Hero Dogs of September 11 Remembered


“Dog Heroes of September 11: A Tribute to America’s Search and Rescue Dogs” was released in 2006. Looking back and remembering, here’s  my rewind of this story:

Chris Selfridge of Johnstown PA was outside working on his new home when his wife, who was 7-months pregnant at the time, called him inside to watch the events of September 11, 2001 unfold on TV.

“Of course, I knew that we’d be deployed by FEMA when I saw the towers come down,” he says. So with mixed feeling about leaving his wife, off he went with his search and rescue dog Riley. By the morning of September 12, Chris and Riley were among the first dog/handler teams working where the Twin Towers once stood.

Riley, a Golden Retriever is trained to find live people. Still, he did help recover several bodies of firefighters. But Riley worked desperately to find the living – that was his job.

In all, FEMA deployed around 350 dog teams to the Pentagon and to New York City, not to mention several hundred more teams who were not FEMA registered that turned up. “Dog Heroes of September 11: A Tribute to America’s Search and Rescue Dogs,” by Nona Kilgore Bauer (Kennel Club Books, Allenhurst, NJ, 2006: $22.95) is a coffee table volume which chronicles many of their stories.

Riley is one of the most familiar dogs of 9/11. The image of Riley lying on a Stokes basket strapped in with harnesses, then pulled carefully on a rope trolley high above a 60 or 70-foot deep canyon (taken by a U.S. Navy photo journalist, 1st Class Preston Keres) appeared in newspapers and on websites around the world.

This is only one of many dramatic photos in the book, each with an explanation from the dog handler as to how the photo came about.

“It would have taken at least 30 minutes to walk around that canyon with Riley,” says Selfridge, who is an assistant fire chief. “When someone thought of the idea, it just seemed like the most practical and the safest way to get Riley across the gap.

“Riley knew the people he continued to find were dead. He was never a formally trained cadaver dog. His job was to find the still living. I tried my best to tell Riley he was doing his job. He had no way to know that when firefighters and police officers came over to hug him, and for a split second you can see them crack a smile – that Riley was succeeding at doing an all together different job. He provided comfort. Or maybe he did know.”

Today, Riley, who is now 10, suffers from various skin conditions which Selfridge says are likely related to his work at Ground Zero. Riley retired in 2003. His only job today is to be best friend to Selfridge’s 5-year old son.

“Dogs are awfully resilient,” adds Selfridge. “I wish people were as resilient – there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about what we witnessed, and about the lives lost that day.”

“There were fires burning all around us,” says Tony Zintsmaster of Lebanon, IN. “We were in ankle deep gray dust, there was twisted metal and glass everywhere; smoke from the fires and continuous secondary explosions made it difficult to see, and the noises and the smells were overwhelming. People had a rough time, so did some of the dogs, but most of the dogs remained focused. It’s amazing how they were able to work. No training could prepare any person or any dog for what we witnessed.”

Tony and his wife Annette were deployed with their two German Shepherd dogs, Kaiser and Max,. They made it to Ground Zero working on September 12, after caravanning all night. Max was 6 at the time, an experienced search and rescue dog. At 2 ½-years Kaiser was a novice; 9/11 was his first assignment. “He was amazing,” says Tony. “It was chaotic, but Kaiser just went about doing his job, happier when he was working. I do believe his positive attitude helped the New York City fire fighters. They told us how therapeutic it was for them to have the dogs there.”

Kaiser suffered a deep cut on his front left leg just above the paw which did require bandaging. Still, he missed only one shift. Missing that one shift gave Tony – who was working overnights – his only chance to visit with Annette, who was working elsewhere at Ground Zero, and working the day shift. They were the only husband and wife FEMA team working as dog handlers.

Today, Annette – who works for a medical supply company – is pretty much retired from search and rescue work, as is Max. Tony, who is the operations manager for a sand and gravel company, and Kaiser have worked the Laguna Beach landslide, in Evansville, IN following a tornado, and three weeks in New Orleans post Hurricane Katrina. “I’ve learned so much following 9/11,” says Tony. “I wish we would all be better at accepting one another, including other cultures.”

Debra Tosh, of Ventura, CA is the executive director of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation. She happened to be attending a FEMA class in Washington State on 9/11. Of course, she was deployed, but it took her several days to make it back to California, and then across to the other side of the country. Abby is her other half, a Labrador retriever was then only four; this was her first FEMA deployment. “Of course, it could have been overwhelming. But instead Abby had this ‘I get to search this new playground’ attitude. “My job was to take an abnormal situation and make it as normal as possible for Abby,” says Tosh. “She did her job, and was completely focused.”

She adds, “Certainly, people were touched by (print) stories and TV accounts of the dogs. Before 9/11 were very much struggling financially. Ever since we’ve been very fortunate to receive generous donations. But now, we need more dogs, and that does, of course cost more money for training. We have more potential handlers than we have dogs. National Disaster Search Dogs are rescued, and then trained as working dogs. Learn more at www.searchdogfoundation.org.

Since 9/11 Abby has been deployed in the aftermath of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and has worked the California mudslides.

Of course, my life as has changed,” says Tosh. “I truly don’t let the little things bother me.  And I never take anything for granted. Not anymore. I don’t know if there will be a tomorrow, so I appreciate each and every day.”

When you think about it, that’s how dogs live – enjoying life day to day, without worrying about tomorrow.  

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Content Agency