Riley and Eric Gray
Now-retired search dog Riley — with his handler, Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Eric Gray — has provided lifesaving skills in disasters around the world, and right here at home. (Goleta Chamber of Commerce photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: One in a series on the honorees at the Goleta Chamber of Commerce’s 70th annual Goleta’s Finest Community Awards Gala, to be held Nov. 23 at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara.]

Nearly 15 years ago now, Eric Gray was in the Allan Hancock College Fire Technology/Fire Academy with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. During the Urban Search and Rescue portion of the training, he and the other recruits listened intently to how county fire Capt. Howard Orr and his chocolate Labrador retriever partner, Duke, responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.

Orr then went on to give a live presentation of how Duke used his nose to locate trapped victims following a disaster. Gray, now himself a county fire captain, recalls thinking; “I want to do that! I want to be a canine handler.”

But where did Riley, a purebred yellow Lab whose official title is a “live scent disaster search canine,” come from? Gray smiles and assures that Riley’s story is the really interesting one.

Bred in the Bay Area, Riley was first purchased by an elderly couple, who quickly realized that the rambunctious puppy needed a younger home. They sent Riley to a Lab rescue, and he soon joined a family with children. But Riley, with his love of toys and mischief, chased the toy-holding kids around the house one time too many, with the kids becoming a bit of collateral damage in the process.

Clearly, obedience training was in order.

Riley landed in the care of Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy. Quickly realizing the unique pup they had on their hands, the trainers, who also train the dogs for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, reached out to the family and made them an offer they opted to not refuse: give Riley to us. We’ll give him a job and give you a more family-friendly dog.

Riley went on to fulfill his destiny. After basic training, he and Gray were paired in 2009.

“The dog chooses you,” as Gray says.

Together, Riley and Gray have been deployed regionally, nationally and internationally. They have responded to such places as Japan, Nepal and Puerto Rico.

The most impactful event for this experienced team was the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 9, 2018, Montecito flash flooding and debris flows. Riley and Gray were one of the first two canine teams searching that first morning.

“This was in our backyard, it was super close to home,” Gray recalled. “I knew people who were affected. Plus, it was such a unique disaster — wading in mud up to our chests was surreal. Watching Riley navigate that environment was incredible.”

To be clear, while Riley is trained to locate trapped survivors of a disaster, he has afforded many around the world with an equally valuable gift that doesn’t have to do with finding people alive: closure.

“Finding NO ONE in the rubble has proven to be as equally important as finding someone alive,” Gray explained. “No matter the country or the language, people know what these dogs do.

“We were asked often by locals around the world to check the homes that their loved ones had been in before the disaster. We give survivors the opportunity to move on and grieve.”

Soberly, Gray noted how gratifying that can be.

“They know everything has been done to find their loved ones,” he said. “That gives great value to my career.”

Riley now enjoys retirement in the Gray household and loves being a pet; couch life suits him well. Gray’s 4-year-old daughter LOVES her buddy, Riley.

On Saturday, Riley — and Gray — will be honored by the Goleta Chamber of Commerce with the Goleta’s Finest Public Servant of the Year Award.

Meanwhile, with the support of his wife, Donna, Gray has taken on another seven- to 10-year commitment with his new dog, Waffles, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois (MAL-in-wah).

“This job is as cool and rewarding as people think it is,” he said. “It’s been a real honor to do this kind of work. It’s been a real pleasure.”

The Goleta Chamber of Commerce’s 70th annual Goleta’s Finest Community Awards Gala will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday at The Ritz-Carlton Bacara, 8301 Hollister Ave. in Goleta. Click here for more information, or to purchase tickets.

— Kate Schwab represents the Goleta Chamber of Commerce.