certified search dogs in the entire United States.
Her first goal was to train 168 certified canine disaster search teams — one for each victim who died in Oklahoma City.
That objective was accomplished in 2020 and her organization has now trained and certified more than 229 teams. More than 80 are currently working throughout the country, assisting with missing persons, landslides and collapsed structures.
Rescue dogs with search potential are flown to Santa Paula by volunteer pilots who will fly pretty much anywhere for a pickup. The foundation provides ongoing training and veterinary care for the rest of the dogs’ lives.
Not all dogs are up to the task, however, and those that are unable to complete disaster search training are placed in another career or a loving home as a pet.
Also on hand at the benefit were firefighters from the Montecito Fire Protection District and George Leis, president and chief operating officer of Montecito Bank & Trust and the board chairman of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.
“The SDF has proudly served our country and the world since 1996, recruiting and training shelter dogs to become search dogs,” Leis said.
The dogs, he added, are looking for survivors in the wreckage of natural and human-made disasters alongside their first responder-handlers. In addition to the searches required after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the dogs have worked Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, earthquakes in Turkey, this year’s Maui wildfires and, on a local level, the Montecito disaster.
Visitors interested in touring the Search Dog Foundation’s campus in Santa Paula can email email@example.com.