Tuesday, January 8, 2019

NONFICTION REVIEW: Hero Dogs by WIlma Melville and Paul Lobo


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.

In 1995, 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.


When Wilma Melville established the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation she had a goal.  She wanted to help train dogs for Urban Search and Rescue operations.  But she wanted to do it more effectively and efficiently than was currently being done.  At the time, most of the organizations currently doing such training weren't really interested in working with her as they thought they knew what they were doing, even though the results said otherwise.  Despite such opposition, Wilma was determined and with the help of a few volunteers and a talented dog trainer, she adopted her first three dogs, Ana, Dusty, and Harley.  In less than a year, these dogs that had been rejected became skilled search dogs with the help of their firefighter handlers.  They would go on to prove it after 9/11.  As the years went by other rescued dogs were trained and sent on missions.  The SDF (Search Dog Foundation) had found a formula that worked and despite the challenges that inevitably arose successfully trained over 200 dogs and handlers for USAR.  Lobo tells the tale through the eyes of Wilma based on many hours of interviews and interactions giving the story an immediacy that is quite compelling.  The stories of the dogs and their handlers are fascinating and amazing.  Reading about the searches said dogs and handlers conducted related to 9/11, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the Haitian earthquake was eye-opening.  It's amazing to me the sacrifices and immense effort these firefighters and dogs made and continue to make to find even one survivor.  The value found in these seemingly worthless dogs is a testament to Wilma's determination and willingness to look beyond the obvious.

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