Ventura County Fire Captain Matthew Garrett just brought his new partner home after her graduation a couple of weeks ago. Although it has been a slight adjustment for Garrett’s wife and two young children, Gabby, a black Labrador retriever, fits in just fine with the family of four.

But Gabby is no ordinary dog. Gabby is a search-and-rescue dog who works as Garrett’s full-time partner at the firehouse.

“She is more than just a pet,” Garrett said. “I am her handler; I am the only one that feeds her and handles her. For most part, she is in the kennel. But that is part of the working dog life. Their job in life is to find people that are trapped. We want to basically keep her amped and ready to go.”

Gabby, who was once trained to be a seeing-eye dog, just graduated from Ojai’s nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation on July 31. She was retrained for search-and-rescue because her rambunctious spirit disqualified her to lead the blind.

0814 news#2Garrett said she is calm at home, which is perfect for family time. He said the trainers at the foundation match up the personalities and lifestyles of the dogs with the handlers, who will have them 24/7 for the lifetime of the dog.

“When she is not working, she is very mellow,” Garrett said. “Some of them are tornadoes; they even have a dog named Taz.”

The foundation’s executive director, Debra Tosch, who has been with the organization for 11 years, said dogs like Gabby and Taz make great search-and-rescue dogs.

“First, they have to be from the hunting breed; then, they have to be between 10 to 18 months old,” Tosch said. “At that point the dog also has to have high energy, a boldness of character and can’t be very timid. But he or she also has to have a high obsession with toys.”

She said the dogs she looks for are ones that most pet owners don’t want because these dogs don’t have time for cuddling and petting — they are on a mission: Find the toy.

Therefore, most of these dogs are on their way down the doggy Green Mile when the Search Dog Foundation’s own volunteer rescue team, the Bark Force, saves them.

In the 12 years since the foundation’s inception, more than 250 dogs across the country have been saved from euthanasia, and 85 of them have officially been trained and certified to work for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Tosch said that ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and even more recently with Hurricane Katrina, these specially trained dogs are in high demand.

“There is a shortage of certified teams [dog and handler],” Tosch said.

Janet Reineck of the Search Dog Foundation reported that FEMA needs approximately 400 search-and-rescue dogs, which doesn’t include local or state organizations, and they only have 180 certified teams nationwide.

Because the need is so prevalent, Tosch has been on a mission to expand the foundation and boost the enrollment from 32 dogs per year to 50 dogs.

But this expansion will come at no small cost. Tosch has already been able to begin the expansion, thanks to the very charitable McGrath farming family. The McGraths donated some land to the foundation, which was sold for $1.1 million then reinvested back into a 125-acre ranch property at Santa Paula’s Wheeler Canyon.

The plan is to consolidate the training program to one facility at Wheeler Canyon. Currently, the program begins at a kennel in California’s Inland Valley (Lancaster), where the dogs are evaluated. If the dogs meet the criteria, then a four-hour drive to where they are trained in Central California (Gilroy), which is another five-hour drive from the foundation headquarters in Ojai. Any dogs who do not meet the criteria will not be taken back to a shelter, but will be taken to a new home.

The consolidation will be a grueling task, to say the least. In order to complete the project and bring all the elements together, the foundation needs to raise another $15 million.

The foundation needs to raise at least $3 million to complete the transaction for the ranch. Once the property is owned outright by the foundation, then Tosch can move on to focusing on fundraising for the new $7.5 million training center and $4.5 million for a maintenance endowment fund. Tosch has set a completion date of 2010, pending donations.

Tosch is hoping to receive donations of $7 million from other nonprofit foundations, $5 million from corporations and $3 million from individuals.

But she said getting the foundations or organizations to make such huge donations will be difficult.

“More foundations are willing to make donations once we own the land,” Tosch said. “The sooner we can make it happen, the sooner we could qualify for other grants. That note being paid off, that is the urgency.”

Tosch said the first mortgage payment on the ranch is due in February 2009, and they are depending mainly on individual donations to pay off the property.

While Tosch waits for donations to come in, the foundation continues to train dogs and send them to be with their handlers across the country. She said the foundation is one of, if not the largest facility in the country and needs donations to keep the program going.

To volunteer for the Bark Force, e-mail Karen Klingberg, the foundation’s K-9 manager, at canines@ndsdf.org. To make a donation, visit the foundation’s Web site at searchdogfoundation.org or call (888) 4K9-HERO or (888) 459-4376.