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The dogs and handlers who contributed to rescue and recovery on Sept. 11 remain national heroes. While we may know about these amazing humans, some of their canine partners’ stories may not be as well-known. Here are true tales of several heroic 9/11 dogs.

Apollo the German Shepherd Dog: the First SAR Dog on the Scene

On Sept. 11, 2001, the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s German Shepherd Dog Apollo was due to receive an award: the 2001 ACE Award for Canine Excellence in the Uniformed Service K-9 department. Instead, he and his human partner, Officer Peter Davis, were called into action.

“We got there right after the buildings collapsed,” Davis says. “To get to the rubble, we had to go through almost waist-deep water. All of a sudden he disappeared, fell into a hole. Then this big fireball comes up and he comes running out. He was on fire. I brushed off the burning embers and he went right back to searching.”

At age 9, when many police dogs have already retired, Apollo was working in the pile of debris. His thick coat singed by red-hot metal, his paws cracked and bruised by jagged concrete, Apollo kept working in the rubble, searching in vain for the living.

Peter Davis

When Davis had to accept that even Apollo would not find survivors, he had to literally pull the dog away from the debris. Some AKC staffers were invited to observe K-9 Officer Davis and Apollo search the rubble. To those witnesses, Apollo’s work at the World Trade Center site was his defining moment.

Apollo, who lived until age 14, was the first police K-9 to respond at Ground Zero on 9/11. By that time, though, he was already well-known to police-dog handlers nationwide. After learning his canine partner, Ordi, was a 2003 ACE winner, Missouri handler Tom Otten said that he couldn’t believe Ordi “won the same award as a legendary dog like Apollo.” Dan Donadio, commander of NYPD’s K-9 unit in 2001, regularly called Apollo “my leader of the pack.”

Cara the Beauceron: the Camera-Wearing Search Dog

Mike Forsythe, an engineering manager for a parachute manufacturer, and his Beauceron, Cara, deployed with Florida Task Force 2. They arrived at arriving at the WTC site on Sept. 17. Cara wore a camera so that when she entered Ground Zero, people could see into the rubble through the device.

“The first three days we tested a remote camera system,” says Forsythe. “The issue was how to attach it to the dog. At first, they had this whole sick harness. I said, ‘No way! If she gets hung up on a piece of rebar or something, I’ve got a dead dog.’ So then they came back with a Velcro harness that she could pull away from. I said, ‘If she gets hung up, then your camera system’s gone.’”

Forsythe put her over his shoulders and climbed the ladder into the rubble, then put Cara inside. “She weaved in and out and I hollered commands into her. I could see where she was on a small video screen on my wrist. They had another larger one with a videotape recorder on the ground so all the chiefs and everyone could see what I saw.”

Mike Forsythe

By 2006, Cara did therapy work in nursing homes. The Forestry Service and NASAR (National Association for Search and Rescue) used her in classes where they taught kids how to take care of themselves if they got lost, and how to behave if a SAR dog found them. “Cara would roam around and give the kids kisses,” Forsythe says.

“Cara loves skydiving. She’s such a daredevil. Our first jump together was in 2000. To date, I’ve done 67 jumps with her. On Saturday, Aug. 7, 2004, we did 30,100 feet.” At that time, they set a world record for the highest human-dog parachute deployment.

“Since then, I’ve developed a system for military special forces to be able to jump with dogs. We’ve had several hundred dogs go through this course — close to 1000 jobs — and never a single injury. To me, that’s what’s important.”

Morgan the English Springer Spaniel: a Mighty Cadaver Dog

Katrene Johnson and her English Springer Spaniel, Morgan, were members of the West Jersey K-9 Search and Rescue Unit. Johnson has participated in many searches, including after Sept. 11 and during Hurricane Katrina.

“After the World Trade Center disaster, Bruce Barton (the K-9 units coordinator) called me looking for cadaver dogs for the Fresh Kills site,” she says.”The Hill was a quarter-mile square and noisy with trucks coming and going, hauling debris. Massive front-end loaders spread it out so we could search through it.”

Morgan’s sensitive nose combed through the gray silt-covered rubble as she searched for the scent of people. She had to climb twisted metal shards and jump concrete boulders that had once been buildings. Meanwhile, investigators looked for anything that could identify victims who had been in the WTC.

Katrene Johnson

“Morgan is an air-scenting dog, and our job was to search for human remains,” Johnson says. “Investigators looked for personal items like watches, wallets, or pictures. One investigator found a half-eaten sandwich … It was tough on everyone and it helped us to have the dogs there during breaks.” She adds, “The dogs would be resting, sense something, and go to a person. Petting the dog, the person would start talking, usually about the dog. It helped.”

In October 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) called for SAR dogs to help search for missing persons in Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Morgan and Johnson headed south. “Counties wanted to account for everyone,” Johnson says. “A 40-foot tidal wave had covered the area, lifting houses 30 feet into the air. We could see where the tops of pine trees were broken as houses had moved over them. Our job was the search the debris area — from where the house stood, to where parts of it landed — looking for human remains.”

“English Springers make fine SAR dogs because they have a lot of hunting instincts and desire to work with a human being,” she says. “They are moderate-sized dogs with sound conformation and have great noses, biddability, nice structure, and wonderful temperaments.”

Sage the Border Collie: From the Pentagon to Iraq

As a 2-year-old Border Collie, Sage and her equally tireless handler, Diane Whetsel of Roswell, New Mexico, worked the Pentagon attack site. This job was Sage’s first but not last high-profile assignment.

In 2005, Whetsel and Sage were in Louisiana, rescuing animals stranded by flooding after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. They deployed to Iraq in 2007 to search for U.S. soldiers captured or killed by insurgents. Sage is certified at the highest level recognized by FEMA. Perhaps only 50 dogs nationwide hold this designation. “They’re the Navy SEALs of search dogs,” Whetsel states.

Sage then went on to become part of the University of Pennsylvania’s long-term study, funded in part by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, examining the health of 9/11 dogs who worked these sites. The objective was to help better diagnose and treat illnesses associated with K-9 deployment to toxic areas in the future, and to hopefully produce information about health issues in human rescuers.

Diane Whetsel

Once a year, the veterinary team at Penn analyzed Sage’s blood work and X-rays. In 2009, says Whetsel, “The radiologist found a tumor down deep between her lungs, and that’s how we found out. I guess you can say 9/11 saved her life.”

Sage received the ACE Award for Canine Excellence in the Search and Rescue category in 2009. She passed away in August of 2012. But her legacy lives on through the Sage Foundation, which Whetsel founded to support working K-9s injured in the line of duty. “She is like a one-in-a-million dog,” Whetsel says. “I will never have one like her again.”

Satchmo the Giant Schnauzer: SAR Stand-Out

Arene Diamante and her Giant Schnauzer, Satchmo, deployed with Florida Task Force 1. “Our first day at Ground Zero was Sept. 20,” she says. “By then, everyone knew it had turned into a recovery mission but nobody wanted to admit it.

“Near the end of the shift, we were preparing to leave when one of the firefighters on our team came up to us. He said they (the New York firefighters) needed a cadaver dog. Two firemen had been in their ladder truck across the street from the towers when the South Tower came down and were buried in the rubble. … We went with ‘Satch.’ He’s cross-trained. … It took him about 15 minutes and then he gave his cadaver alert, which is to sit and stare at me. I marked the spot with a flag and told everyone.

“Satch caused a lot of attention at Ground Zero because people were used to the Labs and German Shepherds. Everybody thought he was an Irish WolfhoundWe got home on a Thursday afternoon. Satchmo slept for two days.”

Arene Diamante

After 9/11, the team continued their SAR work while working toward AKC titles. “I retired him in November 2002 by letting his (National Urban Search & Rescue) certification run out,” Diamante says. “He was an 8-year-old Giant Schnauzer. I didn’t want to put him through the stress of urban search and rescue. He still needed a job — but just not a stressful one.”

Satchmo already had his Tracking Dog, Companion Dog, and Novice Agility titles. He achieved his Versatile Companion Dog (VCD1) title in 2003 and his VCD2 in 2004. In 2005, he achieved a Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX) title and his AKC Rally Advanced (RA) title. 

Gunner the Rottweiler: SAR & Therapy Dog

John Randall, of Choctaw, Oklahoma, is a combat-wounded U.S. Army veteran and a retired propulsion engineer. He has owned and trained Rottweilers since 1977. Shortly after 9/11, he and his SAR-certified Rottweiler Gunner were deployed to New York, arriving on Sept. 17.

“The first time we went through the barricades down to Ground Zero, I was flabbergasted by the magnitude of the devastation. But Gunner took to it great. He knew it was time to go to work. … Gunner — he also worked as a therapy dog — would go through his whole repertoire of tricks for the rescue workers, everything from high-fiving to sneezing on command. A favorite with the firefighters was when I’d ask him, ‘What do you do in a fire, Gunner?’ and he’d stop, drop, and roll over. They’d all just start laughing.”

John Randall

Gunner died in 2005 of inflammatory bowel disease. “I was most proud of Gunner for epitomizing what our breed is supposed to be,” Randall says. “His dedication to work, his loyalty, and the fact that he could be serious when it was time to work but that he was a comedian when he knew you needed to laugh. … He was my hero.”

Louie the Boxer: the Only SAR Boxer at Ground Zero

Louie, who came from a line of working dogs, was the only Boxer to do SAR work at the World Trade Center after 9/11. At first, his owner Michele Verdell only intended to do obedience with him, but eventually, he became the first dog she trained for SAR.

Michele Verdell

“I think Boxer people were very proud of the fact Louie was a Search and Rescue dog during 9/11,” writes Louie’s breeder, Kate Schoyer. “I know I sure was when Michele called me and said she was going to NYC with Louie to help. It was such an emotional time for every one of us in the USA and in every country around the world who felt our pain, too.” Louie and Michele were honored on the cover of the November/December edition of “Boxer Review.”

Sunny the Doberman Pinscher: a Live-Find-Turned-Cadaver Dog

Shirley Hammond is a retired registered nurse who’s logged close to 30 years in SAR. As of 2006, she had spent nearly 40 years owning and training Doberman Pinschers. She and Doberman Pinscher Sunny deployed with California Task Force 3 out of Menlo Park to New York from Sept. 19 to 30.

“They had me come over to search an area where they had just finished cutting a whole bunch of metal — they were looking for one of their own. Their battalion chief had actually called for a cadaver dog,” recalls Hammond. “And when I got there, he said, ‘Is this a cadaver dog?’ and I said, ‘No, this is a live-find dog.’ He was not pleased.

“So then he said, ‘Well, since you’re here, why don’t you run your dog over this area and see what you can find?’ Sunny searched the area and he kept going back to this one spot where the rescue folks had been cutting the metal. I knew he was working scent but I thought that he was working the residual scent from the live workers.

Shirley Hammond

“So I called Sunny to come and he started to me — and then he turned around and he went back over to this place and started pawing the ground. Then he turned and looked at me,” she says. “And this battalion chief said, ‘Well, what’s your dog doing?’ And I just said, ‘I think you need to investigate that spot. He’s not a cadaver dog but he’s telling us there’s something there.’ Then later that day, a couple of us were going to lunch … when one of the firefighters came up and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, ‘Sunny was right. We got our brother.’”

Sunny died of cancer in November 2003, says Hammond. “He had a good life span — 11 years — and he was a happy boy. He loved to pull your leg and do funny little things. And he enjoyed training. You’d be driving down the street and you’d see a rubble pile. And he’d start whining — ‘Oh, let’s go play, Mom. There might be somebody hiding there for me.’ He loved that game of finding somebody.”

Related article: Dogs in Demand for Explosives Detection Work in U.S.
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