Firefighters like D’Orsi and Tao applaud Melville’s commitment to them, to the dogs and to helping those in need. “This is a great opportunity to do good things, and that’s what those of us in the fire service want to do,” say Tao, who’s been a handler for nine years. “Andy has definitely found his calling in life.”
So has Cody, who recently took on a new role in canine disaster training. “He’s become like a mentor dog,” D’Orsi says. “He helps with training and works with the new handlers before they get their dogs. They get to work with Cody because you can’t ruin him by making a mistake or two. He knows the system so well.” It’s a remarkable transformation for the once-unruly puppy.
“Cody still has all that energy, but it’s now directed,” D’Orsi says. “He’s become comfortable in his own fur and found his niche in life. And while we don’t wish harm on anyone, we’d love to get out there and help more people. We’re ready to go.”
As part of their training, SDF dogs must master a variety of skills, including:
Advanced obedience. Because these dogs work off-leash at disaster sites, they must respond to verbal commands, hand signals and whistles.
Disaster search techniques. They must be able to maneuver treacherous and unstable surfaces, including rubble filled with broken glass or sharp metal. The dogs also must be sure-footed and able to climb ladders and walk across wobbly boards.
Finding people buried alive. SDF dogs are trained to alert to only one scent—live humans. When the dogs find someone, they are taught to bark nonstop for 30 seconds. That signal is called a “bark alert,” and they’re rewarded for it. Cody’s paycheck, for example, is playing tug-of-war or hide-and-seek. “You have to keep this fun for these dogs,” D’Orsi says. “Giving them a reward builds their confidence.”
SDF is based in Ojai, Calif.
It trains its dogs at Sundowners Training Kennel in Gilroy, Calif.
The dogs stay with their handlers around-the-clock. They go to work with them and live in their homes. Some, like Cody, are official members of their handler’s fire departments and have their own badges.
Lisa McCormick is an award-winning investigative reporter whose stories have appeared in Dogs for Kids magazine, The Kansas City Star, and the national consumer news website, ConsumerAffairs.com; she has written 12 nonfiction children's books.