Remembering the Four-Legged Heroes of the 9/11 Rescue and Recovery

Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, thousands of rescue workers from across America deployed to ground zero to help in the search and rescue efforts.
Photograph by Andrea Booher, FEMA

Within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks, thousands of rescue workers from across America deployed to ground zero to help in the search and rescue efforts. Joining the endeavor, were dogs specially trained in search and rescue, police work, therapy and comfort. It is estimated that more than 300 dogs took part in the search, rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero.

Search and rescue dogs (SAR) specialize in disaster response skills. Trained to search and detect the scent of living humans, their mission was to find survivors buried in the rubble.

The last living person rescued from Ground Zero 27 hours after the collapse was found by one of these search and rescue dogs. As the days went on, rescue and recovery workers soon realized the chance of finding survivors was slim, with rescue operations turning to a recovery mission and cadaver dogs, trained to find human remains, also on the scene.

Working alongside their handlers, the four-legged heroes worked tirelessly climbing huge piles of debris while fires still smoldered. The search for signs of life or human remains was mentally and physically taxing on the dogs, as the search dogs began to get discouraged and lose their drive to search. Aware of the importance of morale in these dogs and to keep their motivation high, their handlers would stage a “mock find” so the dog could feel successful.

Veterinarians were stationed at the site to help care for these dogs. Working 12-hour shifts on the pile, the dogs needed to have their paw pads, eyes and nose cleaned often. Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, and Lisa Murphy, an associate professor of toxicology and director of the Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System at the School of Veterinary Medicine's New Bolton Center were both on the ground supporting these dogs.

They recently sat down with the 9/11 Memorial & Museum Vice President of Collections and Oral History, Museum Programs Amy Weinstein to talk about their experiences taking care of these extraordinary canines at Ground Zero.

In addition to search and rescue dogs at ground zero, therapy dogs, like Nikie, provided comfort to the firemen and rescue workers who continued to work countless of hours on the pile. They were a ray of sunshine among the death and debris, even just for a minute. The heroism of these canines has been documented in books such as Dog Heroes of September 11th and on Animal Planet’s Hero Dogs of 9/11. Last June, the last known surviving search dog of 9/11, Bretagne was laid to rest.

Despite the danger and the long days and nights that these canines put their lives on the line for us, the spirit and stories of these heroic dogs live on here at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

By 9/11 Memorial Staff

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