Friday, September 11, 2009

For 9/11: A Special Tribute to Search and Rescue Dogs

By Julia Williams

September 11, 2001 will always be remembered as the day two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center. When the Twin Towers collapsed, they created a mountainous heap of smoldering rubble that burned for months. Countless firefighters and rescue workers risked their lives to search for survivors in the Ground Zero wreckage. Among them were an estimated 250 to 300 K-9 search and rescue dogs and their handlers.

I thought it fitting that on this fateful day, we take a moment to pay tribute to the heroic efforts of these amazing canines that have helped humankind for so many years. Beyond the 9/11 disaster, search and rescue (SAR) dogs have come to our aid during hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and other calamities. Although most of the handlers maintain that their search and rescue dogs are just doing the job they were trained to do, many people – dog lovers and the general public alike – regard them as extraordinary.

Disaster response dogs are called upon to work under the most extreme conditions, in highly dangerous and often toxic environments. Most of the K-9 teams at the World Trade Center disaster site rotated on 12 hour work shifts. The SAR dogs bravely dug in the fiery rubble at Ground Zero despite getting their feet singed by white-hot debris. They courageously nosed through the noxious smoke and dust despite its potential to harm their lungs. Who among us mere mortals could withstand such an ordeal? Not I, which is why I consider these dogs to be heroes of the highest order.

Many different dog breeds are used in search and rescue operations, but they typically come from the herding, hunting or working breeds. Some of the more common SAR dogs are German Shepherds, Bloodhounds, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies and the Belgian Malinois. More important than the specific breed, however, is the dog’s disposition. Each search and rescue dog has its own unique set of skills and endurance abilities, but all are hard-working and focused on the task at hand.

I recently came across a wonderful book on this subject, titled DOG HEROES of September 11th: A Tribute to America's Search and Rescue Dogs. Written by Nona Kilgore Bauer and the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation, this oversized pictorial book is a riveting account of search and rescue work, and the dogs that play such a vital part in it. Profiles of various SAR teams show them hard at work at Ground Zero and the Pentagon, accompanied by descriptions of what they are doing. This is a very moving book, and a must-read for all dog lovers.

The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) is a non-profit organization founded in 1996 and based in Ojai, California. According to their website, their mission is to “strengthen disaster response in America by recruiting rescued dogs and partnering them with firefighters and other first responders to find people buried alive in the wreckage of disasters.” There are currently 69 SDF-trained search teams located in California, Florida, New York, Oklahoma, and Utah. SDF offers the professionally trained canines at no cost to fire departments, and they ensure lifetime care for every dog in their program. If you would like to support on-going search canine efforts, contact the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation at 888-4-K9-HERO.

In memory of 9/11, please join me as I pay homage to all the remarkable search and rescue dogs that help us when disaster strikes. These dogs provide an invaluable service that saves lives, and they deserve our utmost respect.

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. “What makes a good VA Hospital service dog”?
    I was recently asked by the owner of a frisky little puppy. “What makes a good service dog”? Having raised a dog headed for the pound, a pound puppy, a pure bread Yellow Lab and a stray, straight off the streets for this vocation, I would have to say the best service dogs for the VA seem to be the most loved and worked with. No matter where they came from. Chrissy was our first pound puppy that we started working with at the VA hospital. She was part Rottweiler and part Sheppard. She was a very happy and adventurous little girl who loved to be loved. Unfortunately, she ate some meat left out in the hills for coyotes and passed away a year later. Her sister in crime, Stitch, a pure breed yellow Lab was also one of our dogs that went everywhere with us including Disneyland, SeaWorld and several other tourist attractions. Max was the stray. He jumped into our yard to eat the dog’s food and has been with us ever sense. Max was a stray for a long time. We got him with a big rope around his neck that he had obviously chewed through to escape from his last house. Gaunt to the point every rib and bone in his back was showing, we knew we would be his last chance at a good life. It was hard with him. He had a way of fending for himself and went through all our chickens and turkeys in the first month. The sheep and horses wouldn’t put up with him and put him in his place in short order. As a service dog he has some issues still. He likes to meet people but he can only focus for so long before he gets skittish and starts looking for a way out. Riley was headed for the pound when we met. I was running a marathon in Redlands when I passed a lady who commented on how much Stitch looked just like her dog at home. I slowed down to let her meet Stitch and she was amazed at how calm she was for a three year old Lab. Her dog was also a three year old but was a terror, digging all the time and ripping up all the lawn furniture in the back. She told me that she was at her wits end and would be taking him to the pound that week. I gave her my card and told her to call me before she did that and we would come out and look at taking him home with us. Having just lost Chrissy it seemed we were destined to take on another service dog to fill the void. We got a call two days later to come look at him. After we got to the house the owner told me that he didn’t like men and that it took a month before Riley would come up to her husband. 10 minutes later, petting Riley and leading him on his leash, we left with a great new addition to our flock! If you are interested in raising a service dog, start when they are young. Socialize them constantly so they won’t be afraid of other dogs, the postal carrier or loud noises. Make time to take them with you and involve them with other family events. This is a great way to give back to your community and to the Vets who serve our Country!

  2. Hi there,

    thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting on my 9/11 SAR dog post last week. Ive been meaning to come here and read yours and Im so glad I did. What a great tribute. Funny you mention that book because I just bought it after a reader suggested it to me! Its fantastic!

    What a wonderful post and I love your blog! Ill be back to visit soon for sure, and I hope to see you again at ThoughtsFurPaws.


    jaime smith


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