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Hero Dogs Of 9/11: Remembered More Than 20 Years On

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By Nicole Cosgrove

flag and flower at the 911 memorial

Roughly 300 canine task force members responded alongside over 10,000 emergency rescue workers to the 9/11 attacks. Trained in rescue and therapy, these dogs endured the physical and mental burden of the precarious, smoldering ruins and transitioned from search-and-rescue to recovery to emotional support.

Under harsh, unfamiliar circumstances, the work was as grueling for the dogs as it was meaningful for those needing comfort and care. The hero dogs of 9/11 redefined the paradigm for future generations of service and search-and-rescue dogs. As the effort they put forth continues making an impact, it’s appropriate to reflect on their stories and sacrifices.

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Top 10 Hero Dogs Of 9/11

1. Appollo (German Shepherd)

Appollo was part of the NYPD K-9 unit and the first dog at Ground Zero. Arriving within 15 minutes after the attacks, the 9-year-old German Shepherd and his partner, Officer Peter Davis, waded through waist-deep water to reach the site. The soaking-wet Appollo almost immediately fell into a hole, only to burst out amid a raging fireball, forcing Davis to tamp out burning embers on his fur.

Despite the immediate threats, Appollo was undeterred. For weeks, he put in 18-hour days until his handler had to physically restrain him from rushing into the pile to continue his search.

His story of heart and hope made Appollo the ultimate symbol of the canine presence. He later earned the AKC’s Award for Canine Excellence. Representing all 9/11 search-and-rescue dogs, he also received the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, considered the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross given for acts of bravery and devotion.


2. Trakr (German Shepherd)

Trakr was a police dog from Halifax, Nova Scotia, trained in contraband detection. Though they never received an official call for aid on 9/11, he and his handler, James Symington, made the 15-hour journey to help with the recovery effort.

Although Trakr suffered from smoke inhalation, exhaustion, and, later, neurological disorders from his time at Ground Zero, his work was among the most impactful of all rescue dogs over the 2 weeks following the attacks.

On September 12th, Trakr discovered Genelle Guzman, a Port Authority employee, alive under the North Tower. Genelle had reached the 13th floor during the evacuation when the 97 floors overhead collapsed on her. For 27 hours, she remained pinned and unable to talk or move, and it was only Trakr’s keen nose and determination that allowed rescuers to find her. She was the last of the 20 survivors to emerge from the rubble.


3. Bretagne (Golden Retriever)

Bretagne was only 2 years old when she made the 1,600-mile journey from Houston to New York City to help in the rescue effort following the 9/11 attacks. Embarking with her handler, Denise Corliss, on Texas Task Force 1, the Golden Retriever was new to search-and-rescue but quickly left her mark as an enduring symbol of the dogs’ invaluable work.

Bretagne would respond to numerous other disasters in the ensuing years, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In retirement, she didn’t stop impacting communities. She served as a reading assistance dog for school children and helped train other search-and-rescue dogs.

As the last of the 9/11 dogs to pass away, Bretagne remained a faithful servant to communities across the country from her earliest years to her death in 2016. In 2017, her hometown community in Cypress erected a bronze statue of Bretagne near the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department where she worked.


4. Roselle (Labrador Retriever)

Not every hero dog arrived for the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. In Roselle’s case, she experienced it firsthand as one of the thousands working in the World Trade Center as the planes struck.

Roselle was a seeing-eye dog. Her handler, Michael Hingson, worked as a sales director for a business with offices in the North Tower, which was the first of the tower’s to be hit. Michael was stationed on the 78th floor when the hijacked Boeing 767 hit his building 18 floors above.

After ensuring his team’s evacuation, Hingson began the 1,463-step descent, depending on Roselle’s poise, awareness, and problem-solving skills to make it to safety.

Roselle’s efforts that day to save Michael and maintain calm for those around her earned her the American Humane Association’s American Hero Dog of the Year award, the AKC’s ACE award, and the Dickin Medal.


5. Sage (Border Collie)

Since she was 18 months old, Sage traveled the globe to participate in high-profile rescue operations with FEMA. The Border Collie visited seven countries by the end of her life, working on missions such as Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and the Natalee Holloway disappearance in Aruba. She would later go on several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though these missions helped build her legacy, Sage was already an established hero due to her work during 9/11. At 2 years old, she was new to search and rescue when she went to work after the Pentagon attack. There, she earned acclaim for locating the body of the terrorist who hijacked American Airlines Flight 77.

As one of a select group of FEMA dogs certified at the highest level, Sage won the AKC’s ACE award in 2009 and became an American Humane Association Hero Dog award recipient in 2011.


6. Ricky (Rat Terrier)

Ricky, a Rat Terrier, was the smallest of all 9/11 heroes and an instrumental backup for the heftier search dogs at Ground Zero.  Ricky was notably bright from a young age, and he was a member of the Puget Sound Urban Search and Rescue team, traveling all the way from Seattle to assist in finding survivors and remains.

Ricky searched the World Trade Center ruins for ten straight days with his handler, Janet Linker. At only 17 pounds, Ricky could traverse precarious features and squeeze through narrow holes his partner Thunder, a 64-pound Golden Retriever, could never navigate. Together, they uncovered several victims and artifacts, offering much-needed closure for families.


7. Jake (Labrador Retriever)

Jake may be the unlikeliest of all 9/11 hero dogs. Utah Task Force dog handler Mary Flood rescued the black Lab at 10 months. Jake was living as a stray, likely abandoned due to hip dysplasia. Following corrective surgery, his back right leg was 2 inches shorter than the left, raising concerns about his ability as a search dog.

Jake erased all doubt, becoming wilderness search and FEMA-certified by the end of 1997. Four years later, he responded to 9/11, spending 17 days at Ground Zero.

Although he trained for live rescue, Jake strived to help in any way he could, going on numerous trips to find remains. For the rescue workers around him, his relentlessly upbeat attitude and playfulness offered motivation and relief from the emotional burden.


8. Hansen (Belgian Shepherd)

Hansen lasted the longest of any rescue dog at the WTC site, working an astonishing 150 days. Among the many victims Hansen recovered, two were missing police officers, Sgt. Michael Curtin and Officer John Perry, who was due to retire the day he ran into the crumbling World Trade Center.

The dedication Hansen and his handler, Steve Smaldon, showed was unique among all responding teams. The town of Lindenhurst, NY, where Hansen was stationed, honored him in 2008 with a 300-pound cement statue.


9. Riley (Golden Retriever)

Although Riley was only a live-find dog, his work as a member of FEMA Pennsylvania Task Force 1 symbolizes the adaptability the 9/11 dogs showed in the face of danger and despair.

Hopes of finding survivors faded after the first day. Riley transitioned to locating cadavers, displaying his urgent desire to help in any way possible. He became the face of the canine effort at Ground Zero with the iconic picture of workers hoisting him alone in a Stokes basket out of a 60-foot-deep crater. The image gained national recognition, inspiring significant action and support around the rescue dog community.


10.  Salty (Labrador Retriever)

Like Roselle, Salty was a service dog assisting his blind owner in the North Tower on the day of the attacks. Following the impact at 8:46 a.m., Salty coaxed his handler, Omar Rivera, to evacuate and guided him through the chaotic 71-story journey.

Amid the fear and confusion, Omar released Salty from his lead to give the dog a chance to run clear of the building. Dedicated to his duty, Salty refused to leave Omar’s side, instead keeping close to bring him to safety and ultimately save his life. On March 5, 2002, Salty shared the stage with Roselle as the two received PDSA Dickin Medals.

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How Many Dogs Died on 9/11?

One dog, a Port Authority bomb-sniffing dog named Sirius, perished during the 9/11 attacks. He and his partner, Sgt. David Lim, were on patrol in the South Tower on the day of the attacks. When the first plane struck the North Tower, Lim secured Sirius in his kennel before dashing to the adjacent building to assist civilians.

Lim was in the North Tower when it collapsed. He was one of 16 people descending Stairwell B who survived, stuck under the rubble for 6 hours and unaware as to the fate of his partner.

Searchers found Sirius’s remains in the winter of 2002, giving him a full honor guard upon his removal. Lim and his fellow officers preserved his memory in a dog run in Battery Park dedicated to him and a commemorative plaque in the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

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Conclusion

Singular sacrifices left lasting legacies. The unimaginable hardships the hero dogs of 9/11 faced in the weeks following the attacks left an indelible mark on the rescue community, creating new perspectives that would help future SAR dogs thrive in their roles. Like the events of that day, the hard work of the 9/11 dogs echoes through the generations, offering timeless lessons in courage, hope, and resolve.


Featured Photo Credit: Spinel, Shutterstock

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