Hero Dogs by Wilma Melville
The true story of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation by retired physical education teacher Wilma Melville, and the amazing dogs and their handlers that faced off with devastating catastrophes from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina.
In 1995, retired physical education teacher 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.
Lola was a buckshot-riddled stay, 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.
Finally, finally, a book that turns rescue dogs into heroes, and shines a massive spotlight on the thousands of intelligent, loyal, courageous and huge-hearted dogs in kennels right now!
It was Wilma Melville’s dream to build up a team of search and rescue dogs trained to search for bodies in disaster sites throughout America. With Monty, her own Search and Rescue (SAR) dog by her side, she started the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. Her aim was to train 168 dogs, one for every victim of the Oklahoma City bombing.
There was certainly a huge amount of risk looking for search dog candidates amongst homeless dogs. Many had already suffered terrible physical and mental hardships. However, Wilma taught herself to become an expert at spotting the signs of the type of dog she needed in her team. As well as speed, stamina, and intelligence the dogs needed to have an exceptional nose and an instinct to find, as well as smell, a scent trail. Even after intensive training, Wilma didn’t know for sure if the dog could handle a disaster situation until he was actually in one.
Once the dogs had been trained to an advanced level, coping with rubble and uneven surfaces, the search began to find handlers. Wilma wanted the dogs to be handled by firefighters but she was adamant that the right match was found. She wanted the dog and the handler to be exact mirrors of each other.
I’ve read many books featuring dogs but the way that Wilma describes a dog is on such a higher level and it just shows how much she adores these four-legged creatures.
Here is what she says about Golden Retriever Ana.
A picturesque golden, Ana was the color of butterscotch in the sunshine. She had a narrow face with elegant curves. Her small ears fell evenly and lacked the wonky Dumbo the Elephant look of some puppies. Her hair seemed to lie in an orderly fashion like she had just been groomed. Proud in an almost regal way. she gave the impression that she sat where she wanted, not where someone told her to. Painted as a portrait, Ana would have seemed to have it all. In the flesh, she was beyond control.
Wilma then goes on to say that Ana had been surrendered because of her tendencies to jump high fences, destroy flower beds, even jump off a cliff to retrieve a ball and then climb up it again. It was recognised that if Ana’s energy was properly channelled she could excel at search and rescue.
Ana went on to be the leading SAR dog to search for bodies amongst the rubble of the Twin Towers.
A promise that Wilma made to herself was that if she took a dog out of rescue to train. but the dog was unsuitable, he would never be returned to rescue. The dogs are trained with gentleness and kindness, they are checked over by vets when returning from a disaster site and washed by their handler.
Although the book is about Hero Dogs, it goes without saying that the amazing dedication of the volunteers and firefighters should be highly applauded. There were parts of the book which broke me emotionally but others where the tears were of pure joy. I know it made me appreciate the little rescue dog sitting by my side. In fact, it made me incredibly thankful to have these wonderful creatures in my life.
This book is emotional, inspiring and heartwrenching. At times some of the disaster scenes were extremely harrowing but it shows the honesty of the author and the bravery of the dogs.
A must read for all dog lovers, but keep the tissues handy.
Thank you, NetGalley and St. Martins’ Press for the advance copy, which I have reviewed honestly.