Rescued Search Dogs Help Save Survivors of Deadly Montecito Mudslides

Many people living in Montecito, a community just south of Santa Barbara, went to bed worry-free the night of Jan. 8. Although TV weathercasters had warned that an approaching winter storm could dump an inch of rain an hour, the area where they lived was under only voluntary evacuation orders. The residents probably figured they were far enough away from where the Thomas fire recently burned and not in danger of mudslides or flash floods.

But those people woke up to a nightmare in the middle of the night. The deluge caused the Montecito Creek to overflow, quickly sending rivers of mud into hundreds of those houses. As of Jan. 11, 17 people have been found dead, while dozens are still missing.

At least 300 people have been rescued, including 14-year-old Lauren Cantin, whose cries were heard by search dogs. “I thought I was dead there for a minute,” she told rescuers.

As they’ve heroically done before in disasters around the world, dogs trained by the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) were deployed to Montecito to search for survivors in the mud. These dogs are truly paying it forward: they’ve all been rescued themselves from shelters and rescue groups.

“The traits that can make dogs unsuitable as family pets and land them in a shelter—intense energy and extreme drive—are exactly the qualities required in a search dog,” the nonprofit says on its website.

After the dogs are trained, they are partnered with firefighters and first responders. In addition to Montecito, they’ve helped locate survivors in countries like Japan, Haiti and Nepal after devastating earthquakes.

Among the rescued search dogs working in Montecito is Riley, who was in the area the day before the mudslides struck with his handler, Eric Gray of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. When Riley was just a puppy in 2008, he was surrendered to a rescue group by his owners, who felt the Lab’s rambunctious personality wasn’t a good fit with their lifestyle. Ten years later, Riley can be seen performing his life-saving work in this video.

Jester is another SDF-trained rescue dog searching for mudslide victims with his handler, Capt. Davis Doty of the Orange County Fire Authority. The border collie, now 12 years old, had been dumped by his owners at a shelter and was about to be euthanized when he was taken in by the SDF. He’s been working as a search dog ever since he graduated from training school in 2008.

“We spend hours every day together, bonding and training,” Doty told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s great.”

As of Jan. 11, 16 SDF-trained search dogs were “paws on the ground” in Montecito, including Roxy, Ty and Clancy.

Three days after the disaster, rescuers weren’t giving up hope of finding survivors.

“There have been many miraculous stories of people lasting many days (following similar disasters) and certainly we are searching for a miracle right now,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown said.

Let’s all hope he’s right, and the search dogs whose lives were once saved continue to pay it forward by saving more victims. Visit the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation website for more information about this organization and how to help it provide unwanted dogs with the opportunity to become true heroes.

Photo credit: santabarbaracountyfirefighters/Instagram


Shirley S
Shirley S10 hours ago

A great way to utilize "surrendered" dogs. That is "one in the eye" for the loathsome people who surrender dogs.

RK R16 hours ago

Always better for a rescue dog to find you than for a cadaver dog to find you. Canines are amazing workers.

Rhoberta E
Rhoberta E17 hours ago

Thank you to all the wonderful men and women involved in this horrific disaster and thank you to the wonderful dogs given a chance at helping and a second chance at living.. Dogs want to please and what better way than finding humans alive.

Winn A
Winn A17 hours ago


Winn A
Winn A17 hours ago

What would we do without dogs? They are such a blessings to us all.

Terri S
Terri S18 hours ago

I hope the idiots who surrendered these amazing dogs are seeing what they have become.

Sherri S
Sherri S20 hours ago

So glad these brave search and rescue dogs are able to help in times of disaster. Many thanks to them and their handlers for saving lives.

Janis K
Janis K20 hours ago

Thanks for sharing.

Jonathan H
Jonathan H22 hours ago


Toni W
Toni Wyesterday