The Legacy of the 9/11 Dogs – American Kennel Club

  • About 300 dog / handler search teams responded to Ground Zero, but only about 100 were prepared for the scale of the disaster
  • Most people in the United States had never heard of disaster search dogs before 9/11
  • September 11 also ushered in a new era for therapy dogs.

At first glance, this photo, from 2012, is unbearably sweet. Two Golden Retrievers stand together, one with a gray muzzle, the other a puppy, both wearing vests signifying they are working dogs.

The oldest dog is Bretagne, one of the heroes of Ground Zero. Almost 15 years after the event, she was still making headlines. In August 2015, the media told the story of a happy occasion: her 16th birthday, during which she and her master Denise Corliss, members of Texas Task Force 1, were celebrated in New York. In June 2016, more sad headlines spoke of his death, just before the great old age of 17 years.

The puppy in the photo is also Brittany, named after the sniffling 9/11 celebrity. She’s a small part of the heritage of Brittany and all of the other dogs who helped get through those dark days, whether they were digging through ruins or relieving unimaginable grief.

Young Bretagne, trained to detect blood sugar fluctuations in a diabetic patient, graduated from a training school, the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. This training school is the brainchild of Dr Cynthia M. Otto, a veterinarian who worked at Ground Zero.

The dogs of September 11

Otto says the dog work during that terrible time made his settlement possible.

Sniffer dogs had been around for decades, but the public misunderstood what they could do. “There was a certain feeling that they might find a Boy Scout lost in the woods, but none of the scope and impact of a national disaster [even though they had a critical role in the Oklahoma City bombing and several natural disasters], said Otto.

Media coverage of September 11 focused on dogs as the only “ray of sunshine” in a dark landscape, she said.


The images of these dogs working tirelessly, doing whatever was necessary to get the job done, captured hearts and minds around the world. Photos, like the iconic Golden Retriever Riley from FEMA Task Force 1 on Pennsylvania, have prompted people to take action.

Otto says many dog ​​owners have been inspired to seek search and rescue certification because of these images.

The dogs’ performance on 9/11 has also sparked serious study of the effects of this type of work on the body and mind of dogs, Otto says. “We were able to conduct our longitudinal dog study with generous funding from the AKC Canine Health Foundation.”

The media coverage, she says, has also given some research dog training organizations a much needed financial boost.

Great nose?

One such organization is the nonprofit National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, a group founded in 1995 by retired teacher Wilma Melville.

After his first deployment – the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 – Melville recognized the need for more dogs specially trained for this type of work and founded the NSDF. The organization scours shelters for dogs with search and rescue potential and prepares them for jobs with the fire departments. The training costs approximately $ 10,000. NSDF provides the dogs free of charge.

“Most people in this country had never heard of disaster search dogs [before 9/11]Says Debra Tosch, Executive Director of the NSDF. When the media began to focus on the dogs at Ground Zero, she says, “public awareness really exploded.”

Tosch and his homeless-trained black Labrador Retriever, Abby, were among the FEMA-certified dog research specialists, part of California Task Force 1, at the World Trade Center.


About 300 research teams, she estimated, responded. Only a hundred of them were prepared for a disaster of monstrous proportions in a large city. Many were wilderness search and rescue dogs, expert at finding missing people in the woods. They couldn’t face the huge mound of twisted metal, smoking glass and rubble, and city noise.

Tosch says some TV coverage listed NSDF’s phone number. Donations started to flow. “We had this influx of funding right after the World Trade Center,” Tosch says. The support and publicity helped make Melville’s 20-year dream – the National Training Center, scheduled to open Sept. 24 – a reality. It is designed to give canine candidates the opportunity to train at a variety of simulated disaster sites.

Soothing souls

The idea that dogs have the power to relieve human emotional suffering is not new. Anyone who has cried in the presence of a canine companion knows this. Smoky, a 4-pound Yorkshire Terrier, is considered the premier therapy dog, encouraging wounded soldiers in hospitals on the islands around New Guinea during World War II.

Dog trainer Cindy Ehlers first recognized the power of therapy dogs after the May 21, 1998 shooting at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. She accompanied one of the first therapy dogs to work with the Red Cross during a disaster and one of the first to be certified for crisis intervention.

After this experience, Ehlers got a Keeshond puppy that she named Tikva and trained her for crisis intervention work. She also started an organization that is now HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, in Eugene, Oregon.

On September 11, Ehlers and Tikva visited New York. Dealing with such huge waves of grief, fear, and confusion goes far beyond what is required of a therapy dog ​​visiting hospitals and nursing homes. Ehlers says she’s seen some people become too stressed out to work.


Most of the teams remained in the Family Assistance Centers, helping relatives of the dead and missing. Mental health experts at the Red Cross found that workers did not talk to human therapists and thought they might talk to dogs. Tikva, due to his training in crisis relief, has become one of the few dogs to work at Ground Zero to help responders. Her preparation for working in this environment, along with her cute appearance, rock-solid temperament, and unusual race, made her ideal for forgetting the horror, if only for a few moments.

Ehlers says this is where these four-legged therapists earned the nickname they’re now known to. “A firefighter called V-Mat [Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams] after we left and said, “Where are these comfort dogs? It’s the only thing that helps me get through the day. “

Growing need for therapy dogs

A new era for therapy dogs began on September 11, said Ursula Kempe, president of Therapy Dogs International, which she co-founded in the mid-1970s. TDI sent 100 teams to New York, where they have worked at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94 and 50 at the Pentagon. They spent about four weeks there. Kempe says most of the dogs rose to the challenge, but some couldn’t.

“As this continued, I called a meeting at TDI and asked everyone involved if they wanted to come. We all realized – there really was no dissent – we are not prepared. to that, as therapy dog ​​handlers.

TDI has tightened its criteria, requiring additional preparation for human handlers and special certification for dogs participating in disaster relief. Since then, TDI teams have helped people cope with all kinds of disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to mass shootings to acts of terrorism.

Kempe says the way the world views working dogs has come a long way, but improvements are still needed. For example, only assistance dogs can travel by plane in the cabin with their owners. Kempe tries to persuade airlines to allow disaster relief dogs to do the same. That change alone, she said, would bring many more dogs to where they’re needed. Dog handlers are reluctant to carry their canine mates in luggage.

The future of working dogs

Otto believes that the need for dogs trained for all kinds of serious work will skyrocket in the future, and that more funds, facilities, and people willing to become masters are desperately needed. Already, given everything they do, she says, “there is a dearth of dogs and funds to support them as well as research to keep them healthy and functioning optimally.”

Experts also say there is no way to predict what future needs will be and how dogs will help protect us and help people recover from a horror like the events of 15 years ago. .

“People are realizing all the different ways we can use these K-9s,” says Tosch. “We are only limited by our imagination. “


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