From Rescued to Rescuer

By Giving List Staff   |   January 2, 2021

When the debris flow hit Montecito on January 9, 2018, Riley was ready. 

Having been deployed to the tsunami in Japan and a devastating earthquake in Nepal, Riley and his partner, a Santa Barbara County fire captain named Eric Gray, search for survivors amid the scenes of unbelievable chaos. 

Unlike Gray, Riley is a yellow lab, who was too rambunctious for the family that had adopted him. The pair was one of 18 National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) teams working the devastating aftermath of the debris flow in Montecito. 

That Riley and his fellow canines are so exceptional is no surprise given the impressive nonprofit organization that does their training. SDF was founded in 1996 by Wilma Melville, a FEMA-Certified canine handler who worked the Oklahoma City Bombing where 168 people lost their lives. 

Melville quietly made a commitment to train 168 search dog teams for every one of those victims, a goal recently achieved by the organization. 

To get there, Melville and her successors, including current CEO George Haynes, built a 125-acre training center in the mountains of Santa Paula. Board Chair George Leis calls it a “simulated search city,” replete with a downed airplane, derailed train, and replicas of buildings torn apart by earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. 

It is here that dogs like Riley go through an intensive eight-to-twelve-month training ahead of the stringent FEMA or state certification process.

During the debris flow, 13 of the teams stayed overnight at the Santa Paula campus, turning it from a place to train for future disasters, to a staging area for an unfolding one.

Beyond preparing search teams for the herculean task of saving lives during disaster and tragedy, the SDF team is also saving dogs from otherwise certain fates.

“Most of our dogs come from shelters,” Haynes, the CEO, says. “These are extremely high-drive, intense dogs. Absent them being rescued, likely they would be euthanized.” 

And once in the SDF family, the organization ensures each dog is cared for through its entire life. 

 In 2019, after 11 years of service, Riley retired and Gray took on another SDF search rescue dog – a Belgian Malinois, aptly named Waffles, who was, himself, a shelter rescue. Now, over the next decade or so, Gray and Waffles will serve Santa Barbara, their country, and the world when called upon to respond in the aftermath of a disaster.


National Disaster Search Dog Foundation


Our mission is to strengthen disaster response in america by rescuing and recruiting dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.

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Disasters Happen. It’s Not a Matter of If, But When…

To address a critical national need, Wilma Melville founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) in 1996. It has grown into a nationwide organization that recruits, rescues, and trains shelter dogs to become search dogs, looking for survivors in the wreckage of natural and human-made disasters.
SDF has proudly served the Santa Barbara community since 1999, and search dogs based here have been deployed to Ground Zero after 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the La Conchita mudslide, the devastating Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the Nepal earthquake in 2015, and the Montecito mudslide in 2018
Santa Barbara’s newest community hero is Waffles, a Belgian Malinois and former shelter resident turned search dog, who is partnered with Captain Eric Gray of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.
SDF provides ongoing training and veterinary care for these search teams. Dogs unable to complete training are career changed or placed in loving homes. Once rescued, they will never need to be rescued again.
– George Leis, Chair, Board of Directors, National Disaster Search Dog Foundation President & Chief Operating Officer, Montecito Bank & Trust

Board of Directors

George Leis — Chair
Dennis Kuykendall — Vice Chair and Interim Treasurer
Michael J. Diani — Secretary
Richard Butt
Robert Dodge, M.D.
Robert Harris
Wilma Melville
George R. Haynes, Ph.D.
Jeff Wenig
Crystal Wyatt