Ten years on from the 9/11 attacks in the USA, our thoughts are with all those caught up in that terrible day – survivors, rescue workers, those who lost their lives, their families and friends.
We have chosen to honour the bravery of all those people, and the memory of those lost, by recalling the role dogs and their handlers played in the rescue attempt post-9/11. The search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs who worked after the 9/11 tragedy deserve to be recognized and remembered.
New York, 15 September, 2001. A rescue dog is transported out of the debris of the World Trade Center. (Photo US Navy / Preston Keres)
Rescue dogs were on the scene on the day of the attacks on New York and Washington. And in the following days more than 400 dogs were deployed at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, including over 80 dogs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It was the largest deployment of dogs in US history, and they stayed there, searching, for a full month.
A surprisingly large number of breeds were involved. Among those deployed in response to the 9/11 attacks were: German Shepherds, Australian Shepherd, Belgian Shepherds, Yellow/Black/Chocolate Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Portuguese Waterdogs, German Shorthair Pointers, Belgian Malinious, Border Collies, Belgian Tervurnes, Doberman Pincers, Giant Schnauzers, Rat Terriers, and several mixed breed dogs and dogs from city pounds.
“If these dogs only knew what a difference they make. Certainly, there’s nothing that can replace the precision of a dog’s nose—and absolutely nothing that can replace a dog’s heart.”
— Bob Sessions, rescue worker, Federal Emergency Management Agency
New York, September 21, 2001. Kent Olson and his dog, Thunder, from Lakewood, Washington search through the rubble for victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Photo by Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo)
The majority of the dogs were ‘live find’ dogs, trained to find people alive. Dogs were on call for 12-hour shifts, as were all task force team members. These shifts sometimes extended to 16 hours of non-stop searching. In the first days after the attacks, canine SAR teams did help to find injured survivors. The dogs would crawl on their bellies, squeeze through holes, and dig to find survivors.
New York, September 25, 2001. Colorado Task Force One member Ann Wickman works with her dog, Jenner, to search for victims in the collapsed World Trade Center. (Photo by Michael Rieger/ FEMA News Photo)
But it was reported that, as the weeks passed, some dogs grew depressed when they could no longer find living people. The dogs grew stressed and disheartened, as if they were unsuccessful. To counter this, rescue workers started hiding among the twisted wreckage, staging mock rescues where the dogs would be thrilled again to find a living human.
“Morale is important … So it’s my job as handler to remove her from the pile [the rescuers' name for the WTC search site] … and then what we do is we set up a scenario for her that she can win at. We used a New York firefighter. He actually hid amongst a little bit of rubble … and we sent her on a search. She finds the firefighter. He plays with her real good. She’s real happy, and she’s ready to go to work again.”
— Mark Bogush, Tampa Fire Rescue, speaking about his partner “Marley”
Another unit of dogs were brought in after the 9/11 attacks. These dogs were sent specifically to provide emotional support to rescue workers suffering from trauma at the disaster site. Handlers, police, and firemen were under great stress. They felt able to reach out to these dogs in ways they couldn’t to those around them. One rescue worker commented,
“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.”
New York, September 18, 2001. Dog and handler resting. (Photo: Reuters)
Special canine medical teams worked hard to care for the dogs. They treated as many as 100 injured dogs per day in the first few days of searching. SAR dogs suffered minor burns, and cuts on their paws from jagged glass or sharp steel wreckage that the dogs climbed over and dug into, in order to find survivors. None received a serious injury and no SAR dogs lost their lives in the rescue operation, although fears have subsequently been expressed about the long-term impact on their health. One month after starting work at the World Trade Center site, the SAR dogs were stood down.
We are now ten years on from the events of 9/11. Ten years is a long time in a dog’s life, and many of these dogs have since passed away, or reached old age. Photographer Charlotte Dumas was inspired by the story of the 9/11 dogs and recently published a moving photographic tribute, photographing some of the surviving dogs as they are now. A slideshow of her photographs can be seen here on the NY Times website.
In these dogs’ wise, grey-whiskered faces we see the surprisingly sudden passage of time, but also a calmness, patience and reassuring warmth. Dogs’ willingness to trust us in the most unlikely situations, their enthusiasm to work for us, and their ‘dogged’ persistence are traits that many dog-owners will have valued in their own pet. But in the case of the SAR dogs these qualities create a particular, special bond not only with their owners, but with each and every person they have been, or might have been, sent out to rescue.
Moxie, age 13, Winthrop, Mass. She arrived at the World Trade Center site on Sept. 11 and began working the next morning. Though she is trained to find survivors, she identified six bodies and many body parts during the eight days she worked there. Since her owner retired her at age 7, she has hunted and spent time on the waterfront.
Sources for this article include: FEMA, Dogs in the News, Environmental Graffiti. The Dogs in the News site at this link is a contemporary account of dogs’ work at the World Trade Center.