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Remembering the Dog Heroes of September 11th

By Dr. Becker

A decade ago on September 11, nearly 3,000 people died when terrorists attacked on U.S. soil.

As we remember the horror of that day ten years ago and pay tribute to those whose lives were lost or shattered, I'd like to offer a small tribute to the nearly 400 canine heroes called to service in the aftermath of 9/11.

Never before in our history have dogs been called upon to help humans in the aftermath of such a massive and horrific disaster. The 9/11 dogs performed beyond all expectations, in spite of the danger, the long days and nights, and the hopelessness that so often descended.

Retrievers, Police Dogs, Mixed Breeds and a Dachshund

In the month following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, over 350 dogs and their handlers went to work in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Search and rescue dogs, police dogs, therapy and comfort dogs from all over the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico and Europe were brought in to help find survivors at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, and to recover remains.

They were also there to lift the sagging spirits of the exhausted, devastated workers at both sites.

Labs and golden retrievers, German shepherds, border collies, rotties, spaniels, mixed breeds, a lone Doberman and even a few dachshunds became a part of history as they worked tirelessly alongside human rescue crews plowing through the rubble and debris.

Working 12-Hour Days on 'The Pile'

Search and rescue (SAR) dogs must be certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in order to be called to service in a situation like the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

The dogs learn to develop specialized disaster response skills. For example, they are trained to detect odors emitted by a human body under stress. They also learn to distinguish between the scent of a living body and a cadaver.

Work shifts for SAR dogs and their handlers at Ground Zero were 12 hours, and sometimes up to 16 hours of non-stop searching. The dogs scorched their paws digging in the white-hot rubble and debris. They soldiered on through heavy clouds of noxious dust and smoke.

Most SAR dogs will search continuously for a scent until they are called off. They demonstrate a determination and motivation unmatched by man or machine.

Fortunately, despite how long and hard the SAR dogs worked with their noses buried in 'the pile,' subsequent studies of nearly 100 of them indicate they did not suffer from the breathing-related conditions many of the human rescue workers acquired.

But the dogs did not escape their Ground Zero efforts unscathed. Search and rescue work is physically and psychologically traumatic for dogs as well as humans.

Keeping the Dogs Healthy

One dog found two bodies of missing firefighters on his first day at Ground Zero.

According to his human partner, the dog became overwhelmed. He lay down and curled up on the spot. Soon after, he began to shed hair at an alarming rate. He refused to eat or interact with other dogs. He withdrew. His owner decided it was time to retire the 12 year-old German shepherd search and rescue veteran.

Another dog lost 12 pounds in 11 days.

SAR dogs trained to find the living can become increasingly stressed and depressed the longer they search with no result. Their handlers are aware of the importance of morale in these specially trained dogs.

At Ground Zero, it was common for owners to stage mock finds so the dogs could feel successful.

One of the incentives for SAR dogs to find a live person is the hope he or she will play upon being found. Mock scenarios usually result in a few minutes of playtime for the dog who makes the 'find.'

In addition to keeping morale high, it was also important at Ground Zero to handle any physical problems the dogs developed as a result of long hours in extremely difficult terrain. Doggy 'MASH' units were set up at the site and staffed with veterinarians and other animal healthcare workers experienced not only in stitching cuts and setting bones, but also in canine massage and chiropractic.

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Trained to Detect Human Trauma

In the days following the September 11 attacks, therapy and comfort dogs were also at work in New York and at the Pentagon.

The presence of therapy dogs at both sites, and especially Ground Zero, was invaluable. Rescue workers found comfort just petting the dogs. They took breaks from the horror to play fetch, or to talk with a dog. These brave men and women were often not able to open up to each other, but it was okay to reach out to the dogs.

According to one unidentified handler, "These dogs have been trained to pick up on trauma and go towards it. So they pursue people they perceive as being in a state of trauma ... We've been visiting a lot of firemen, police, and cleanup detail."

The 9/11 therapy dogs served as an unflagging morale booster for Ground Zero workers. Every soul who worked 'the pile' will agree the presence of the dogs was as important emotionally as it was for search and rescue.

From Terri Crisp, Director of the Emergency Animal Rescue Service in 2001:

"There were two things, the handler told us, that really yanked on his emotions—a small doll pulled from the debris and the gift he and Ranger [his dog] had received from a child. The gift was a small Ziploc bag with two dog biscuits and two Hershey kisses inside, along with a note printed by the child that said, 'Lassie would be so proud of you.' "

Many are Gone Now, but None are Forgotten

Ten years have passed since 9/11. A great many of the over 350 dogs that worked in dedicated partnership with humans at Ground Zero and the Pentagon are no longer alive.

But their spirit lives on … in photos, in stories, in memories … in the hearts and minds of a nation.