"The Canine-Human Bond: The Rescue Dogs of 9/11."

Updated: Aug 26

Years After 9/11: “We Still Need a Dog Over Here!”

Originally published in slightly different form on September 7, 2011 at PsychologyToday.com.

The Dogs of 9/11

It was about ten minutes before 9 A.M. I was sitting in the kitchen of my apartment on Second Avenue and 69th Street—finishing my breakfast and watching the local morning news—when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. My Dalmatian Freddie was sound asleep, God bless him.

Mike Sheehan, an old-style political reporter for Fox 5 New York, was stationed downtown, covering the mayoral election being held that Tuesday. Suddenly a loud explosion came from behind him.

The cameraman quickly panned over to the World Trade Center, partially visible in the background. After a few tense moments, Sheehan, who didn’t know what happened, but who was clearly shaken, threw it back to the newsroom.

After a break, the Fox 5 anchors came back with the news: a commuter jet had apparently “lost its bearing,” and accidentally crashed into one of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center.

My first thought was that it hadn’t been an accident, that the same terrorists who’d tried to blow up the World Trade Center with a truck bomb in 1992 were back with their idiotic “Three Stooges act.”

I took Freddie out to meet some of his doggie pals for our morning play session, and when I got a few blocks away, I noticed that the traffic on Second Avenue had jammed to a standstill. Police sirens were useless at getting the cars moving, so the cops were driving up on the sidewalks.

“Wow,” I thought. “They must be taking this pretty seriously.”

Then I learned from a passerby that the other tower had now been hit, and not by commuter jets but by big commercial airliners, and that the Pentagon had also been hit by a jetliner.


I took the dogs to the park, and as we played my mind went back to the morning’s events. I figured that a couple of the floors of the World Trade Center might’ve been damaged, and that some people in those offices may have been injured, but that it would all be cleaned up pretty quickly.

On the way back I saw dozens of people gathering around a nail salon, with a television mounted on the back wall. The images on the screen showed the slow-motion collapse of one of the towers. My knees buckled, and I finally felt the seriousness of what had happened.

Like most of us, I was glued to the TV for the rest of the day. Finally, at about 6 in the evening, I took Freddie out for his evening walk.

We saw two long, very long lines of people—many of them covered in a coating of gray dust—walking almost single file, plodding along, all headed uptown. The city’s subway trains and buses were out of service; so were the taxi-cabs. These poor souls had had to walk all the way from the lowest reaches of Manhattan to the Upper East Side, Harlem, and beyond. They seemed to either be in shock, or just dead tired, or both.

That’s my personal recollection of 9/11/2001.

Then came the rescue efforts, the media coverage, endless footage of the dust clouds, fiery slo-mo plane crashes, the constant news reports, etc.

About three weeks later, most of the 350+ search-and-rescue dogs who’d been working at Ground Zero were sent home. As one press release put it: The mettle shown by these dogs and their human halves has affected the world in a way that should not be underestimated.

My area of expertise is solving behavioral problems in pet dogs. So I have no first-hand knowledge of the hard work and sacrifice those dogs put in at Ground Zero. But here are some heartfelt comments made by some of the people who did work with those amazing animals.

“There is nothing that can replace the precision of a dog’s nose—and absolutely nothing that can replace the steadfast nature of a dog’s heart.”—Bob Sessions, FEMA rescue worker

“The site is very difficult for the dogs. They’re crawling on their bellies and squeezing through things. It’s incredible to watch.”—Sharon Gattas, Riverside Urban Search and Rescue

“They will search endlessly for that scent until they are called off.”—Lori Mohr, National Disaster Search Dog Foundation

“All they really want to do is work hard and love you. How can that not raise the human spirit in us all?”—Gerald Lauber, Suffolk County SPCA

“Some rescue workers couldn’t take it anymore. They asked to play fetch with Thunder. But then they’d sneak off in a corner to just be with Thunder, or maybe to talk with him.”—Bob Sessions, FEMA

“They may not cry to their fellow firemen or police, but somehow they open up to the dogs.”—Laura LoPresti, Monroe, MO

“These dogs have been trained to pick up on people they perceive as being in a state of trauma. So they’ve been visiting a lot of firemen, police, and cleanup detail.”—Anonymous

“He kind of withdrew from everything,” said Mike Owens, Southwestern Ohio K-9 Search and Rescue, speaking about his partner Whorf (below).”There was so much death there, it was emotional for the dogs.”

“Whorf” located the bodies of two missing firefighters on the first day. Overwhelmed, he lay down and curled up on the spot. He began shedding profusely, quit eating and refused to play with other dogs.

“Morale is important... So we set up a scenario that the dog can win at. We used a New York firefighter. He 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

“The dog seeks a live person in hopes the survivor will play with him. If he’s not finding a live person, there is no one to play with. So when I get home at night, I send my 12-year-old son to hide in the woods. Then Jax finds him and they play tug of war with a towel.”—Tom Fahy

“He was a great, big guy, and he was just bawling. He was crying like a baby. He couldn’t talk, but he mouthed the words: ‘Thank you,’ and ‘thank the dog.’“—Louis Wardoup, volunteer, describing how his dog Insee unearthed the hand of a firefighter buried under the rubble.

“One of the things, the handler told us, that really yanked on his emotions was the gift he and his dog Ranger received from a child. The gift was a small ziplock bag with two dog biscuits and two Hershey kisses inside, with a note printed by the child that said, ‘Lassie would be so proud of you.’“—Terri Crisp, Director, Emergency Animal Rescue Service

New Yorkers felt an emotional bond with one another after the attacks. In fact, all Americans, and even people from countries around the world felt that connection. “We are all New Yorkers now” was a phrase often heard.

Many people were also traumatized by these events. Some sought counseling, others turned to drugs and alcohol or began overindulging in “comfort foods.” As Laura LoPresti, one of the people quoted above says, “Just petting a dog provides comfort to those who need it.”

Not surprisingly, dog ownership began to increase in the years following 9/11, so much so that some in the industry have called it an “explosion.” That’s because dogs may not know much about international politics or man’s inhumanity to man. But they do know how to guard us, protect us, make us smile, and comfort us with their presence and their wagging tails.

“We need a dog over here!”—call for help often heard at the WTC site.

Ten years later and some of us still need a dog over here.


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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