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The Dogs of 9/11: Their Failed Searches for Life Helped Sustain It

For more than two weeks after the twin towers collapsed on 9/11, hundreds of search and rescue dogs hunted for signs of life in the smoldering …

The Dogs of 9/11: Their Failed Searches for Life Helped Sustain It

For more than two weeks after the twin towers collapsed on 9/11, hundreds of search and rescue dogs hunted for signs of life in the smoldering ruins.

Ricky, a 17-inch-tall rat terrier, was able to squeeze into tight spaces. Trakr, a German shepherd from Canada, combed the wreckage for two days — then collapsed from smoke inhalation, exhaustion and burns. Riley, a 4-year-old golden retriever, searched deep into the debris fields and helped locate the bodies of several firefighters.

“We went there expecting to find hundreds of people trapped,” said Chris Selfridge, 54, of Johnstown, Pa., who was Riley’s handler. “But we didn’t find anybody alive.”

Riley being transported out of the debris of the World Trade Center. Credit…Mai/Getty Images

Though there were not many survivors to find amid the destruction, the devotion of the dogs to their work became an inspiring sight to emergency medical workers and to others who witnessed the urgent rescue effort. Now, as the 20th anniversary of the attacks approaches, those efforts are being memorialized in an exhibition opening on Wednesday at the American Kennel Club’s Museum of the Dog.

Titled “9/11 Remembered: Search & Rescue Dogs,” the exhibition also looks beyond the parameters of 9/11 to recognize dogs who worked at other disasters as well, not just in the United States, but around the world. The show will also include several pieces from the DOGNY project, an art initiative that features life-size sculptures of German shepherds. Roughly 100 of them were placed around New York after the attacks.

“I hope this can be a little more uplifting,” Alan Fausel, the museum’s executive director, said. “We also showcase some of the brighter sides and positive outcomes: Rex of White Way rescued a whole train of people stuck in the Sierra Nevadas in the ’50s, and we’ll talk about St. Bernards such as Barry, a very famous St. Bernard in the St. Bernard hospice in Switzerland who rescued avalanche victims.”

Paul Farinacci’s DOGNY Sculpture K-9 Ladder.Credit…New York City Fire Museum, via AKC Museum of the Dog
Ron Burns, “Otto” on exhibit in “9/11 Remembered: Search & Rescue Dogs.”Credit…Ron Burns, via AKC Museum of the Dog

The display follows up on an ongoing temporary exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in Lower Manhattan, “K-9 Courage,” which opened in January 2020, but was hardly seen because of the pandemic. That exhibit, which runs into the spring of 2022, features the photographer Charlotte Dumas’s portraits of 15 of the dogs who aided in recovery efforts at ground zero, taken for the 10-year anniversary in 2011, alongside photos of them working in the wreckage.

“You look into their eyes in their old age and can, with the help of the documentary photographs, imagine what their eyes had seen,” Alice M. Greenwald, the chief executive and president of the museum, said. “But you also know that they’ve lived lives of service and surely, there is satisfaction in that — for dogs and human beings, alike.”

Some 2,753 people were killed when the terrorist group Al Qaeda hijacked two planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center’s towers, causing them both to collapse in the span of 102 minutes.

From the exhibition “K-9 Courage,” at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Scout, left, in a portrait by Charlotte Dumas, and right, onsite, in 2001, in a photo by Andrea Booher for FEMA.  Credit…9/11 Memorial & Museum; Jin S. Lee

As an acrid dust cloud enveloped Lower Manhattan and a nation mourned, hundreds of search and rescue teams from around the country descended on ground zero to join the search for survivors, with the first dogs, from the NYPD’s K-9 urban search and rescue team, arriving at the South Tower just 15 minutes after its collapse.

The teams worked 12-hour days for an average of 10 days straight.

The New York Police Department has reported that though survivors were found in the rubble, none of those was the direct result of a dog’s discovery. Several people, though, have credited Trackr, a retired police dog, with having played a role in one rescue. His handler, a Canadian policeman who drove down from Nova Scotia, was suspended from his job for leaving without permission when his department saw him on television aiding the rescue efforts. (Jane Goodall later presented him with a humanitarian service award).

Portrait of Bretagne, left, by Charlotte Dumas, and Bretagne onsite in 2001, from the installation “K-9 Courage,” at 9/11 Memorial & Museum.Credit…9/11 Memorial & Museum; Jin S. Lee

Dr. Cynthia Otto, the director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia who looked after the dogs at ground zero, said the that, for the most part, the dogs’ injuries were only “very minor” — cuts and scrapes on their paw pads, legs and bellies, mainly, as well as fatigue and heat exhaustion. The bigger challenge, she said, was the frustration of searching for hours and not finding anyone. When the dogs began to get discouraged and lose their motivation to search, handlers had to stage “mock finds” so the dogs could feel successful.

“When they train, they don’t search for hours without finding anybody,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “You need to remind the dogs every so often that they do get to win.”

Bretagne (pronounced Brittany), a golden retriever who was then 2 years old, arrived the week after the attacks and spent 10 days searching for survivors. She slept in a kennel at the Javits Center alongside her handler, Denise Corliss, an electrical engineer from Texas who had traveled to the city with Texas Task Force 1, one of the 28 teams that form the FEMA National Urban Search and Rescue System.

Denise Corliss and her search dog, Bretagne, in Houston in 2002.Credit…D Fahleson/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press

Corliss, 56, said Bretagne, who died in 2016, was the last known living service dog to have been employed by FEMA at ground zero. She brought comfort to rescuers and firefighters, who would approach the dog and pet her. Soon, they’d open up to Corliss, sharing personal stories of the missing friends and colleagues they were searching for.

“A gentleman came up and started petting Bretagne and said, ‘You know, I don’t really like dogs,’” she said. “Which was a surprising statement considering he was kneeling down to pet her. I said ‘Oh?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, my best friend loved dogs; he had a golden retriever himself. My best friend is somewhere out there,’ and he pointed to the pile. It was a tie back to his missing friend.”

And that, Fausel said, is what the Museum of the Dog hopes to capture in its new exhibition.

“The search and rescue dogs didn’t rescue any people from the pile,” he said. “But I think they somewhat rescued the people who were searching.”

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