“Just a Short Person with Four Legs”: Remembering FEMA-Certified K-9 Cowboy

A black-and-white shepherd dog stands on a red, rusted steel support beam at Ground Zero beneath an overcast sky.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the search and rescue dogs that responded to the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites were seen in photographs and news broadcasts across the country. While the work of these dogs has often been the focus of media attention, each individual dog that was a part of the operation had its own unique story.

FEMA handler Dave Richards of Utah Task Force 1 and his FEMA-certified K-9, Cowboy, arrived in New York City on September 16, 2001, just five days after the attacks. The pair was one of hundreds of dog and handler teams coming from across the nation to aid in a rescue and recovery operation like no other. However, Richards was confident in his dog. He described Cowboy as “eerily smart” and that he sometimes thought Cowboy didn’t realize he was a dog but “just a short person with four legs,” according to Dog Heroes of September 11th: A Tribute to America's Search and Rescue Dogs by Nona Kilgore Bauer.

Richards and Cowboy would spend the next two weeks on the pile at the World Trade Center site, combating the dangerous conditions at the World Trade Center site and searching through massive amounts of debris.

The pair had to adjust to this new, intense working environment. Cowboy experienced some initial sensory overload but quickly got right to work alongside the other recovery workers. Cowboy was able to use his expert training and skills in these unprecedented circumstances.

However, Cowboy’s time on the pile was not without challenges. After his initial episode of sensory overload, Cowboy’s training and strength would be tested. One day, Cowboy ran off the pile without receiving direction from Richards. Richards thought of two possible things that could have spooked Cowboy. Perhaps when a few workers had removed some debris from a specific area, an unfamiliar smell had startled Cowboy. Or maybe the debris pile shifted underneath them, making Cowboy feel uneasy. Whatever the reason was, Richards located Cowboy shortly after the unexpected departure and brought him to one of the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams that were on site to care for the search and rescue dogs. Cowboy received a full physical examination and was given water, along with proper rest and care.

When it came time for the pair to return to work, Cowboy was still uneasy. But with the help of other workers on the pile—like the firefighters Cowboy had come to love, and a squeaky toy—Cowboy returned to the pile and never looked back.

Richards and Cowboy completed their shift at Ground Zero on September 27. Cowboy returned to Utah with his partner and continued his career in search and rescue, assisting in various missions, even the search for kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart in 2003.

The newest exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, K-9 Courage tells the story of Cowboy and other canine heroes of 9/11.

By Meghan Kolbusch, Museum Interpretive Guide, 9/11 Memorial & Museum

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