Remembering the 9/11 Search and Rescue Dog Heroes 20 Years Later
Mere days after the attacks, SAR trainer Ann Wichmann (left) arrived on the scene of the World Trade Center in New York City with Jenner, her 9-year-old black Labrador retriever. The site was still burning.
"It was 12 to 15 stories high of rubble and twisted steel. My first thought was, 'I can't send Jenner into that—there's no way','' she tells Daily Paws. "They staged us at the high end near the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church so we could just kind of sit there and watch it for a while and see how it was being managed and how it might work."
When the fire chief asked if she'd be willing to have Jenner search, she said yes, but was grateful for that orientation time. "Jenner was taking in the sights, smells, and energy as much as I was."
Wichmann recalls the experience as a "compendium of emotions, thoughts, and skills" to navigate the hazards of the pile, trying to find safe pathways for Jenner. "It's really similar to a parent's panic. At one point, he disappeared down a hole under the rubble and I was like, 'uggggg!' Such a heart-stopping moment for me," she says. "But you have to acquire the patience and the trust in his being and training. And he did a safe and good job."
On September 11, 2001, the terrorist group Al Qaeda hijacked four planes in the United States. Two rammed into the World Trade Center (WTC), another into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The last, United Flight 93, crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa., after passengers who already knew about the previous incidents fought with the terrorists to bring down the plane and avoid a greater loss of life at another major target.
In an interview with the American Kennel Club, Debra Tosch, executive director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation said, “Most people in this country had never heard of disaster search dogs [before 9/11].” Extensive media coverage of the tragedy showed the determined dogs in action.
First on the Scene
The NYPD’s K-9 Urban Search and Rescue team arrived at ground zero 15 minutes after the South Tower, one of the two Twin Towers at the WTC, collapsed. Of the many heroic dogs working in multiple shifts for weeks on end, one was a German shepherd named Appollo, with handler Peter Davis. Some reports indicate K-9s on this team worked 12-hour days.
Wichmann says SAR dogs are usually trained in two major categories: trailing scent on the ground for tracking and location; and air scent, used for area search, human remains detection, avalanche, water search, diseases, and evidence search.
Wichmann, shown here with Jenner en route to the WTC’s ground zero, is a pioneer in SAR dog training. For nearly 20 years, she helped develop the teaching curriculum and national standard for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Search Canine Readiness Program (now part of the agency’s National Urban Search & Rescue Response System) and was involved in other aspects of FEMA’s canine leadership efforts.
Now 28 advanced task forces around the country include highly skilled canine responders for natural and manmade disasters. Through Jenner’s Run, Wichmann continues to train dogs and serve as an evaluator for numerous SAR organizations.
The Courage to Prevail
Wichmann says SAR dogs have to be physically competent, like an athlete, with a long lifespan. They also require what she calls “focused energy equals drive” to get the job done, even while sensing the terror all around them in emotionally complex situations. “They need courage, and the ability to deal with their own fears and insecurities and prevail in very difficult circumstances,” she says.
But nothing could have prepared the dogs or their handlers for a disaster of this magnitude, affecting thousands of lives. Before 9/11, the only disaster that came close to challenging SAR canines was the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Okla., in 1995, which killed 168 people.
Paws on the Ground
FEMA deployed 20 certified urban SAR teams to New York City, which included detection at ground zero as well as at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, N.Y., where dogs searched more than 2 million tons of debris. Another five FEMA teams worked the Pentagon site. Other SAR dog teams and police K-9 officers helped as well. Bravery appeared in all shapes and sizes.
Tenacious Ricky was a rat terrier only 17 inches tall. The Seattle Times reported that Ricky worked 10 straight nights with handler Janet Linker of the Seattle Fire Department. Trakr, a German shepherd from Canada, scoured rubble with his police officer handler James Symington. Bretagne, a 2-year-old golden retriever, joined handler and electrical engineer Denise Corliss as part of the Texas Task Force 1.
Training for Success
However, no matter how skilled the dogs were, the work was beyond grueling, and they needed to know they were on track. In addition to Jenner, Wichmann had another SAR black Lab onsite, Merlyn, who was Jenner’s 2-year-old son and handled by trainer Matt Clausen. About four days into their task, Merlyn located some human remains. Wichmann says she asked the firefighters if she could direct Jenner to the same source so he could sniff the area—then reward him for it, thus revitalizing him for the search.
“In many situations, it would be so insensitive to do that, but I explained why it works and they understood,” Wichmann says. Shortly thereafter, she sent Jenner to another pile that hadn’t been scouted yet. He disappeared briefly, then dashed back to her. “I told them ‘When you’re done here, go right up there where he just was, because he just found something.’ Apparently, it was a full-bodied firefighter.”
Reinforcing the Human-Animal Bond
“That situation really increased the trust and awareness of how much dogs help us,” Wichmann says. “One of the fire chiefs came up to me later and said, ‘The dogs are finding everything. Thank you.’ And it’s so much easier on the human rescuer to have a dog handler say, ‘My dog just found something right up there’ and now, they’re emotionally prepared to find something really awful.”
Wichmann says in a large-scale disaster such as 9/11, handlers don’t always know exactly how successful their dogs’ find rate is or the SAR recovery numbers. But she’s well-aware of the critical universal comfort they offer that sustains people at every level. “One time, a priest asked to hug my dog, and just knelt down and had a moment. This happened more often than not. Or first responders would ask to sit with us during a rest period so they could pet the dogs.”
After nearly 50 years of training, she says she’s still astounded by what dogs are capable of and amazed by what they selflessly do for us.
Resilient to the End
Cynthia M. Otto, DVM, PhD, is a professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. After her 9/11 veterinary deployment, she and other researchers have spent the past 20 years examining the wellbeing of SAR dogs and of the 9/11 responders in particular.
One study featured 95 SAR responders at 9/11, and 55 SAR professionals not part of that effort. The vast majority lived well, mentally and physically, after their service at 9/11. “These dogs have an incredible relationship with their partners,” Otto said. “They have a purpose and a job and the mental stimulation of training. My guess is that makes a difference, too.”
But some sensitive souls weren’t as fortunate. According to Fox 11, Worf, a German shepherd, found two firefighters on his first day “and was immediately retired.” Handler Mike Owens stated, "He kind of withdrew from everything. There was so much death there, it was emotional for the dogs."
More to Learn
There are many iconic images imprinted upon us from this tragedy, but one in particular stands out: this photo of Riley, a 4-year-old Golden retriever being safely transported out of the WTC wreckage and back to handler Chris Selfridge.
Even 20 years later, hundreds of stories continue to emerge of the valor displayed by these unshakable front-line responders. Fortunately, two different museum exhibits are dedicated to them to help us understand more about their contributions.
Through January 2, 2022, the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog in Manhattan features 9/11 Remembered: Search and Rescue Dogs. It showcases the history of SAR canines and their endeavors in the days and weeks following the attacks.
K-9 Courage at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Manhattan is on display through Spring 2022. Photographer Charlotte Dumas created a portrait profile of 15 dogs approximately 10 years after the tragedy, including a white-muzzled Merlyn, comfortably retired in his Colorado home, and Bretagne, who died in 2016 as the last 9/11 SAR hero. The exhibit also features photos and artifacts of working dogs and disaster response veterinary teams.
Also highlighted is Sirius, a golden lab who’s considered the only K-9 casualty of the 9/11 rescue efforts. After the South Tower collapse, his remains were later recovered in 2002 in the wreckage and ceremoniously removed with a full honor guard.
Valiant Jenner, who passed away three years after 9/11, is immortalized as well. Search and Rescue Dogs of the United States, an organization Wichmann helped found, created a "stuffie" to honor his courageous efforts not only at the WTC, but also his work as a FEMA Type I Disaster Canine, a Wilderness Search Canine, and a certified Park Ranger Service Dog.
“I’m often asked who are my greatest teachers,” Wichmann says. “And I always say my dogs.”