Remembering the Dog Heroes of September 11


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Cowards were responsible for the unprovoked attacks on America on September 11, 2001. Heroes responded to those attacks. Among the heroes, at least 400 search-and-rescue dogs and their human handlers, who worked onsite at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania, where United Airlines flight 93 crashed. Those heroes with four legs are now gone. Hopefully, they won’t be forgotten – more importantly those people who perished in the most horrific terrorist attack in America’s history.

In 2011, Author Nona Kilgore Bauer told me, “I wanted to do as much as I could to honor these dogs and their handlers; I wanted to ensure Americans remembers their role.” On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a special edition of Kilgore Bauer’s book, Dog Heroes of September 11th (Kennel Club Books, Allenhurst, NJ; $26.95) was made available, including a foreword by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The coffee table book features dozens of photos, some published for the first time. Two images stand out—the pair most often associated with Ground Zero. The first is a shot of three New York City firefighters raising the American flag amid the rubble. The second shows Chris Selfridge’s late Golden Retriever, Riley, lying in a Stokes basket (a basket stretcher typically used to rescue people) strapped in with harnesses, and pulled by a rope trolley system high above one of the deep canyons at Ground Zero.

“Riley wasn’t injured,” recalled Selfridge, of the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue team deployed from Johnstown. “It was just quicker and safer to get him down [to street level] that way, where it took me about 30 minutes to walk to ground level from the huge piles of debris.”

Selfridge said U.S. Navy Photojournalist First Class Preston Keres happened to be there and snapped the indelible photo.

Not all dogs emerged unscathed from the disaster.

Tony Zintsmaster and Kaiser

Tony and Annette Zintsmaster were deployed to Ground Zero with their two German Shepherds, Kaiser and Max. They were the only husband-and-wife FEMA team working as dog handlers, and were deployed from Indianapolis, IN. One of their Shepherds, Kaiser, suffered a deep cut on his front leg that required medical attention. Still, he missed only one shift.

Tony recalled a moment of drama when Max alerted that he had found someone alive on the edge of an opening. He did locate someone very much alive—a firefighter from a previous shift who was still on duty.

“The firefighter understood, and played along as if Max had really found someone,” said Tony. “Well, I suppose he did find someone.”

Sadly, no dogs found living survivors at Ground Zero, but they served several unexpected functions. While none of the deployed dogs were trained as animal assisted-therapy dogs, they helped boost the spirits of firefighters, police officers, and many others on the scene, and also they served as comfort dogs. The term comfort dog was a description that made sense to me, and I offered in stories I wrote for now defunct Dog World magazine and my then national newspaper column, likely I the first to use that term.

“Kaiser was clearly a social butterfly. Many rescuers stopped Kaiser, began to pet him, and give him hugs,” Tony recalled. “The dogs really did offer something in a way that people couldn’t.”

Shirley Hammond and Sunny (Photo by Andrea Booher/ FEMA News Photo)

The majority of dogs on the scene were trained to find survivors, including a Doberman. now passed on, named Sunny. Shirley Hammond, of Palo Alto, California, said Sunny was trained to bark at live finds. But when Sunny began to signal by pawing at the ground, it was quickly evident that he was finding body parts.

Sunny was trained at a facility where cadaver dogs are trained. Hammond said that she believed this previous exposure to cadaver scent, however minimal, had somehow stuck with him. And Sunny wasn’t the only one; other dogs with little or no training in cadaver work began to find body parts. Most of these body parts wouldn’t have been recognizable or recoverable if the search had been left to people working without dogs, Hammond noted.

On one occasion, Sunny pawed at the ground in several spots in an area where a New York City Fire Department battalion chief had requested a search. Sunny found remains of a lost firefighter. As devastated as family members were, finding remains provided closure.

Chris Christensen and Servus

Chris Christensen, a St. Louis area police officer, who had arrived on the scene before any of the FEMA dogs with his search and rescue dog Sevus, a Belgian Malinois. His story is breathtaking.

On a trip to New York City, Selfridge happened to be walking by a fire station when he was recognized. The firefighters “all asked about Riley,” he recalled. “Then they took me inside the station and showed me two framed photos, one was of the firefighters raising the U.S. flag, and the other showed Riley in the Stokes basket.”

Kilgore Bauer said, “These are images I hope we never forget. I wrote this book because when most of us think of service to our country and the many heroes following September 11, we should include these dogs and their handlers.”

Tony Zintsmaster added, “It’s just something we did, and if we made some difference, I’m glad.”

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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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