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For days on end, for up to 12 hours a day, Bretagne, Willow, Lucy, and Sage exposed themselves to conditions that easily could have killed them. But from their perspectives, they were just doing their jobs.

Bretagne, a two-year-old Golden Retriever, Willow, a 5-year-old Labrador Retriever, and Lucy, a 10-year-old Border Collie, were among the many dogs that searched for victims after the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11, 2001. Sage, a two-year-old Border Collie, performed similar work at the Pentagon, which was attacked the same day.

“Willow and I were one of four dog teams who deployed with the Pennsylvania Task Force,” recalls Willow’s handler, Bobbie Snyder, of Williamstown, New Jersey. “We searched the rubble in 12- hour shifts until they told us we were no longer needed.”

For all of the search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs, the work was dangerous and difficult. They climbed atop shifting piles of rubble. They sniffed deeply on the ground where toxic substances released from destroyed buildings were most highly concentrated. They allowed themselves to be lowered on swinging platforms to areas where human searchers couldn’t go. All the while, they labored in an environment full of ash and smoke.

“It was hot, dangerous, and very dirty,” Snyder recalls.

“But that is our job and we did the best we could.”

The dogs also labored surrounded by extremely stressed human beings. Often, they found themselves taking on a second role, that of canine therapist. Denise Corliss, of Cypress, Texas, remembers how her canine partner interacted with the other rescuers. “Many of the rescuers I met on location would stop by to see Bretagne,” Corliss recalls. “While petting her [they] would tell me their stories about the loved ones who were missing. The stories were heartbreaking.”

Permanent Damage?

These dangerous, stressful conditions troubled Cynthia Otto, a veterinarian who was working at the WTC site and who had encountered dogs like Bretagne, Lucy, Sage, and Willow in the past. “I have been committed to providing medical support for these dogs to make the invaluable work that they perform as safe and effective as possible.” says Otto, who is associate professor of critical care at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

After the attacks, Otto resolved to monitor the SAR dogs deployed to the attack sites to determine whether exposure to so many toxic substances would affect their long-term health- and, perhaps, gather clues as to how human health has been or will be affected. In the five years after 9/11, Otto and other investigators with support from pet-care companies and groups such as the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (AKC/CHF), did just that.

Otto was the principal investigator in the AKC/CHF-funded study in which she assessed dogs deployed to the World Trade Center, the nearby Fresh Kills Landfill (where some remains of the WTC victims were found), and the Pentagon. For comparison purposes, Otto also assessed SAR dogs that were not deployed to any of the three sites.

The study, which received corporate funding from the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI), and the Petco Foundation, required the handlers of all participating dogs to complete questionnaires that gathered detailed information on the dog’s health care and medical histories. The handlers of deployed dogs also responded to questions about their dogs’ pre-deployment training, the lengths of their work shifts and rest periods, the number of finds they made, and their behavior both before and after their work at the attack sites. Many handlers periodically submitted samples of their dogs’ blood for analysis and allowed their dogs to be X-rayed. The study initially concluded in 2004, but was extended for two more years.

A much smaller group of dogs participated in a study co-sponsored by the AKC/CHF and the Iams Company. From 2002 to 2006, these dogs underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to pinpoint possible early signs of cancer and other health problems that could have resulted from exposure to the hazardous materials, dust, and soot from the damaged or destroyed buildings. Iams provided the MRI services at its Pet Imaging Centers in Vienna, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Redwood City, California.

Still another study was conducted by the Caspary Institute of the Animal Medical Center in New York City. That study, led by veterinarian Philip R. Fox and sponsored by AKC/CHF, VPI, the Petco Foundation, and Nestle՜ Purina, focusing on injuries and environmental hazards faced by the SAR and bomb-detection dogs of the New York City Police Department after the WTC attacks.

So Far, So Good

After four years of monitoring, the AKC/CHF-Iams study uncovered no signs of respiratory or nasal cancer in the 12 dogs studied, even though they received intense exposure to carcinogens and other toxic substances.

Bretagne, then 7, was one of the dogs being studied. “Bretagne had a series of health checks performed, and then we flew up [ to Raleigh] for the MRI.” recalls Corliss. “She had shown no health problems, thank God.”

Five years of monitoring by Otto and her team yielded similar results. “We have not observed a significant difference in the incidence or nature of morbidity and mortality between the deployed dogs,” she says. Although the dogs did show some changes in blood values and evidence of exposure to toxins in the year that immediately followed the attacks, those changes — which were still within normal limits — resolved within two years.

Still, Otto takes nothing for granted. “Long-term effects could still manifest themselves as the dogs continue to age,” she points out. “So it is important that we remain vigilant as we monitor the health of these canines.” 

Not all of the dogs that began participating in Otto’s study in 2002 were still around in 2006. By 2006, 55 of the original 97 deployed dogs and 37 of the original 55 control dogs were still alive. Otto says that the difference in the overall mortality rates between the deployed dogs and control dogs is not statistically significant.

“Willow has had her yearly blood work and X-rays done.” Snyder reported in 2006. “She is in great shape for a 10-year-old Lab. Willow has not suffered any problems from the World Trade Center and neither have I.”

The same was true of Sage, who worked at the Pentagon. At 7, Sage continued to perform SAR work, most notably in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Her handler, Diane Whetsel, of Carlsbad, New Mexico, said: “She has served long and well. I am very proud of her and what she has done.”

Lucy, age 15 in 2006, was already enjoying her retirement, according to handler Lynne Englebert, of Saratoga, California. Years of Frisbee playing and SAR work wreaked havoc with the dog’s hips, and age diminished her sight and hearing. But “her nose works perfectly,” Englebert says. “For her 15th birthday party, she got to do a little search, a little tugging, and lots of fun with her friends.”

“She deserves her retirement. She has been an awesome search dog, and now she gets to do whatever she wants. …[She] hasn’t changed her attitude. She’s still the dominant bitch she always has been – and I love her for it.”

Originally published in the September 2006 issue of the AKC Gazette.

Related article: How a Plea for Veterinary Equipment at Ground Zero Sparked DOGNY
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