Suffering from a series of mudslides, natural gas explosions and oil spills, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California are eager for relief in whatever form it takes - even puppies.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation is experimenting with seven black Labrador retriever puppies to see if it can train them as rescue dogs quickly and cheaply.Right now its costs about $5,000 to train a search dog and its handler.

"If I can take one or two months off the training of the dogs, I can save $550 for every month," says foundation leader Wilma Melville.

Melville bred her 5-year-old black female Lab, Murphy, to a black Lab named Abe from Ohio. Both Abe and Murphy are certified as search dogs by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Part of Melville's work as head of the foundation is recruiting handlers for the dogs. Five volunteer handlers in Ventura and two in Santa Barbara County are providing foster homes for the puppies during their first six months of training.

Annie and Kevin Muno, ages 39 and 40, of Thousand Oaks and their two boys, Danny, 9, and Kevin Jr., 10, are providing a home for Ike. They take him to training class every two weeks.

"My boys are really into this," said Annie Muno. "We've talked about someday we'll see Ike on TV rescuing people."

Murphy was one of the dogs that helped search for live victims in the Oklahoma City bombing aftermath. As she walked through the rubble with Murphy at the April 19, 1995, disaster, Melville got the idea to establish the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.

"It was obvious that these disaster search dogs were needed and we were undersupplied nationally as well as in California," said Melville, 64.

On Oct. 30, Murphy gave birth to a litter of puppies that Melville hopes have inherited all of the instincts of a good disaster search dog.

With the puppies now 4 months old, the results of the experiment are beginning to unfold.

Professional dog trainer Ann Boardman conducts the first six months of the puppies' training. She likes what she sees so far but stresses it's still too early to tell if any or all of them will qualify as search dogs.

"The thing that they don't have yet, and it's very, very important, is they have to bark," said Boardman, who has been training dogs for 25 years. "They have to bark and alert the policeman (or other rescue personnel) that they have found whoever they are looking for."

The puppies and the volunteer handlers meet every two weeks in one of the volunteers' back yards for training sessions with Boardman. The first sessions have concentrated on basic obedience. After six months, the puppies will leave their foster homes and attend a training camp at Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, Calif., where they will learn more advanced search-and-rescue techniques.

Puppies that successfully complete the course eventually will be tested and certified by FEMA, then paired with California firefighters chosen by the Office of Emergency Services. The firefighters and their canine companions will receive advanced training together, so they can be ready for disasters.

The experimental Lab puppies already are endearing themselves to their volunteer handlers. Most of the volunteers have mixed feelings about whether their canine charges pass the certification test; if the pups don't pass, the handlers get the opportunity to adopt them.

"I don't want him to pass," said Annie Muno in a mock wail. "We're very attached to him already."