Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nine Questions I Would Ask ...

... if I was going to donate money to support search and rescue dogs, maybe because I felt awful about a big disaster.

1) Did I already pay for this?

Well, yes, yes you did -- if you are a US taxpayer.

The FEMA/DHS urban search and rescue task forces (USAR TFs) that are sent by the federal government to major disasters in the US and for relief worldwide are tax supported.

The task force members have their deployment expenses paid. Those who are paid firefighters and public safety personnel are paid for their time on deployment.

No donated funds are needed to deploy these task forces and their search dogs.

This is not true of local search and rescue teams called to local or regional incidents -- most of which are a single lost person, with no collapsed structures involved. The individual team members who respond pay all their own deployment expenses, down to the gas money to get to the search.

2) Does the charity that is asking for money field search dogs?

If the charity is this one, it does not.

National Disaster Search Dog Foundation acquires dogs, puts them through several months of training, and then assigns them to (typically) firefighters who have been selected by their employers to handle a dog.

The NDSDF does not field the teams. When they send out a fundraising appeal citing "our" search teams and this is reprinted in the press and on blogs and social media sites, be aware that the dog and handler are almost always employed by a big-city fire department, and are always members of a federal USAR task force that is responsible for their ongoing training, credentialing, and deployment.

Yet the print and online media, including media where the journalistic motto is supposed to be "Question Everything," and where grandiose claims from such "charities" as the HSUS and PeTA have been regularly skewered, have unquestioningly reprinted the NDSDF's press releases, generally including a "donate now" link.

When a press release invokes a narrative about animals + disaster + we need money, it is apparently unacceptably bitchy to apply normal doses of skepticism and scrutiny to the release or the entity behind it.

That's how HSUS raised and hoarded millions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, while local animal shelters nationwide go begging.

The canine search teams are a small component of each USAR task force, but they receive the bulk of the media coverage.

There are two FEMA Task Forces sent by USAID to Japan. The Fairfax County, Virginia task force -- generally the "go-to" TF for international missions -- has six dog-handler teams deployed to Japan, none of them formed or trained with involvement by the NDSDF. But a google search on various terms such as "search dogs Japan" "disaster dogs Japan," etc. will invariably pop up the NDSDF logo and acres of regurgitated press release about "our dogs" and "our teams." And a donation button.

FEMA, and the individual task forces, devote more resources to operational matters than they do to public relations and fundraising blitzes. And it shows. The press agents of NDSDF crowd out coverage of the majority of task force canine teams. Those six dogs and handlers from the Fairfax County task force may as well not exist. The hundreds of other federal USAR teams standing at ready who met the standards without involvement from NDSDF are complete nonentities. And the many hundreds of seasoned SAR teams who not only respond to "normal" searches, but maintain readiness for disaster response outside of the federal system aren't even a dream.

3) Does the charity that is asking for money train the search teams?

This one is a bit trickier.

NDSDF says that they provide the firefighters -- most of them with no previous dog handling or training experience -- with professionally "trained" dogs. The implication is that the dog is a plug 'n' play component of the disaster search team, delivered to the handler pre-assembled and ready to go. Certainly superior to a handler training her own dog from scratch.

A review of the dog biography narratives on its own website reveals that it typically takes more than a year, often many years, sometimes, apparently, never, for a firefighter + NDSDF dog to pass a FEMA basic test.

Just like a civilian handler, or anyone, who joins a task force with his or her own dog, or joins a task force and acquires his or her own dog to train.

Meanwhile, NDSDF says that it is providing ongoing training to the teams.

But every FEMA task force is supposed to have its own training program and its own training officer -- for every canine handler, not just those who acquired their dogs from NDSDF.

There are 238 operational FEMA canine teams nationwide, most of whom train and qualify without receiving any money or support from NDSDF.

4) Is the provision of partly-trained adult dogs to firefighters the only, or best, way to provide quality disaster dog teams?

To answer the first part (only?), emphatically no.

Most disaster (urban) SAR handlers are still civilians who choose, raise and train their own dogs. Initially, FEMA only accepted operational handlers who already had search and rescue deployments under their belts. That way, when a team was deployed on a disaster, with its additional stresses and dangers, it would not be the first time that the handler and dog had done real-world work together. The working partnership was already "proofed."

Unfortunately, and for a variety of mostly bad reasons, FEMA moved away from exploiting the skills of experienced dog handlers and started to allow individuals with no canine experience to fill slots on its task forces. In some task forces, experienced wilderness handlers need not apply.

As for the second part (best?), I can give you my opinion as a SAR handler with nineteen years of experience.

There are two elements here: Do firefighters without dog experience make the best handlers, and do adult dogs who have been through several months of kenneling and training make the best search dogs?

I have seen no evidence suggesting that they do.

My personal experience with firefighter-first handler candidates has been that the small minority of them who are suitable need a lot of education about dog behavior and interspecies teamwork, and constant on-scene oversight, in order to work effectively with a dog. That's not oversight from the fire chief, that's oversight from an intimately-involved canine training officer with many years of canine SAR experience and good teaching chops. Conversely, too much oversight -- handholding -- just serves to nurse along handler wannabes who are not capable or not interested in developing the higher-level skills that make a truly adaptable and resourceful handler. Not just a guy who can, maybe, pass a test.

Working with a search dog is not like learning a new machine that also happens to be a PR goldmine. It is a humbling, life-altering experience that requires profound openness and health of ego to achieve.

My experience with young adult dogs recruited for SAR training has been that the only ones that typically succeed are working-bred animals -- field Labs and goldens, working GSDs and Malinois, well-bred border collies. And they generally succeed when paired with already experienced SAR handlers who went through a lot of trouble to choose their own dogs.

Interestingly, even for working-bred dogs, there appears to be no fast-track to operational status achieved by starting with a young adult as opposed to a young puppy. Takes the team just about as long or a little longer, on average, to get to operational status if the dog is two when they start as it does if the handler starts with an eight-week-old puppy.

This is assuming similar ability and motivation on the part of the handler, similar operational standards, similar availability of credentialing procedures. (In this post-NIMs world, availability of credentialing and backlogs for evaluation and classes are a real issue for all kinds of emergency providers. When one's dog isn't getting any younger, it's beyond frustrating.)

Time to certification is important because, assuming total "trainee" time elapsed is the same, you get more bang for your buck starting a puppy and getting him operational by age two than you do starting a two-year-old and getting him operational at age four. Right?

Depending on breed, most SAR dogs retire at between 8-12 years of age, if there are no special medical concerns. Border collies and English shepherds often go longer. Rottweilers and bloodhounds, typically significantly shorter. Working-bred dogs of all breeds usually have a longer career than those who are indifferently-bred or show-bred, in addition to qualifying at much greater frequency.

The difference in return-on-investment in the dog's training for a six-year career vs. a ten-year career is significant -- for handler, for the unit, for the lost person.

In the case of dogs who have not been bred for work and well-raised, the training time is increased, and the chances of the dog ever becoming operational (again, assuming the same talent and motivation in the handler) are much lower.

My biggest objection to starting with adult dogs is that one loses the concentrated learning period of young puppyhood, in which the pup may be essentially imprinted with a commitment to scent games, as well as learn to be fearless in the face of all kinds of challenges. The best person to provide that kind of upbringing is the pup's handler. Good breeders exploit the learning window from birth to eight weeks, too. Many a star SAR dog's training effectively begins in the womb.

5) Is the firefighter + "pretrained" canine candidate team the way forward for disaster search and rescue?

I sure hope not. The NDSDF would like it to be, and are setting out to make it so using charitable contributions from nice people who want to support search and rescue.

If that were to happen, it would be both the result and cause of an ongoing redefinition of the job of search dog and search dog handler that, in my opinion, does not well-serve the public.

High standards are not the same thing as cookie-cutter methods.

In fact, I maintain that the two are incompatible.

An aside. NDSDF has a strong bias towards Labrador retrievers; that's not just shown in their numbers, that's something they state outright. They think that Labs are, as a breed, better candidates for disaster SAR than other breeds. That they fit the NDSDF's cookie-cutter training methodology.

Their own results do not bear this out.

72% of the dogs "graduated" and assigned to handlers by NDSDF (from the bios on their page of current teams) are Labradors or Labrador mixes.

I don't know what the intake v. graduation rate is, because they don't publish it. (Remember, "graduation" is not operational status. It is NDSDF's term for being assigned a handler and leaving the kennel.)

The rest of the dogs are of very few breeds: border collies and border collie mixes, golden retrievers, German shepherds, and one Aussie and one Catahoula.

50% of total Labradors + Labrador mixes have qualified under a FEMA standard.*

63% of border collies + border collie mixes

67% of German shepherds

83% of goldens.

Is NDSDF so institutionally breed blind that they ignore their own results? Are they graduating and assigning to wannabe handlers Labradors that have little or no hope of qualifying because of this bias?

It would be nice to have hard figures on the dogs they take in for training -- which ones wash out during training, and for what reasons, which ones fail after being assigned a handler, which ones ultimately qualify under FEMA and in how much time. For now, there are just a lot of questions about why the NDSF's favorite breed is not, apparently, their own most successful breed.

6) Is the firefighter + "pretrained" canine candidate team a more efficient or cost-effective way of providing disaster SAR teams?

NDSDF took in well over 3.3 million dollars in 2009, per their 990.

They don't state how many trainee teams "graduated" from their program in that time, or how many of their previous graduates qualified as operational with their FEMA task forces, so it's impossible to say what the per-team cost of becoming operational is.

They don't say how many of the dogs they take in as candidates wash out before being placed.

They don't say how many handlers wash out and have their dogs repossessed and reassigned after "graduating." There are some references to these events in some of the dog biographies.

With a great deal of tedium, one can get something like a figure for how many total dogs provided by the NDSDF have qualified with their FEMA task forces. This meant going through every individual dog profile linked on this page, and reading not only the dog's vital stats, but also the secondary page of narrative. In some cases the narratives and the vital stats disagreed on some point, and I had to try to make a judgment about which account was correct. Profiles don't consistently give dates that the dog was acquired or "graduated," but most have a birthdate, which is likely estimated in some cases.

They list 82 dogs, born between the years of 1996 and 2009. These are only dogs that are currently assigned to handlers. I did not include deceased and retired dogs listed on other pages, because NDSDF doesn't provide enough information about them to compare them to the ones on the main page. (I'm skeptical that a Labrador born in 1996 is still operational, but she's on the page, so gets counted.)

Of these, as near as I can determine, 41 have passed some kind of FEMA test, either just the basic, or the basic and then the advanced test. Exactly half. I did not include dogs that have passed a "state test," including the Tijuana state test, because I have no way of knowing whether those tests are, in fact, comparable to one administered by FEMA. I don't know whether some of the dogs who at one point passed a FEMA test have had their certification lapse, either because they didn't re-test at the appropriate time or because the failed a re-test; regardless, a dog who passes the test qualifies as operational for three years, unless injury or some other contingency intervenes.

Let's just look at the dogs born from 2005-2009. Some dogs have neither birthdates nor any operational data -- they may be older or younger, but they don't have FEMA certs according to NDSDF, which is fairly motivated to be up-to-date on such announcements. But of the 31 dogs placed with handlers and still out there (so not counting any that have been definitively washed out, retired, or died since placement) who were apparently born between 2005 and 2009, eleven -- just over a third -- have (according to NDSDF's website) passed a FEMA basic test. None have passed an advanced test. That's 3-4 teams per year passing a FEMA test once they are out with a task force. Can that be right?

Million dollar search teams?

Here's another interesting thing.

NDSDF makes a big deal about "rescued dogs becoming rescuers." They say they scour the pounds for candidates. Save those crazy dogs that are so unsuitable as pets, maybe on doggie death row as unadoptable, but are just born to pound the rubble.

Makes good copy, doesn't it? I have an adopted dog in training for SAR myself, and I can tell you straight, Cole's narrative can draw tears of joy from a cinder block. It is an m-fing great story.

It is not, however, the most efficient, cost-effective way to consistently bring dogs to operational success. And NDSDF's own numbers demonstrate this.

Of those animals (born 1996-2009) whose source could be determined from their biographies, 20 were breeder donations or purchases (puppies), 8 were donated by owners, 13 came from guide or service dog organizations, 14 came from rescue groups, and 19 came from shelters.

The breeder-sourced puppies were all (from what I could tell) good working-bred dogs, as were quite a number of the owner-donated young dogs. This is as it should be.

Here's the rundown on the outcomes for these dogs since 1996, broken down by source (as well as could be determined from the dogs' biographies -- what NDSDF has chosen to publish)

75% of the dogs donated by breeders and paired with handlers passed a FEMA standard, and a third (25% of the total) of those passed the advanced test. That's the best group. If they could deliver those results consistently, my hat would be off to them.

64% of dogs from rescue groups passed a FEMA standard.

62% of owner-donated dogs passed a FEMA standard. This group is mixed between dogs donated by working handlers or from working breeding, and "failed pets."

34% of guide/service dog "career change" dogs passed a FEMA standard.

26% of dogs from shelters passed a FEMA standard. A near mirror-image of the breeder-sourced dogs.

Remember, these are just the numbers for the dogs on their website who are still out with handlers. It does not include washouts from training, or dogs that have been washed out definitively since being sent home with a handler. We don't know about those dogs. And they don't publish enough data about retired/deceased dogs to compare them to current dogs.

From the available information, it appears that there is a significant advantage to taking a well-bred puppy selected by a knowledgeable working dog breeder, raising it in a savvy home (per the guide/service dog model), and training at a young age. Gee, who could have guessed?!

But what "We bought this puppy from a great breeder to ensure the best chances of success" doesn't do is raise a ton of money. The story isn't as good. It's unsentimental. Donors don't line up sobbing to hand over the simoleons.

The cost of a good working-bred Labrador, golden retriever, German shepherd or border collie pup ranges from $500-$1500. Some breeders will happily donate a promising pup to a good cause. Such pups are ready to start their training at eight weeks. They can be ready for operational testing by the time they are two.

So, is the project to rescue dogs from shelters? To maximize the number and competence of operational disaster search teams and minimize the time-to-certification to ensure the longest possible operational life? Or to raise the maximum in tax-deductible donations with a sounds-good narrative?

7) Is this charity a lean, efficient user of donated money?

Let's look at the largest search and rescue canine organization in the US for comparison -- the California Rescue Dog Association.

I choose CARDA because their operational standards are rigorous and well-regarded, and they are on the same sort of scale of personnel as NDSDF. Comparing NDSDF to a typical local SAR team with between two and ten operational canine teams at any given time, or to a single USAR TF, is comparing apples to watermelons. Also, NDSDF is located in California, as are most of "their" teams, and does a lot of fund raising in California.

CARDA has no paid staff. None. No full time PR people banging the drums for media coverage, no fund raising employees, no executives, no office manager, no paid or contracted trainers. It is, like almost every SAR unit in the United States, an all-volunteer organization.

CARDA is both a training and an operational organization. Volunteers train weekly in CARDA groups, have assigned mentors during their training period, and they respond to call-outs through CARDA. CARDA volunteers meet California state standards for operational competence.

CARDA handlers choose, train, and own their own dogs.

CARDA handlers complete required time as pre-apprentices and apprentices before they can challenge the operational tests. Operational handlers put in significant time as mentors.

Right now, this all-volunteer entity has at its disposal 123 trained, certified, credentialed, qualified, can-go-on-a-search-this-instant search and rescue dogs. That does not count dogs that may be certified but have been pulled from operational status due to injury or some other contingency. It does not count trainees. It's really 123 dogs that can work now.

The CARDA operational dogs are from 21 pure breeds, and also include eight mixed-breed dogs. Diversity is strength.

In 2008, according to their form 990EZ filed in 2009, CARDA spent $25,218. Total revenues were $29,579. That's just over $240 non-profit dollars spent per operational dog. That's two-four-zero -- not $2,400, not $24,000.

It gets worse. Better. Depends on how you look at it.

$18,688 of CARDA's income was member dues! Yep, the bulk of the operating expenses of the largest SAR dog organization in the country came out of the personal pockets of the very same people who are devoting enormous swaths of their own time and herculean efforts to volunteer.

Only $6,457 of CARDA's incoming money in 2008 was in the form of contributions or grants.

$52 of charitable money per operational dog. Dogs whose volunteer owners are shouldering the full cost of dog food, veterinary care, equipment, gas, vehicle maintenance, outside training, time lost from work ...

Grants and donations don't even begin to cover the cost of issuing that operational handler a radio. Which is the only thing the handler gets from the organization, and just about the only assets that CARDA owns.

Now, frankly, this sucks in the other direction. I was so gobsmacked that I called up a CARDA member I know and grilled her about it. Yep, CARDA bites at fundraising and public relations. Terrible at it. Too modest to toot its own horn. Refuses to even record the event when a CARDA dog finds a missing person, because of an overdeveloped "team" ethic. ("It would be prideful to admit that one of our own just saved someone's life ...") I would characterize CARDA as overly lean.

I upbraided my friend on behalf of her unit in what I hope was taken in the helpful, if exasperated, way in which it was offered. You guys should be bringing in more money, supporting your handlers, and reminding the public of the amazing service you provide.

The fact remains that the largest and most-respected SAR dog training, credentialing, and deployment organization in the US does its work on a financially threadbare shoestring, and does it damned well.

From 2000-2005 (the latest that full-year statistics are published) CARDA teams responded to an average of 318 searches per year. Those would have ranged from a single dog and handler deployed to check a suspected crime scene for human remains, to massive lost person searches involving hundreds of searchers and scores of dog teams.

They are running over 7,000 volunteer man-hours per year, just on search responses -- not counting an order of magnitude more hours spent on training, testing, and organizational chores.

8) Is this charity managed and run in a transparent and professional manner that is responsible to donors and does not enrich its principals?

You can download NDSDF's 990's here.

I have some questions.

For example, the same individual who receives $800 per month per dog for boarding and training (so she is technically not on the payroll, but a "contractor") is also serving an eight-year term on the board of directors.

Her assistant is her daughter.

That raises my eyebrows a bit.

According to page 7 of the 2009 990, no board member is compensated.

Ms. Davern's kennel received $148,629 for "handler training" in 2009.

There is also a line item for "trainers fees" (24c on page 10) of $210,333. I must assume that this is the $800 per month per dog collected by Ms. Davern's kennel for boarding and training, cited on their "Donate Now" page.

Apparently they don't consider $359,000 in no-bid contract work to be "compensation" to a board member. I guess that may be technically true. I'm sure this is all perfectly legal.

There are six total trainers on-staff for the "yield" of operational teams cited above. Their website does not indicate whether these people are all full-timers, nor what they are paid.

I expect it is probably significantly less than the $320,000 total paid to the top five salaried employees -- the Executive Director, the "Development" Director (which I understand to be "chief fundraiser") , a Business Administration Manager, the Manager of their project to build a multi-million dollar training center, and someone called a "Relation Manager."

As I understand it, these salaries are not out of line in the world of very large, high-overhead nonprofits. (The kind to which I choose not to donate, for this very reason.)

But remember, for CARDA -- and every other volunteer SAR unit in the country that actually deploys humans and dogs -- the figure is zero donor dollars spent on staff salaries.

And, among other questions, does it really cost three quarters of a million dollars to build a rubble pile?

9) Are these the guys who are going to save my bacon in a disaster?

The most important factor in lifesaving after a natural or man-made event causes building collapse is the speed at which help arrives.

FEMA task forces typically take days to mobilize, travel, and deploy.

If you are in the Walmart when the tornado hits and are buried alive under rubble and low, low prices, it will be your local first responders who stand a chance of finding you in time and getting you out. Wouldn't it be nice to know that they've had the resources they need to train to a high level of competence? Wouldn't it be gravy if the individual handlers were not straining their personal finances to be ready to save you?

The Task Forces, though trained for rescue, are typically active during the recovery phase of the search. Bluntly, they arrive in time to find the bodies. If there was a single live-find in rubble in the US by a FEMA-deployed dog team, I have not been able to track it down. The first live finds I can verify were several recently in Haiti. American teams had at least one live find in Mexico City; that was in 1985, years before the development of FEMA task forces with federalized disaster dogs. The dog teams deployed were volunteer wilderness handlers who had cross-trained for disaster.

Otherwise, twenty years without a single lifesaving find for the entire federal USAR system. (If I'm wrong about this, please, point me to the news articles.)

Pip and I deployed during the recovery phase of Hurricane Katrina. This was a state-to-state EMAC request for disaster-qualified SAR dogs who could work both live search and remains recovery. Not a very numerous resource. (This was the one and only time I have had any of my expenses covered in SAR.) Recovery work in a disaster is important work, but it is not the same thing as the high-pucker search that must be done in the first hours after an incident.

One reason we deployed was to hone our skills for the possibility of a future local disaster, one in which we would be the first responders, there in time to save a life. From that point of view, our time in the Gulf was time well-spent, though -- knock splintered wood -- we have not had call to exploit it as yet.

Well-trained and operationally-experienced wilderness search dog teams that are cross-trained for disaster first response and are close to the site of the disaster are the canine resource that is most capable of making a life-or-death difference.

When there isn't a "newsworthy" building collapse or massive disaster, these same all-volunteer teams are out pounding the ground looking for the missing hunter, the wandering dementia patient, the lost child. Saving those lives from "little" personal disasters.

Almost all are members of units that are 501(c)3 charitable non-profits, and are paid nothing for their time and effort.

None of them took in close to $3 million dollars in donations last year.

The next life they save could be yours. Your kid's. Or a total stranger's.

I don't know any who would turn down some help.


* As elsewhere, I am only counting passing the FEMA test as a metric for the NDSDF-supplied dogs. This is because I've no way of knowing whether various "state standards" are comparable, on paper or as executed. NDSDF's stated purpose is to populate the USAR TF's with NDSDF-supplied operational USAR dogs, so I think this is the fair metric by which to gauge their success.


  1. I'm curious whether you listened to the Pet Connection interview with "fire captain and search dog handler" Jim Boggeri? I asked what donations made now would be used for. He answered, and never once stated or implied it had anything to do with the deployed teams in Japan.

  2. That's nice Dee.

    What DID he say that donations would be used for?

  3. Training dogs, lifetime care for dogs they train (trainees, retirees, and those that begin their program but do not certify), and completion of a national training center in Santa Maria for training teams from across the country, not only those in their programs.

  4. Their website claims that their multi-million dollar training center will be for training "their" teams, and would be made externally available only for testing of other FEMA teams.

    If they intend to make it available to both other FEMA teams and to non-federal disaster responders, they have not made this commitment in any SAR forum (or anywhere else) of which I am aware.

    Begging the question, again, as to whether there is a need for a permanent multi-million dollar rubble pile. Is this a cost-effective way to prepare teams for the contingencies of real deployments? Is there even a marginal advantage in this kind of spending? What else could donor money be used for that would deliver more results?

    Other rubble piles across the country are typically constructed by government entities at much lower cost. Often it is part of the USAR task force training, to put together the rubble, often out of stuff they broke while they were practicing with their stuff-breaking equipment.

    Remember, canine search specialists are only a very small part of any USAR TF.

    Every time there's a new incident, everybody redesigns their rubble piles.

    Those who trained on concentrated piles of pancaked concrete and rebar after 9-11 were then faced with wilderness-sized tasks in the Gulf that were almost entirely timber and the offal of wood construction. So they went home and started throwing a lot of splintered wood and old staircases into their piles. Not a bad idea, but -- always fighting the last war.

    Training in a wide variety of circumstances is the best way to be prepared. No different from a "wilderness" SAR team that always trains in the same park, the USAR handler who is bound to one rubble pile will lack adaptability, as will her dog.

    Here's hoping nobody irradiates the training rubble this time.

  5. Well this was a very informative post - thank you!

  6. Heather... ♥ i don't know you, and i know nothing about training search and rescue dogs. yet i love your writing, your logic, your heart. in particular, you had me in tears wih question 7 and your closing comments.

    if it's ok, i'd love to share the link to this post. besides search and rescue dogs, your logic and question topics are worth considering for any potential donation. thank you for the time and research you invested to share this information.

    and then there's question 7 and your closing comments. did i mention that those parts touched my soul?... ♥

  7. For me, the compelling point is the focus on FEMA when FEMA actually does next to no actual SAR.

    Also, signs of self-dealing (though not yet proof), high-cost rubble piles, and intentional conflation of just who "our" teams refers to.

    Not mentioned here, but an enormous red flag in their 990: WTF is an organization this size doing getting $3M in unsecured loans? That would be like you or me taking out a payday loan against our annual income.

  8. Nice work, thanks for taking the huge time and effort to do this. I know from trying to educate legislators, and others, to change the way HRD dogs are being picked to work overseas, it gets lonely and discouraging. You have inspired me to continue!

    Back to work
    Kathy Holbert

  9. Thanks for this, Heather. Another angle to put the numbers in perspective...I used to own/operate a FOR PROFIT training kennel and we would train dual- and triple-purpose K-9 teams. We would purchase, care for, and train the dog until the dog was purchased by a P.D./S.O./F.D. $800/month/dog is lunacy for a non-profit. My average monthly expenses per dog? ~$125 which includes purchase of the pup from a reputable breeder, vet bills for the first 18 months or so, and food for the first 18 months or so. This doesn't include kennel space, as most nights a working-dog-to-be went home with a trainer. Average monthly "profit" (read: training compensation) per dog? $225, or less than $10 PER DAY. This didn't include money lost on washouts or the minimum two weeks dedicated to handler training per team before the dog left our care. That's the cost of doing business, particularly business as a private contractor to a government agency. Pet dog training and boarding paid the bills. Scent dog training was done for the love of the dog, the love of the team, and enough love of humanity to want to save the good guys and catch the bad guys. Again, kudos to you and the other good eggs like you whose praises are never sung loudly or often enough.


  10. Tremendous post.

    A friend and his [hunting-bred] Golden were active in CARDA years ago, and the time, effort and sacrifices involved were hugely impressive. CARDA is respected for good reason.

    NDSDF, on the other hand, sounds like a slick piece of work. Hope this post gets lots of airplay.

  11. Additional grumpings about the 990:

    • Why is there $700k in accounts receivable? What are they billing, and to whom?

    • "All other expenses" are $500k. Really? A half-mil?

    I'm sure I could come up with some other things if I wanted to. I still haven't forwarded my request for a more practiced eyeball to look at their 990. I will be shipping that request out presently.

  12. This is a really interesting (and informative) post.

    How can someone who wants to help find local teams to donate to and make sure it's a good organization?

  13. Because my brain moves in slow motion, one more thought:

    The canine search teams are a small component of each USAR task force, but they receive the bulk of the media coverage.

    It occurs to me that we are here having this discussion primarily because of the Willie Sutton Principle: the federalization of disaster response has created a convenient entity (FEMA) that pays its bills on time and does a lot of laundering work with local fire departments. (Federal subsidy of local activity is an increasing pleasure for Congressmen, who seem to forget what Federalism is, why it exists, and regard the public purse as a sort of scoresheet.) The messy, largely unpaid business of missing person searches has no such analogue. As a consequence, frauds — and I feel fairly safe in using this word — such as the NDSDF have a large niche in which to operate.

    As a followup, it would be interesting to review the books of the municipalities to see how much they paid for the privilege of having an owner-operator dog team on staff.

  14. Thanks, Heather. If everyone who sends $$'s into NSDF, would send just half of that to their local SAR group instead - we would all be so incredibly grateful. Spending time raising money seems like a waste of energy when our passions and strengths lie in training our dogs and ourselves to help missing people and their loved ones.

  15. HuffPo is recommending SDF as a good place to send funds. Maybe folks with logons there can link to Heather's excellent blog entry?


    jan with NESR

  16. Jan: done.

    Just now signed up for Huffpo -- man, are they pushy on the social media! Every comment is the opportunity to share a story on Facebook? Bleh.

  17. Thank you Heather. In the time since this blog post was written, CARDA members have responded to 6 search-and-rescue missions in 6 different California counties.

    Terrie & Heather are correct. Please considering supporting your state or local all-volunteer SAR organizations. They would deeply appreciate your help.

  18. That's six deployments in what, four days? AMRG got a call and a wave-off this morning. Much smaller SAR unit, of course.

    The LA task force is already back -- five or six days searching in Japan? They found no one.

    Here's another article claiming that the NDSDF "dispatched" teams to Japan:


    It also repeats the claim that the dogs were rescued from shelters. According to their bios, NONE of the dogs on CA TF-2 were from shelters. Two were breeder donations and two guide dog washouts, two from rescue groups and one owner donation.

    I read an article on Saturday that said that the Mexican team (not the NDSDF-trained Tijuana unit) had nine finds with two dogs, including one live find. The article was Spanish language, and I can't find it or any English language coverage of these events.

  19. You wrote:
    "Right now, this all-volunteer entity [CARDA] has at its disposal 123 trained, certified, credentialed, qualified, can-go-on-a-search-this-instant search and rescue dogs."

    124. One of my apprentices and her dog passed their mission ready test. :-)

  20. Yay! Congratulations to them both, and to you, their mentor.

    Did she get a shot at any of the incidents that were held in her honor?

  21. I don't know, I'll ask her when I see her next.

  22. OK, I know nothing about any of this. So I went looking for volunteer SAR teams in FL. One I came up with was this one: http://www.angelfire.com/fl/k9sarsfl/
    Compared to your AMRG the above site is laughable, though it's listed on the sarinfo site.
    Then there's this page which is so hideously out of date many of the links don't work.

    How the heck do you tell if a volunteer organization is of the caliber you are talking about?

    I know out local county sheriff's office has 4 bloodhound tracking/trailing teams, besides the usual K9 police dogs.

  23. Cathy and Cait --

    You ask a fair and necessary question. But this post had already gotten too long.

    I will get to it in some detail as soon as I can.

    Which will be after our tax stuff goes to the accountant.

    Cathy, I haven't looked at your links, but I will.

    One thing to keep in mind is that quality of website is not always related to quality of charity.

    Great website can be cover for crappy SAR group, crappy website can obscure a fine operational group that just doesn't have anyone with web skills

  24. Which leads me to wonder why the US tax codes require someone with a small farm in PA needs a tax accountant --

  25. Two home businesses with wildly erratic incomes for the past 16 years, plus complicated charitable deductions = accountant.

    It would not be such a chore if I did some record-keeping quarterly, but this appears to be out of the question, so here we are.

  26. And I thank you Heather for the post. A lot of work to document. Didn't mean to make more work! I fully expected you to say you have no time to babysit.

    I might nip over to the Sheriff's office and see who funds their dogs and if they know of any other SAR dogs in the area. Might be the best way to find out.

    Good luck with your taxes. Haven't started mine yet. ;-(

  27. I understand, Heather; I once was a partner in an S corporation, and ever since then I've used an accountant. Tax laws are designed to maximize employment for accountants and lawyers, I swear.

  28. ok, my understanding on the "compensation" issue.
    A board member of a nonprofit may not receive compensation for being on the board (this is one of the essential distinctions between profit/nonprofit businesses). But IRS regs allow board members to be compensated for their expenses for attending board meetings, and I don't believe there are any regs that forbid them from being contractors and receiving payment for their services.

    But the situation you describe certainly reeks of favoritism and deserves scrutiny by donors.

    Few nonprofit boards actually scrutinize the work of their staff, let alone other board members. The job of nonprofit accountant/auditor is the most hated one of all, if she does her job correctly

  29. Going back in time, it appears that they have a $3M loan outstanding on the books since 2008. (Prior to that time, it appears that the 990 did not require them to disclose such things.) The amount is the same in both years' forms, making me wonder who provided the cash and what the repayment terms are.

  30. In the article it stated one live find in the Mexico City earthquake. That was done by one of the CARDA teams that deployed. CARDA has been around since 1976.

  31. In the wake of the OK tornados, NDSDF is making the rounds on social media as having teams on the ground. I have started posting a link to this post in response.

    Here is the updated link to their 2011 990: http://www.searchdogfoundation.org/about/forms.html


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