National Training Center

There has never been a facility in the United States solely dedicated to the training of Canine Disaster Search Teams, so in 2009 SDF took on the challenge of bringing this resource to the nation. Our National Training Center (NTC)—where rescued dogs become rescuers—is where all of America’s Search Teams receive the preparation they need for the most difficult deployments.

The state-of-the-art facility occupies 125 acres of donated historic ranch land in the beautiful foothills of Santa Paula, CA—90 minutes north of Los Angeles. The site is the ideal place for our specially designed kennels, beginning and advanced training areas, handlers’ accommodations, classrooms and staff offices.

Officially opened to the nation’s Search Teams on September 23, 2017, the center is now operational and used daily for training our Search Teams and Canine Candidates. Amenities include the Frank McGrath Jr. Family Welcome Center, Bechtel Handlers’ Lodge, and Petco Foundation Canine Pavilion completed.

The  NTC was built entirely with funds received from private individuals, foundations and companies that invested in this monumental project, and with no government funding and at no cost to taxpayers. We are honored to celebrate their commitments here, and on our permanent donor wall located in the Newman’s Own Donor Foyer at the NTC.

If you are interested in learning more about our naming opportunities and how to leave your pawprints in perpetuity here at the NTC, please contact Director of Development Rhett Mauck at or (805) 229-0075.

This must-do project called upon the can-do spirit of America and mobilized the resources, talents and energy of our SDF Family to bring a life-saving gift to the nation.

Canine evaluation and training

Prior to moving to our NTC property,  our canine candidates were transported from shelters and rescue groups to SDF’s “formal training kennel in Gilroy, CA, just south of San Francisco. Now, the NTC brings canine evaluation, care and training to one location to give the canines the best possible environment for their intensive training program.

With our friends from the Petco Foundation by our side, we officially opened the Petco Foundation Canine Pavilion at a special ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 24, 2016.

The Petco Foundation Canine Pavilion is the heart and soul of the canine program.  Here, formerly homeless, abandoned dogs can be given “a new leash on life” through expert veterinary care and training by compassionate professionals. The Pavilion is a state-of-the-art 14,000 square foot facility accommodating 30 dogs, each kennel complete with its own indoor and outdoor runs and plenty of space to rest and play in the fresh air.

It also includes classrooms where Canine Search Specialists share knowledge about training and deployments through continued education and specialized workshops. These can be transmitted remotely throughout the country—and the world—with the goal of strengthening disaster response and rescue.

Dogs accepted into the program who don’t have everything it takes for disaster search will be given lots of TLC and obedience training at the NTC before making a career change or being partnered with a loving Lifetime Care Family.


Advanced training scenarios

Each time our Search Teams are deployed to a disaster, they encounter extreme conditions and challenging search scenarios that call for the highest level of training. In order to be fully prepared for any situation they encounter, the teams need to train in an environment that simulates these conditions. In the past, most of our teams trained on piles of rubble found at recycling centers or construction sites. There were two significant problems with this:

  1. The training piles were temporary – they were only there until the concrete or lumber were needed for another purpose.
  2. The search scenarios, as long as they lasted, were static – the dogs got used to the same search configuration and were no longer challenged during training.

Our new training site features collapsed structures, large-area rubble searches, train and vehicle wrecks and wilderness ravines. We’re able to reconfigure the “props” to create an infinite variety of challenging scenarios.

If you or your agency wishes to use our National Training Center as a training site, please fill out our National Training Center (NTC) Training Request Form and someone from SDF help to coordinate if your request can be facilitated.



A “Home Away From Home” for America’s Search Teams

We want to give our very best to the people and animals who risk their lives for us. Whether the teams are training at the NTC for a weekend, a week, or a month, we want to offer them a “home away from home.” While staying onsite, our visiting Search Teams are provided with::

The Bechtel Handlers’ Lodge, featuring a full-service kitchen, comfortable living room, laundry facilities, two dorm-style rooms capable of accommodating 20 handlers and their canine partners, four private bedrooms and access to a gym facility and hiking trails around the campus.


  • A top-notch grooming facility in the Petco Foundation Canine Pavilion where Search Dogs can enjoy excellent care
  • A medical suite to serve the canines’ healthcare needs
  • A well-equipped strength and conditioning dog “gymnasium” where new and veteran search dogs can work on their nerve and core strength, rehabilitate following injuries and build confidence while learning the skills they will need on the rubble pile
  • Classrooms where handlers can share what they have learned in training and on deployments with fellow handlers


The History of the NTC as told by Founder, Wilma Melville

The notion of creating an organization to train America’s Canine Disaster Search Teams came to me in 1995. I remember the exact moment, as I stood in the driveway of my Ojai home, and saw my life beginning to take an important turn. You see, I had just returned from Oklahoma City, where my Search Dog Murphy and I combed the wreckage, searching for survivors of the Alfred P. Murrah building that had been bombed. I returned home determined that, out of that unfathomable tragedy, some good must come.

Standing there, I realized that strengthening disaster response in America was the way to make a significant difference, and honor those that perished on that day. At that time, our entire country had only about 15 Advanced Certified teams, and it was clear to me that many more were needed. I knew someone had to make it happen, and realized that this someone was…me. And I knew that a small, strong and dedicated organization behind me could turn this vision into a reality.

I teamed up with Canine Trainer extraordinaire Pluis Davern and we devised a plan to recruit rescued dogs, team them with firefighters, and train them efficiently and effectively for disaster search. We started with three Sacramento handlers and three amazing Golden Retrievers, and each year added more teams.

In those days I was driving about 2,000 miles a month to help the teams train—ever in search of the rubble piles that were essential to their training. The piles were few, they were temporary, and they didn’t challenge the teams nearly enough. I knew we could do better. I knew we had to create our own training center that would offer complex, changeable, real-life disaster scenarios.

I kept turning these questions around in my mind: Did I know what size property was needed, where it should be, or how much it would cost? Did I know how to raise the money to buy the land and build the Center? Was I prepared in any way to launch such a project? “No, no, and no!” came the answers.

That was in 1998. Then, slowly, that dedicated group I knew I needed began to come together  to make it all happen…

Thanks to this team, and to the amazing generosity of our donors, today I find myself steering a shiny red electric cart through the NTC as I visit the dogs and handlers in training. I see SDF teams training with other teams from around the country and the globe and learning from one another. I now see a far broader scope for our NTC than I did back in the beginning. I am proud to say we have completed a monumental endeavor – we have turned my vision from so many years ago into something you can see, feel, and treasure for yourselves. And while the completion of the NTC marks the end of a long journey, it also stands as the first step toward the future of Canine Disaster Search in this country. There is still much to do, and my hope is that there will always be more work to be done.

There will be more challenges and more victories along the way. The planning will continue to be incessant, the pressures unrelenting—but who cares? It’s what we do because we are the Search Dog Foundation. We never quit. We huddle and muddle until the course is agreed and clear.

And we will produce the best Canine Disaster Search Teams this country has ever seen. Not because we want to, but because we have to. Because together, we are the Search Dog Foundation.




Visiting the NTC

Built with the financial contributions of over 850 individuals and foundations, we are incredibly proud of our National Training Center home, and appreciate the interest in visiting our facility.  As we are an active training facility dedicated to the important task of creating Canine Disaster Search Teams to serve America, we are not open to the public for tours or community visits. We do offer limited tours based on our availability, consistent with our mission and programmatic goals. If you are interested in visiting the NTC, please click here to add your information to our interest list.


Community Benefits Commitment

The Search Dog Foundation Board of Directors requests that all NTC contractors, subcontractors and supply vendors take part in our “Community Benefits Commitment” (CBC), providing a substantial discount or donation of services or product as part of their contract. All savings are applied to the NTC project or maintenance endowment fund to care for the site in perpetuity.

  • ACO Polymer Products, Inc.
  • Advanced Geotechnical Services
  • All Around Landscape Supply
  • Angelus Block Co.
  • Ayres Consulting Solutions, Inc.
  • Balfour Beatty Construction
  • BC2 Environmental
  • Blois Construction, Inc.
  • Brick Markers USA
  • Brodersen Associates
  • California Land Clearing
  • Centennial Woods
  • Center Glass Company
  • CHP Steel Company, Inc.
  • Churchill’s Heating & Air Conditioning
  • Cinderella Flooring
  • CityScapes, Inc.
  • Collings and Associates
  • Companion Animal Health/LiteCure
  • Conejo Archaeological Consultants
  • CPI Solutions
  • Crown Plaza Ventura Beach
  • D&J Drywall
  • DeMoor’s Painting
  • Diani Building Corp.
  • DJS Special Inspections, Inc.
  • DK Electricidal Contractors
  • DMI-EMK Environmental Services, Inc.
  • Dunn-Edwards
  • Earthform Design
  • FGL Environmental
  • Fillmore & Western Railway Co.
  • Granite Construction Company
  • Grant Loyd
  • HD Supply White Cap
  • Highwood USA
  • Hilgers Grading & Excavating
  • HydroSolve
  • Ike’s Pump and Drilling
  • Interstate Rebar, Inc.
  • James Hardie Building Products
  • Jensen Design and Survey, Inc.
  • Jensen Precast
  • Jog A Dog
  • JR Barto
  • Kline Construction Company, Inc.
  • Koehler Plumbing
  • Kruger Bensen Ziemer Architects, Inc.
  • Limoneira Company
  • Mac Brown Excavating, Inc.
  • Magnum Fence
  • Mainstreet Architects + Planners, Inc.
  • Marquette Consulting, Inc.
  • Mason Company
  • McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP
  • On Target Transport
  • Orion Landscapes
  • PACE Advanced Water Engineering
  • Paleo Solutions, Inc.
  • Precon Products
  • Quality Paving
  • R.W. Scott Construction Co., Inc.
  • Ray Reiman Construction
  • Reyes Masonry Contractors, Inc.
  • Rio School District
  • San Buenaventura Research Assoc.
  • Signs of Success
  • Simpson Strong-Tie Company
  • Southern California Laborers Apprenticeship
  • Steelcraft
  • Stone Imagery
  • Taft Electrical Company
  • The Peggs Company
  • Travis Agricultural Construction
  • Tri County Office Furniture
  • TriStar Vet
  • Trussell Technologies, Inc.
  • UBU Sports/Courts & Greens
  • United States Army and Navy Reserves
  • Water Resource Engineering Associates
  • Window Products Management