Rescue and Recovery Dogs of 9/11 Honored in Museum Exhibition

Gus and handler Ed Apple of a Tennessee FEMA task force search for human remains at the Pentagon site. All survivors had been resuced by the time dogs entered the site. Photo: Jocelyn Agustino, FEMA

Feb. 15, 2020

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, hundreds of dogs served a harrowing and crucial role in the search for survivors, and for victims remains. Now these four-legged heroes and their teams are getting their do in an exhibition at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. 

“K-9 Courage,” a show of photographs and artifacts on view through summer 2021, vividly tells the story of these trained sniffers, working amid the dangerous, smoldering rubble. A companion set of portraits, by Charlotte Dumas, revisits 15 of the workers in retirement, 10 years later.

“Putting the photographs together is what makes this exhibit special,” said Amy Weinstein, the museum’s oral historian, who curated the show.

“I’ve done oral histories with the handlers, with Charlotte, with the responders and the veterinarians,” Weinstein added. “But I never got to meet any of the dogs.”

Their contribution to the massive rescue and recovery effor was vital.

“On the 11th, we saw the value of the dogs. We saw that there was nothing as effective as the dogs for searching wide areas, for clearing spaces,” says Dr. Cynthia Otto, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center, on the show’s audio tour. “Their ability to recognize odors, respond to odors, to trace the source of an odor is phenomenal.”

Dr. Lisa Murphy, a veterinarian and toxicologist now on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, was with the ASPCA when she arrived at the scene of devastation on the night of Sept. 24 to oversee the care and health of the rescue dogs exposed to the toxic and hazardous conditions. This was when the rescue operation was transitioning to a search for human remains. It was also Murphy’s first time to watch the off-leash work of search and rescue dogs as they padded through hidden, hard-to-reach spaces in the pile. 

“It was mentally taxing and physically taxing for the dogs and the humans alike,” Murphy told the Trib. “The veterinarians were on hand to support the dogs and to make sure that they were safe and healthy so they could keep doing what they were there to do.” 

“And those dogs were so excited. they would have worked twenty four-seven if you’d let them,” Murphy added. 

(Remarkably, Murphy noted, studies have shown that the dogs did not later develop health problems as result of the work.)

Dutch-born photographer Charlotte Dumas, who specializes in animals, said she had been fascinated by seeing pictures of the dogs during the recovery operation. 

“Dogs seemed like the only possible thing to photograph and print in the paper that wasn’t just total devastation,” she said. “Seeing the dogs at work was something hopeful.” 

Years later, Dumas wondered how many of the dogs were still alive and, through the help of FEMA in 2010, tracked down 15 of them, living with their handlers around the country. The result, now on display, also became a book, “Retrieved.” (The last surviving dog died in 2016.)

Though the portraits were taken years later, Dumas said, the viewer can still see something special in her aged canine subjects. “Part of it is projection from us, because we remember these events in a certain way so we tend to see that reflected in the eyes of the dog. That, to me, is totally legitimate.

There were so many people finding comfort in seeing portraits of these dogs in old age,” she added, it was such a wonderful response.”

Because the subject of the 9/11 attacks is a difficult one to introduce to children, Weinstein said, “K-9 Courage” can be a gentle aid. “We’ve found that the dogs are a good way in for younger people, when you know that dogs helped, that dogs had a job to do, and they helped people. Children can learn that they can be helpers, too.”

As some photographs also touchingly illustrate, search and rescue dogs became de facto therapy dogs until their trained counterparts arrived. To me, these are the most inspiring,” Weinstein said, “because it seemed they could really sense that the firefighters, the cops, they just needed them.

At a Family Day at the museum earlier this month, the handlers of search dogs spoke to visitors about their jobs and their dogs. Here are edited excerpts of the remarks of two of them.

Darren Besse, officer of the Explosive Detection Canine Unit, Transportation Safety Administration, with Jana, 4

The dogs undergo 20 weeks of training before they come to us as handlers. Then it’s three weeks together and we’re out on the road in the airport. People say, how long is the training? Her main purpose is explosives and explosives compounds and the training is ongoing. It doesn't stop. It is every day we train to keep her like a prime athlete, to keep her in peak performance.

We have different scenarios. My partner and I will set up with each of our dogs. We’ll do random searches of aircrafts, baggage, different places both the public and secure side of the airport. Passenger screening and spot check people coming into the secure side of the airport.

I have to get to learn her behaviors just like she has to get to learn mine and who I am. They're much faster learners at human behavior than we are. They look at our bodies, that’s how they know what we’re feeling, what we’re thinking, and trying to anticipate what’s happening. So it’s our job to learn their behavior. It's a team effort, me being able to read her.

My first dog failed. A black lab. Then they gave me Jana. I opened the kennel door to put her collar and her harness on and the first thing she did was jump up and put her legs up on me because she wanted to go, no harness, no collar. To this day, every time I go to put that harness on, she’ll jump up, give me a kiss, lick my beard and then we’re off and running. I love that dog.


Port Authority Police Department K9 Unit Officer Steven Famiglietti with Buck, 4

You have to like animals and I lucked out getting to be in the canine unit. It took me a very long time to get into it. I had 18 years as a police officer before I became a canine officer. It’s probably one of the best things that’s happened to me. 

We get calls at the Trade Center for unattended bags, unattended cars, things that seem like a threat. We also do presidential motorcades, VIPs, sweeps of cars, sweeps of airplanes. We get called for all kinds of things and we handle them. Buck handles them. I’m just the guy on the other end of the leash. 

If it’s a car, Buck’s job is to smell everything in that car. If he picks up on an odor and he sits down then were going to move on to the next step is to call in the bomb squad and take it to the next level. 

Usually they stay with us for 10 years or so, depending on how they’re working. When they retire they stay with their handler. They don’t have to but I’ve never met a handler who did not keep their dog. We love them. They come home with us every night. they’re a part of the family and when they’re at work they know its work and serious time, and when they’re home, they are a dog and they get to be a dog. He loves running around, he loves playing fetch, he loves swimming in the pool with our other dog at home.

We’re provided with everything they need, food, kennels, outdoor dog runs, medications, anything they need. These dogs are living the high life. Trust me.