Man's best friend seeks federal funding

An organization that trains man’s best friend to become search and rescue dogs has hired James Lee Witt Associates, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) firm, to hunt down federal dollars to build a national training center.

The National Disaster Search Dog Rescue Foundation hired Witt Associates before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, but the tragic events and tear-jerking images of dogs sniffing for the living, wounded and dead have raised the profile of the foundation’s cause, said Debora Tosch, the foundation’s executive director.

Twenty-six dogs trained by the foundation were sent with their handlers to Mississippi and New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Ojai, Calif.-based foundation only has a $700,000 annual budget and Witt Associates is charging just $2,000 a month, enough to recoup its costs, said an executive with the company. Mark Ghilarducci, an executive with Witt Associates who is based in California, will lead the lobbying efforts on the foundation’s behalf.

“A limiting factor had always been the ability to have enough dog teams to support fire and rescue teams clearing debris,” said Ghilarducci, referring to his tenure as the former deputy director of the California governor’s Office of Emergency Services. “The most efficient way [to search for people] is to have trained search dogs.”

“We want to consolidate this into one place,” Tosch said. “So we have a place to house them until we’re ready to give them the search training, do the professional and handler training at the center, and have a place where we can have piles of rubble, confined space” to simulate disaster conditions.

There is no central location to train search and rescue dogs and the process is time-consuming and inefficient.

The foundation finds dogs from shelters and rescue groups and sends the dogs to a home to be socialized. Then the dogs are sent to a kennel in Gilroy, Calif., several hours north of Ojai, where they work with a professional dog trainer. When that training is finished, the dogs return to Ojai and go through a three-week course with their handler, Tosch said.

Once trained, the dogs are farmed out to fire departments and other local first responders around the country.

Ghilarducci said the foundation would seek $8 million to $10 million to build a center, which likely would be located in California because of the stable climate, and would review architectural designs to assess the cost better.

“It’s not just in one member’s district, but all congressional districts that would benefit,” Ghilarducci said, adding that terrorist attacks and natural disasters affect all lawmakers. “At the local level and across the country, there’s a benefit to this and we view this as a great asset.”

The foundation’s training is rigorous. If the dog and its handler pass, they should be able to meet FEMA standards. In California, 80 percent of the dogs trained by the foundation have met FEMA’s certifications, Tosch said.

But FEMA, which offers two levels of certification, tests dogs once a month at various locations around the country. Having just one center would allow for a more streamlined process.

Moreover, a central location could improve the foundation’s ability to train more dogs each year. The foundation said that the 28 FEMA search-and-rescue task forces spread throughout the country should have 12 dogs, which means that there should be a pool of 336 FEMA certified dogs. But the foundation maintains that 180 dogs have been certified by FEMA, leaving some of the task forces with inadequate resources in case one of the dogs is injured in a search.

With one-stop shopping, Tosch said, “We will be able to have a stronger program.”

The foundation trained the four dogs — Baron, Tag, Kelly and Giuli — and the dogs’ handlers used by the U.S. Capitol Police.