Honoring the Rescue Dogs of 9/11 · The Wildest

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Honoring the Rescue Dogs of 9/11

The Wildest pays tribute to the pups who risked their lives to save others 22 years ago.

by The Wildest
September 11, 2023
Riley the rescue Golden Retriever being transported out of the debris of the World Trade Center.
Mai / Getty Images

After the devastating attack on the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, hundreds of search and rescue teams showed up on the scene to search for survivors. Most of those heroes were human, but many of them — at least 300 — were specially trained canines. Within just 15 minutes of its collapse, the NYPD’s K-9 urban search and rescue team arrived at the South Tower.

They were joined by dogs from the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, the Cy-Fair Fire Department, and many other FEMA-certified rescue canines. One of these dogs, a German Shepherd named Trakr, found the last living person rescued from the tower, 27 hours after the towers fell. 

The impact of these dogs went far beyond their rescue achievements. As Dr. Cynthia M. Otto told the American Kennel Club, helper dogs were the one “ray of sunshine” in the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Their presence lifted the spirits of survivors and rescuers in the moments after the tragedy, and their stories gave some light and hope back to the witnessing world. 

Rescue dogs of 9/11

The search and rescue (SAR) dogs were initially tasked with traversing the rubble to find any living people trapped inside. That’s when Trakr found Genelle Guzman-McMillan, a Port Authority employee who was pinned under cement and steel. “I felt total renewed life in me...That was the most joyful moment,” Guzman-McMillan told

Tragically, as the hours progressed, the rescue dogs’ mission was refocused to recovery. Dogs who were specially trained to find human remains were put to work. The task was incredibly grueling for humans and canines alike. Fires were still smoldering when the dogs entered, and several dogs narrowly avoided serious injury. 

Several survivors have spoken about the emotional impact of seeing dogs present. Firefighters would approach the rescue dogs to pet them and eventually end up opening up to the dogs’ handlers with personal stories about the missing people they were searching for. As one of the dog’s handlers said after witnessing their dog’s heroism, “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 altogether different job. He provided comfort. Or maybe he did know.”

Therapy dogs of 9/11

The SAR dogs on the scene that day weren’t the only canines who helped 9/11 survivors. Therapy Dogs International (TDI) sent 100 teams to New York, where they spent four weeks at the Family Assistance Center. Survivors who were unwilling to speak to human mental health professionals would open up with dogs and find comfort in their company. According to dog trainer Cindy Ehlers, one firefighter asked, “Where are those comfort dogs? They’re the only thing that helps me get through the day.”

The president of TDI told the American Kennel Club that 9/11 began a new era of therapy dog assistance. Since 9/11, TDI dogs have helped after a variety of tragedies, from natural disasters to mass shootings. Cindy Ehlers was inspired to start the HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response in Eugene, Oregon, which has provided emotional assistance to those impacted by mudslides, tornadoes, mass shootings, homelessness, and COVID-19.

The dogs’ actions on September 11 moved many pet parents to pursue search and rescue certification, per Dr. Otto. These dogs also opened the door for more research on rescue canines. Years after the passing of the last known surviving search dog — Bretagne, a Golden Retriever who also responded to Hurricane Katrina and became a reading companion at an elementary school in her senior years — the hero dogs of 9/11 continue to make a positive impact and inspire hope.

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