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

On first glance, this picture, from 2012, is one of unbearable sweetness. Two Golden Retrievers are standing together, one with a gray muzzle, the other a puppy, both wearing vests signifying that they are working dogs.

The older dog is Bretagne, one of the heroes of Ground Zero. Nearly 20 years after the event, she was still making headlines. In August 2015, media carried the story of a happy occasion—her 16th birthday, in which she and her handler Denise Corliss, members of Texas Task Force 1, were feted in New York City. In June 2016, sadder headlines told of her death, just shy of the great old age of 17.

The puppy in the picture is also Bretagne, named in honor of the 9/11 sniffing celebrity. She is one small part of the legacy of Bretagne and all the other dogs who helped through those dark days, whether they were searching the ruins or easing unimaginable grief.

Young Bretagne, trained to detect blood sugar fluctuations in a diabetic patient, is a graduate of 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 9/11

Otto says that the work of the dogs in that terrible time made her facility possible.

Sniffer dogs had been around for decades, but the public had little understanding of what they could do. “There was some sense that they might be able to find a lost Boy Scout in the woods but nothing 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],” says Otto.

Media coverage of 9/11 focused on the dogs as the one “ray of sunshine” in a bleak landscape, she says.


Images of these dogs working tirelessly, doing whatever was needed to get the job done, captured hearts and minds all over the world. Photos, such as the iconic one of Golden Retriever Riley of FEMA’s Pennsylvania Task Force 1, moved people to action.

Otto says that many dog owners were inspired to pursue search-and-rescue certification because of those images.

The performance of the dogs on 9/11 also sparked serious study of the effects of this kind of work on canine bodies and minds, Otto says. “We were able to conduct our longitudinal study of the dogs as a result of the generous funding of the AKC Canine Health Foundation.”

Press coverage, she says, also gave some search-dog training organizations a much-needed financial boost.

Super Noses?

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

After her first deployment—the Oklahoma City bombing, in 1995—Melville recognized a need for more dogs specifically trained for this kind of work and founded the NSDF. The organization scours shelters, looking for dogs with search and rescue potential, and prepares them for jobs with fire departments. The training costs about $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 NSDF Executive Director Debra Tosch. When the news media started focusing on the dogs at Ground Zero, she says, “public knowledge really exploded.”

Tosch, and her SDF-trained black Labrador Retriever, Abby, were among the FEMA-certified canine search specialists, part of California Task Force 1, at the World Trade Center.


About 300 search teams, she estimated, responded. Only about 100 were prepared for a disaster of monstrous proportions in a major city. Many were wilderness search and rescue dogs, experts at finding people missing in the woods. They could not cope with the enormous mound of twisted metal, glass, and smoldering rubble and the urban noises.

Tosch says that some television coverage listed NSDF’s phone number. Donations started to pour in. “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, slated to open on September 24—a reality. It’s designed to give canine candidates the opportunity to practice on a variety of simulated disaster sites.

Soothing Souls

The notion that dogs have the power to ease human emotional suffering is not new. Anyone who’s cried in the presence of a canine companion knows that. Smoky, a 4-pound Yorkshire Terrier, is credited with being the first therapy dog, cheering 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 Thurston High School shooting, in Springfield, Oregon on May 21, 1998. She accompanied one of the first therapy dogs to work with the Red Cross in a disaster and was one of the first to be certified for crisis response.

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

On 9/11, Ehlers and Tikva traveled to New York. Dealing with such enormous waves of grief, fear, and confusion goes way beyond what is required of a therapy dog who visits hospitals and nursing homes. Ehlers says she saw some become too stressed to work.


Most teams stayed at the Family Assistance Centers, helping the relatives of the dead and missing. Red Cross mental-health experts saw that workers were not talking to the human therapists, and thought maybe they would talk to the dogs. Tikva, because of her crisis-relief training, became one of the few dogs who worked at Ground Zero helping the responders. Her preparation for working in this environment, as well as her cute looks, rock-solid temperament, and unusual breed, made her ideal for taking minds off the horror, if just for a few moments.

Ehlers says that that was where these four-legged therapists earned the sobriquet that they are known by now. “A firefighter called up V-Mat [Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams] after we left and said, ‘Where are those comfort dogs? They’re the only thing that helps me get through the day.’ ”

Growing Need For Therapy Dogs

A new era for therapy dogs opened on 9/11, says Ursula Kempe, president of Therapy Dogs International, which she co-founded in the mid-1970s. TDI sent 100 teams to New York, where they worked at the Family Assistance Center on Pier 94 and 50 at the Pentagon. They spent about four weeks there. Kempe says that most of the dogs rose to the challenge, but some could not handle it.

“While this was still going on, I called a meeting at TDI and asked everyone who was involved if they wanted to come. We all realized—really there was absolutely no dissention—we are not prepared for that, as therapy-dog handlers.”

TDI tightened its criteria, requiring additional preparation for the 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 service dogs can travel by plane in the cabin with their owners. Kempe is trying to persuade airlines to allow disaster-relief comfort dogs to do the same. This one change, she says, would bring many more dogs to places where they are needed. Handlers are reluctant to transport their canine partners in baggage.

Riley the Golden Retriever assisted in the 9/11 search and rescue efforts. He was trained to find live people and helped recover several bodies of firefighters.

The Future of Working Dogs

Otto believes that the need for dogs trained for all kinds of serious work is going to soar in the future, and more funding, facilities, and people willing to become handlers are desperately needed. Already, given all that they do, she says, “there is a shortage of dogs and funds to support them as well as the research to keep them healthy and performing optimally.”

The experts also say that there is no way to predict what the future needs will be and how dogs will contribute to keeping us safe and helping people recover from a horror like the events of 20 years ago.

“People are realizing all of the different ways we can use these K-9s,” Tosch says. “We’re only limited by our imagination.”
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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