Ana: From Rescued to Rescuer

Ana: From Rescued to Rescuer

From Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover's Soul

Ana: From Rescued to Rescuer

Ana’s early life was a long series of painful—and unfortunately, all-too-common—experiences. Like many golden retrievers, Ana started out as an adorable high-energy puppy, but when her energy and high prey drive began to take a destructive turn, it soon drove her human family crazy. Instead of training her, they eventually booted her out of the house to a doghouse in the backyard. This, of course, made things worse. She was the type of dog who desperately needed a job to do. Now, with even less attention and direction, Ana began to dig and bark. When she destroyed the irrigation system for the plantings in the family’s backyard, that was it! Ana was given away and soon was passed from one home to another. Fortunately, she was rescued by a responsible woman who recognized Ana’s need for a job. This special dog eventually found her way into my life, starting the train of events that would lead to the creation of one of the most successful disaster search-and-rescue training programs in the country.

When I retired after a long career as a physical-education teacher, my husband and I moved from the suburbs of Los Angeles to a small town in the mountains of Southern California. There I decided to pursue all the interests and dreams I had put on hold during my working life. One of these was to have a highly trained dog for rescue work. I started in wilderness search and rescue, but soon decided that, given my age and personality, disaster search-and-rescue work suited me better: The search area in a disaster situation is clearly defined, the need is certain and heavy packs are not necessary.

Immediately after the bombing in Oklahoma City, my canine partner, a black Lab named Murphy, and I were deployed there. Working at theMurrah building, I sawfirst-hand how vital search-and-rescue teams were. Unfortunately, there simply weren’t enough trained teams available. When I returned home, I decided to do something about the shortage.

At that time search-and-rescue dogs took between three and five years to train, and the expensewas prohibitive. An idea began to percolate inmy head: if assistance dogs could be trained in nine months to a year, why couldn’t a search-and-rescue dog be trained in the same amount of time?

I began making inquiries and eventually found a trainer who I believed could take a year-old dog and within a year turn the pup into a search-and-rescue dog. The next hurdle would be to find appropriate dogs to train. After a phone call to my friend and mentor, Bonnie, who was deeply involved in assistance dog training, the whole thing really started rolling. When I told Bonnie that I needed dogs for this new program, she said, “Oh! I think I have the perfect dog for you.”

Ana had been given to Bonnie in the hope that the highly intelligent dog could be trained as an assistance dog. Bonnie knew quickly that Ana wouldn’t make a good assistance dog—she was a fast learner and had the right attitude, but wasn’t mellow enough. When I asked Bonnie where I could find dogs to train as search-and-rescue dogs, it clicked in her mind: Ana would be perfect!

And she was.

When I drove to Bonnie’s to pick up Ana, Bonnie led me out to a large fenced paddock where at least twenty-five golden retrievers were all playing happily together. She opened the gate and let the dogs into a big barn area where they began to run together in an enormous golden circle around the barn. I noticed that one, and only one, of the dogs had stopped to pick up a stick and now galloped merrily around us holding the stick firmly in its mouth. Bonnie smiled at me and said, “Wilma, can you pick out the dog I have in mind for you?”

I hazarded a guess. “The one with the stick?”

Bonnie’s jaw dropped. “That’s her!” she said. It was a lucky guess, but my stock sure went up with Bonnie that day.

I took Ana home with me. She was a wild thing! As Ana flew around the room, leaping over the couch and the coffee table, my three sedate Labs watched her, then looked at me with expressions that said, You’ve got to be kidding. She’s going to live here?

It took the next month for me to teach Ana basic manners. During this time I found two more goldens for the program. The three dogs started their training. Ana was superb. Everything was there: She loved to learn, and her intensity, which had spoiled her chance of success as an ordinary family pet, was one of her strongest traits. She never gave up, but would try, then try again—and keep on trying until she mastered something. When their training was complete, the dogs were ready to be matched with handlers.

Ana was matched with Rick, a Sacramento firefighter who was one of three handlers selected by the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, Fire and Rescue branch. Rick was a precise man, physically quick, strong and wiry. Ana had the same agile quickness, and the trainer felt that their personalities would work well together.

Back in Sacramento, the two learned to live with each other. Ana’s need to always have something in hermouth— dirty laundry being her item of preference—didn’t sit well with Rick, who loved neatness and order. Eventually, the two worked it out: Ana learned to restrict her “mouth item” to one of her own toys, and Rick made sure the toys were always available.

Rick and Ana earned advanced certification from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within seven months—an amazing accomplishment. As the years passed, dog and handler continued their training and bonded closely as a working team.

Rick and Ana were members of California Urban Search and Rescue Task Force 7 deployed to the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. Here is an excerpt of the journal Rick kept of his experiences with Ana at Ground Zero:

Tethered to our sides as they moved through the dust and smoke twelve hours a day, the dogs were full of energy. These canines more than proved their value as a vital tool in the search efforts at Ground Zero.

The firefighters were amazed at the canines’ skill . . . at one point, we had to walk down an I-beam that was at a steep angle. Ana had no problem. We then had to make our way across the twisted steel and metal that had once been the World Trade Towers. Ana gracefully maneuvered the twisted terrain as if it were another day in the park. I know that her trainer would have been very proud to see her student fly across the debris.

Reading these words, it’s clear that Ana was a special gem—she only needed polishing and the right setting to shine.

The little idea I had so many years ago has developed into a successful disaster search-and-rescue dog training foundation. Many dogs have followed the trail Ana blazed. More than sixty of them have gone through our program and have been placed with handlers all across the country, including at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and in Mexico as well.

Many, like Ana, who were doomed to unhappy lives or worse, have instead gone on to become an invaluable resource to their communities and to the nation. The rescued have indeed become the rescuers.

Wilma Melville

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