Waffles’ New House
Friday morning at the nonprofit Search Dog Foundation’s property in Santa Paula, six firefighters constantly dipped their left hands sneakily into the dog treats pouches on their waists.
The men were, after all, attempting to achieve an almost-impossible task: keeping six energetic dogs calm for almost an hour in front of a more than 60-person crowd.
Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Eric Gray was one of these firefighters attempting to keep their new search dogs under control during a doggy graduation ceremony, and his canine partner was the most energetic one by far.
Capt. Gray’s new partner — a Belgian Malinois who is as sweet as his name, Waffles — climbed up on Capt. Gray several times, asking for treats, affection and love.
Waffles, according to SDF staff, is a local boy from Ventura County Animal Shelter in Camarillo. The Belgian Malinois was adopted and returned by two homes before being recruited by Search Dog Foundation.
The nonprofit trains rescued shelter dogs whose high-energy nature often deems them as unadoptable, or places them on euthanesia lists in shelters.
Denise Sanders, director of communications for the foundation, said the philosophy is, “From rescue to rescuer. They’re often dogs that you don’t want to put into a home.”
The dogs’ high energy, though, comes in handy during search rescue missions.
“We help guide them and transform them into search dogs,” Ms. Sanders said. “They just do amazing work.”
Back on the stage of the ceremony, the energy that will make Waffles a more-than-able search dog was apparent. He wagged his tail at the speed of light and tried to give Capt. Gray several kisses.
As his handler was attempting to give a speech, Waffles was on his hindlegs, holding onto Capt. Gray’s outstretched arm. Microphone in one hand and dog on the other, Capt. Gray said, “Just a second.”
Capt. Gray gently and firmly set Waffles down and told him to stay. Folks in the crowd could see that he has years’ worth of experience handling dogs.
For a decade, a Labrador by the name of Riley accompanied Capt. Gray as the firefighter transformed from a new recruit to a captain. The two worked together during the Montecito mudslides, the earthquake in Nepal as well as disasters in Japan and Puerto Rico.
“In 2005, I was a rookie fireman and was in the academy, and I came home to my wife and I said, ‘This is great. They’ve got helicopters and jet skis … and dogs!’ She said, ‘Well, I’m OK with all those things, I think, except the SWAT Medic part.’ I’m like, ‘Okay. How about a dog?’ She said, ‘Sure.’ So 2008, I got Riley, and we had an amazing career,” said Capt. Gray.
Capt. Gray shared with the attendees of the search dogs’ graduation ceremony, however, that he planned on not getting another search dog after Riley retires.
“After the Montecito debris flow, I was pretty much sure I was going to hang up the leash,” said Capt. Gray, who changed his mind after much deliberation. “After some time away and some decompression and introspection, I thought, ‘No. This is what I was meant to do.’ So, I went back to my wife, and I said if I could do this again, and she said yes.”
During his speech, Capt. Gray asked his wife, Donna, to stand up, and the crowd applauded. It was not just Mrs. Gray who was welcoming a new member into their lives though. The Grays’ 4-year-old daughter, Evelynn, was also welcoming Waffles, and she seemed ecstatic.
Before the ceremony began, Evelynn was petting another search dog by the name of Deacon. Evelynn was unknowingly winning hearts as she played with the canine, and she displayed her comfortability with dogs (who weighed the same as she did) again after the ceremony. Sitting on her father’s lap, Evelynn gently caressed the head of Waffles, who was soaking up the sugary affection.
Welcome to Santa Barbara County, Waffles.