When Wilma Melville retired from her career as a gym teacher in New Jersey, she never imagined that her second career was about to take off.
Melville used her newfound free time to pursue her dream of owning a highly-trained dog, and enrolled in FEMA’s Advanced Search Dog certification program, a process that can take three to five years and can cost up to $15,000. Soon after receiving her certification, Melville was asked to assist with finding victims in the rubble following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
“This disaster made it clear that there were too few certified search dog-handler teams,” Melville writes on the website of the Search Dog Foundation (SDF), the California-based nonprofit she started after that experience. “Out of this heartbreaking experience came a determination to find a better way to create highly skilled canine search teams.”
When Melville began her efforts, there were only 15 dog-and-handler pairs with advanced training across the country. Today, there are more than 250, according to David Karas of the Christian Science Monitor. Of those, SDF has trained 150 teams, providing their services for no cost to any community that needs them.
But search-and-rescue missions aren’t the Search Dog Foundation’s only mission. Melville’s organization exclusively trains dogs adopted from shelters — transforming rescued pets into rescuers. An effective team requires “the right dog, matched with the right handler, and professional training for both,” Melville told Karas.
“I never expected to found and lead an agency that would make a significant difference nationally in how dogs are selected, plus how handlers and dogs are trained for this specific work,” she said. After she knew she “could make a giant sized contribution,” she said, “I never looked back.”