Acts of Impact

Paws On Ground Zero: The Rescue Dogs Of 9/11

January 10, 2024 Nicholas Hill
Paws On Ground Zero: The Rescue Dogs Of 9/11
Acts of Impact
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Acts of Impact
Paws On Ground Zero: The Rescue Dogs Of 9/11
Jan 10, 2024
Nicholas Hill

On September 11th, 2001, a group of Al Qaeda terrorists hijack four passenger airplanes and carry out suicide attacks against major U. S. targets, including the World Trade Center in New York City. What followed was one of the largest search-and-rescue missions in history, as FEMA teams and first-responders descended on ground zero in search of survivors. 

Many heroes would arrive on scene to help, with one unique group arriving on four legs instead of two - The FEMA Canine Search-and-Rescue dogs. 

On today's episode, we'll speak with canine handlers Bob Deeds, Sarah Atlas, and Cindy Ehlers, as well as veterinarian Dr. Cindy Otto. We'll discuss what it was like that day at ground zero, the challenges these dogs faced on the ground, the long-term health effects of the rescue operation, and the emotional impact of the event. 

I hope you enjoy today's episode. 

If you'd like to get involved with canine search-and-rescue, there are many ways to do so. You can reach out to the following organizations for more information:

  • Penn Vet Working Dog Center -
  • Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response -
  • Deeds Canine Connection -
  • Search and Rescue Dog Foundation -

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to our guests for their time and insight. 
Music by Alex Grohls.

Show Notes Transcript

On September 11th, 2001, a group of Al Qaeda terrorists hijack four passenger airplanes and carry out suicide attacks against major U. S. targets, including the World Trade Center in New York City. What followed was one of the largest search-and-rescue missions in history, as FEMA teams and first-responders descended on ground zero in search of survivors. 

Many heroes would arrive on scene to help, with one unique group arriving on four legs instead of two - The FEMA Canine Search-and-Rescue dogs. 

On today's episode, we'll speak with canine handlers Bob Deeds, Sarah Atlas, and Cindy Ehlers, as well as veterinarian Dr. Cindy Otto. We'll discuss what it was like that day at ground zero, the challenges these dogs faced on the ground, the long-term health effects of the rescue operation, and the emotional impact of the event. 

I hope you enjoy today's episode. 

If you'd like to get involved with canine search-and-rescue, there are many ways to do so. You can reach out to the following organizations for more information:

  • Penn Vet Working Dog Center -
  • Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response -
  • Deeds Canine Connection -
  • Search and Rescue Dog Foundation -

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Special thanks to our guests for their time and insight. 
Music by Alex Grohls.

Nicholas Hill  0:00  
September 11 2001, a group of al Qaeda terrorists hijacked for passenger airplanes and carry out suicide attacks against major US targets, including the World Trade Center in New York City.

Media  0:14  
Apparently a plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. Oh my god. That looks like a second plane. So this looks like it is some sort of a concerted effort to attack the World Trade Center. And the collapse. The whole side has collapsed. building has collapsed David. David, we're gonna countercultural President Bush's speaking to

Nicholas Hill  0:37  
skyscrapers known as the Twin Towers standing 110 storeys high would collapse to the ground, killing nearly 3000 and leaving an unfathomable scene of destruction and rubble known as ground zero. In the aftermath of 911, there is an exceptional response. First responders, dispatchers, teachers and medical personnel, religious leaders, the citizens of New York, heroes would emerge from across the country to help amidst the chaos and the heartbreak. One important group of helpers arrived at the scene on four legs instead of to the FEMA Task Force search and rescue dogs. 

Media  1:23  
One ofsome 300 specially trained search and rescue dogs rushed to the site from around the country.The only thing that worked down there were the dogs though all the modern technology just didn't work like continued to come from as far away as Oklahoma and Puerto Rico. Their help a godsend to the 1000s Waiting on any word of a missing loved one. 

Nicholas Hill  1:44  
On today's show, our guests will describe what it was like at Ground Zero.

Media  1:48  
We didn't know what we were walking into.I did not know what to do. I was out of my league. It gave it this eerie senseof being on a movie set

Nicholas Hill  1:57  
the challenges these dogs faced on scene, 

Media  2:00  
you'redealing with fire smoke stain. So we had all ofthis dust which covered everythingwe didn't know if there were bombs planted 

Nicholas Hill  2:07  
and the longterm health effects of the operation we needed

Media  2:10  
to think about not only physical effects, but behavioral effects. Unfortunately,my dog became quite ill. We didthree different locations that we went to forMRIs 

Nicholas Hill  2:21  
and the emotional impact of the event.

Media  2:23  
If I made a mistake, I just killed somebody.What we did see was humanity and compassion. Sheput her arms around her and she hugged her and she started crying.

Nicholas Hill  2:34  
You're listening to acts of impact. I'm your host, Nicholas Hill. Let's get started.

Ask any dog owner and they'll tell you that owning a dog especially a new dog, can be a bit of a roller coaster. Dogs are loving, loyal, amazing pets, but they can also tear up the furniture or get the neighbors or in the case of Texas handler Bob deeds set your house on fire.

Bob Deeds  3:14  
I had been looking for an urban search and rescue dog for about a year. I had looked at just under 1000 dogs and I came across Kinzie and the day that I took her home, I clipped up her leash, I took her in the house, picked up the telephone. And she was starting to run all over the house which I didn't want her to do, obviously and I had a tennis ball laying there and I grabbed it and I tossed it in her mouth and she spit it in my lap and I tossed it in her mouth and the whole time I'm talking on the telephone. About the seventh or eighth time I tossed it It bounced off her head went between my entertainment center and a wall. The entertainment center fell over Brand New TV caught on fire had an electrical fire right and so I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a fire extinguisher came in pull the pin on it started just right it was one of those old tanks with the rubber hoses on it and started to spray it well. She grabbed the hose and started playing tug of war with it. So I finally let go of it and the handle is still being depressed and it's going all over my living room. And I grab a couple of towels off of a shower rack and just dip them in the toilet and I run back in there and I started beating out this fire, which I don't recommend putting out an electrical fire with wet towels.

Nicholas Hill  4:33  
While Bob and Kinsey are getting acquainted over a roaring fire in Texas. handler Sarah Atlas is meeting her dog Anna in Pennsylvania. But instead of evaluating nearly 1000 dogs like Bob, Sara's dog, Anna kind of chose her.

Sarah Atlas  4:48  
I was never allowed to have a dog as child, but I always had a love for German Shepherds. And I had heard about the Armenian earthquake. And that was even before FEMA had been established with canine search and rescue. And I said I want to do search and rescue on a national level at some point. Lo and behold, many years down the road, John Dupont, had bred litter, and I was supposed to get picked female. And by the time I got there, there's only one female available. And she marched up to me grabbed my pant leg and started tugging. Fast forward. I was the Director of Marketing at Garden State racetrack in New Jersey, and two of the EMTs on our ambulance, were part of Pennsylvania's FEMA team. And I approached them and I said, Oh, I have the perfect dog, and then rolled her eyes because everybody thinks their dog can find anyone that's missing, which is not necessarily the case. So they were kind enough to allow me to bring her over and pester and evaluate her and she passed with flying colors.

Nicholas Hill  5:53  
So Sarah's dog Anna passes search and rescue certification. Now, this is something I've always been really interested in, what is it that makes a dog a good search and rescue dog? Can any dog do this? Or what are the traits that a dog needs to have to be able to perform effectively in an operation like this? And it turns out that Bob and Sarah both had a wealth of experience and knowing exactly what to look for. The

Bob Deeds  6:21  
thing that sets them apart is this combination of drive and nerve strength. These dogs have to be so strong that either nothing in the environment affects them. Or if something does startle them, they rebound quickly and their drive is just through the roof. The

Sarah Atlas  6:37  
big misconception is, if your dog can find you can find anybody who want a dog that's going to search be it for a toy for something in the bushes and not stop until they find it.

Bob Deeds  6:49  
It's like when we watch a Roadrunner cartoon and we see the roadrunner running down the highway. Through wily coyote is binoculars and the roadrunner turns into a cooked bird on a platter. That's the way these dogs think about stuff, they see a ball and they think that ball is like a squirrel, or a rabbit or something like that. And, and they'll just play incessantly.

Sarah Atlas  7:14  
And these are usually the types of dogs no matter what breed that are given up at shelters because they're considered hyper, they have an off switch, we need that boundless energy that drive that most people consider craziness or hyper, which is actually drive, they're highly

Bob Deeds  7:32  
motivated. Nothing bothers, what we're wanting to see is that dog that is unflappable that they're not worried about things on the rubble pile, going into dark spaces, climbing up on top of things going across a beam that's maybe four inches wide,

Sarah Atlas  7:51  
they have to walk across pain links, they have to walk across a narrow plank and turn on it and down on it, they have to learn to do an emergency stop, which is usually a down in case wobble stiff, and it's not safe, we want the dog to stay in place, be able to bounce back and forth on Rubble, as they pick up scent. They also in real scenarios, there's multiple dogs working at the same time. So we want a dog that's not got any aggression whatsoever, can ignore dislike a seeing eye dog, or any kind of proper service animal, they ignore everything around them and stick to their tasks,

Bob Deeds  8:29  
we want to see that they have a rock solid indication. indication is when they tell us that they found little Timmy, our dogs are trained to do a focus bark indicating live human scent, or focus bark indicating human remains in the bark has to be focused and intense. They also

Sarah Atlas  8:46  
have to have phenomenal agility. And they have to learn to climb up and down ladders at an angle, because they may be called to do that they're also trained and harnessed to be lifted, to be transported across avoid, as you've seen in a lot of the photographs of a dog in a stokes basket being sent from one side to another in midair.

Bob Deeds  9:08  
We're also looking to see if the dog will work independently of the handler that when necessary, the handler can use directional control, like having the dog go out further or go to the right or go to the left to search that the handler is able to push that dog around the pile. They have

Sarah Atlas  9:27  
to go where we tell them. But they also have to use the sense of males that if they pick up the scent of somebody that they'll find it. We teach our dogs to go away from us, you

Bob Deeds  9:38  
need to be able to read if I see my dog do a head turn and maybe she moves on doesn't find anybody I may need to get her back to an area using just hand signals and voice signals. So those are the kinds of things we look for. We look for good, solid, stable teams that can perform and work both together. and independently.

Nicholas Hill  10:01  
So as you can see, there are specific traits that lend themselves to a good search and rescue dog. But what's more important as a handler is the extensiveness of the training they go through, and the strength of the relationship between the dog and the handler. I was also curious how a dog is actually trained to find a human being that isn't their owner. And Sara was able to give me the rundown.

Sarah Atlas  10:27  
We start by throwing a ball in the woods, in heavy brush, and the dog will not stop looking and looking. The other thing that dogs have to learn is they have to learn to locate people they don't know. But we start them we call run away. So we'll have a person run away while the dog is watching. And what happens is the person will run away with the dog's toy. And that's the thing we want a dog primarily that loves to tug on a toy. So the personal runaway will hold the dogs spin it around, and once a person is hidden, the dog has to locate them. So basically, they're looking for the toy. And they ultimately learn that by finding the person attached to the toy, that get their toy and they get played with and we change people so that the dog learns that any human scent, there's a reward the dogs have to learn since they work off leash with no collars, no vests, nothing. The

Nicholas Hill  11:21  
most common breeds of search and rescue dog are the Labrador German Shepherd golden retriever, Malinois and Border Collie, but nearly any breed can be trained to help. And there are 284 active dog teams in famous canine unit. Search and rescue dogs specialize in two key areas, detecting human survivors and detecting people who are deceased. But during the last few decades, and certainly at Ground Zero, a third type of helper dog has emerged, the therapy dog, the dogs that bring comfort and emotional support to those who have been part of a disaster or traumatic event. To learn more about this, I spoke with Cindy Ehlers, who was at Ground Zero with her dog Tikvah, providing comfort to first responders. Cindy learned about the comfort that dogs can bring through an early tragic experience.

Cindy Ehlers  12:16  
So I was a dog trainer. And somebody was getting rid of this dog and I got that dog and I just I fell in love with the dog. And my neighbor's right next to me also fell in love with my dog. I had visited them often we would just sit, you know and visit with each other her and her husband and me and my dog and laugh and, and at one point in time, the woman's husband committed suicide. And it was so traumatic for her. And so when this happened, I did not know what else to do. I took the dog over to her. And it was odd. I I didn't know what to say I didn't know what to do. I just took the dog there. And about six months after that, she said to me, you know if it wasn't for that damn dog, I think I would have killed myself. I was like, Oh my gosh, I can help people. 

Nicholas Hill  13:17  
Cindybegan helping people by taking her dog to hospitals and nursing homes visiting patients in need. But in May of 1998 at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, there was a school shooting. A student opened fire, leaving 25 injured and four dead. During the aftermath, survivors and witnesses of the shooting. were struggling to cope. Cindy wanted to help.

Cindy Ehlers  13:45  
We were visiting maybe in nursing homes, hospital, and that was it. And then the Thurston high school shooting happened. And I felt like we needed to help somehow, but I didn't know what to do. And so I contacted the Red Cross and ask them if they would want to have any therapy dogs there. And they said, Oh, yes, definitely. So I went down with my dog. And the next day, I entered the high school and I was mobbed. Just everybody first responders, faculty, staff, students, parents, when they saw us, they mopped us and the dogs, they did great. And the counselor said there's this student over there at the table, and she won't talk to us. Her heads down. She won't respond nothing. We're wondering if you could take your dog over there and see if she could help. So I just stood there at six foot leash length, and I waited, I didn't know what to do. I just stood there holding the leash, and the dog seemed to know what to do. So She, she just walked over to her, he touched her leg very lightly, the girl looked down and then looked away. And then my dog made this weird little noise. And the girls look down again. And then they made this eye contact. And then the girl reached down, and she put her arms around her, and she hugged her, and she started crying.

Nicholas Hill  15:24  
Something about the presence of Cindy's dog was able to break down this girl's barriers, helping her to provide the release that she needed. And Cindy has seen this in her work again, and again.

Cindy Ehlers  15:38  
Everybody loves different dogs for different reasons. And I understand that through touch, there's a physiological change that occurs as a person petted a dog, their threat was reduced, their heart rate dropped, and they felt safe. 

Nicholas Hill  15:54  
Boband his dog Kenzi, Sarah and her dog, Anna, Cindy, and her dog teqsa. Each team helping in their own way, until on a clear September morning, all three would be called into action. Bob was in his car, listening to the radio in Fort Worth, Texas, when the news came in. 

Bob Deeds  16:16  
Iwas on the east side of Fort Worth driving north and I was listening to a comedy bit on the radio. And this DJ was in the middle of a comedy bit and a stop and there was dead air. In fact, I turned my radio on and off, and I thought my radio had just gone dead. And when it came back on, he was saying I've got to interrupt this wheel plane looks like a plane just hit the World Trade Center. And there was Dan air again for a little bit and they said, Wow, this was a huge flight. And I had just finished terrorism awareness course with FEMA to learn best practices that terrorists do. And one of their new things that they had really started to do was they would do an event. And then they would do something else right on the backside of it after they had everybody paying attention. So it's a first plane hits, and everybody starts watching and then they watch that second plane hit. And I tell my brother will know if the second one hits. And I got to my family and I went inside and I grabbed a TV. And as soon as I turned it on, I saw a plane hitting one of the towers. And my brother walked in and I said man, somebody was filming it when it hit and they pan back. And I saw that it was the second plane that hit.

Nicholas Hill  17:36  
Bob knew that search and rescue dogs would be needed. But he wasn't sure if he and Kinsey would be allowed to go.

Bob Deeds  17:43  
A little bit later that morning, I got a call from my boss on the task force. I had not actually passed the certification at that time. We were scheduled to actually have our certification the week after the World Trade Center hit and they had to get permission from Washington DC in the Denise correlates with Brittany and myself with Kinsey, we were given permission to go since our task force vous force said these guys are beyond ready to certify. So when she called me I start you know, Suzanne, hey, I'll go down there and help pack trucks. I'll help everybody get going and tell me what I need to do to help and I'm talking, she finally has to tell me to shut up long enough to tell me Hey, Bob, they want you to go go home and get your dog in your gear. And so I left went home, grabbed Kinsey grabbed my gear and drove to College Station. We flew into the air force base and I was assigned a night shift slot myself and Joanne Ritz and a German shepherd named cholo. As

Nicholas Hill  18:48  
Bob and Kinsey are arriving in the area Cindy and her therapy dog Tikvah are volunteering to help as well.

Cindy Ehlers  18:55  
I called the Red Cross in Brooklyn, and I just kept calling them until they said come and they said four of us could come. So four of us went in

Nicholas Hill  19:06  
New Jersey, Sarah and her dog Anna are already in route. 

Sarah Atlas  19:10  
Sowe were deployed within hours of the first power being struck. I was on duty as an EMT. I had picked up an extra shift for friends I was paged and told to come to Lakers Naval Air Station. My boss had already been alerted. I ran home, grabbed the dog. And after medical checks, we were on our way to New York. And on our way there, the second tower had been hit and the towers had fallen as we were in route. As

Nicholas Hill  19:40  
each of the three canine teams arrives in New York City. They are all directed to the site at Ground Zero.

Sarah Atlas  19:48  
I remember we were just getting set up with our tents and everything. And they said oh, we want the dogs right away. They dropped us off maybe 10 blocks from the site. And as we're walking with It's our dogs and walks us. So we kept hearing the loud whispers of the dogs are here. They'll find them. The dogs are here. They'll find them they'll get them out, meaning all the people that were trapped killed, and it really sent shivers up our spines. I was frightened and I didn't. So for some of my teammates, we didn't know what we were walking into. Cindy Ehlers, we went

Cindy Ehlers  20:24  
in to Brooklyn, we ended up at the Family Assistance Center. And there were chaplains from the Red Cross, and they were watching these dogs. And one of them said to me, you know, who really need you are those guys down at the site, and he got a hold of a police officer and he said, take them down there, 

Nicholas Hill  20:44  

Bob Deeds  20:45  
We were assigned to work a 12 hour shift. We came in at Liberty and West Side, they had some barricades up and as we walked around there, we saw what you guys saw on TV with we used to call them the the Lay's potato chips. That was the scan, you know, the World Trade Center that came out that was slided from all the spotlights. And we had literally walked around the barricade that I started here and firefighters look over at us and they were screaming, we need your dog, we need your dog. And my search team manager was a guy named Bert withers, you know, and Bert put his hand on my helmet and he goes, Are you ready? And I said, Yeah. Now

Nicholas Hill  21:30  
when a canine search and rescue team arrives at a scene like this, they never travel alone. In fact, a single FEMA task force consists of multiple people across different roles and responsibilities. It

Bob Deeds  21:43  
is a completely self sufficient team. We have fire rescue specialists, technical search specialist, canine search specialist, medical specialists, weapons of mass destruction specialist hazmat specialist. We have trauma, medics, paramedics, doctors that deploy with us engineers that work with our safety officer to determine when and where we can go, and what we need to do to shore something to make it safe, heavy equipment operators and logistics people, people that deal specifically with the media and the press people that put together our day to day mission. So there it's a huge component when we go to an event like this.

Nicholas Hill  22:25  
So in order to keep an eye on the safety of these dogs, the FEMA teams bring along medical specialists, and one of the medical specialists who arrived on scene that day was Dr. Cindy Otto, a faculty veterinarian working at the University of Pennsylvania, I was able to speak to Dr. Otto for today's episode. Here she is describing her history with the team and arrival at Ground Zero.

Dr. Cindy Otto  22:51  
I was working in the emergency room as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania. And I really wanted to take that emergency experience in that expertise in a broader reach. So I reached out to FEMA to find out if they had any need for veterinary support to make sure that these amazing dogs were having the best medical care that we were looking out for their health, their well being, and that they were as safe as they could be in these kinds of environments. And so I was actually a veterinarian on site supporting the four dogs on the Pennsylvania team, but also any dogs that were at Ground Zero. I was the second team which went out at night, and worked every night through I think about the 19. And the night shift was bizarre because it was all artificially lit. So it gave it this very eerie sense very surreal sense of almost being on a movie set as they

Nicholas Hill  23:47  
approached Ground Zero. Another worry that was on everyone's mind was the possibility of another attack. Sara and Bob both mentioned to this concern.

Sarah Atlas  23:57  
We were under on guard because there's always a chance of people going after the rescue workers. We didn't know if there were bombs planted and we didn't know what what might happen besides the two airplanes. It's

Bob Deeds  24:10  
just that little component of a terrorist label, because you're also having to worry about a potential secondary attack. You know, how could it have been for them to have had the opportunity to fly another fine into that after you had first responders all over the place? So those are things you got to worry about.

Nicholas Hill  24:27  
Once they were on scene on the ground. Each dog got to work. Now, this was Bob's first deployment, but Kinzie did exactly what she had been trained to do. They

Bob Deeds  24:39  
told me the area they wanted me to surge and one of the fire trucks had been crushed. It was underneath the wall and one of the buildings it was over on the side and so I went over there I took her leash off, took her collar off, leaned over, she was between my legs. I kissed her on the head and I told her to seek which was her cue to work I never will forget, I turned around and looked at BART, I go, man, it works because she was doing her job. Keep in mind, this was our first deployment. And we had done all this training, put all this stuff into it. And she worked like a champ. The

Nicholas Hill  25:15  
environment of Ground Zero presented a lot of unique challenges for these rescue dogs. And for handlers and medical personnel. Like Cindy, there were a number of things they needed to keep in mind to keep these dogs safe. The first challenge was keeping their feet safe from the rubble, which included sharp objects and concrete dust. This

Dr. Cindy Otto  25:35  
was such a massive destruction and the amount of dust and debris and just mangled buildings, we were definitely concerned about cuts and scrapes and things that the dogs might be breathing in. But one of the worst situations we had was all of this dust which covered everything and inches deep of concrete dust, and then it rained. And then, you know, so you can imagine rain and concrete dust and it becomes this horrible sandpaper between their toes. And so that was a unique challenge that the dogs faced in that environment is that we had to make sure we're keeping this concrete from consolidating between their toes.

Nicholas Hill  26:17  
Now you might be thinking like I did, why not just let the dogs wear booties. This is something I've seen plenty of dog owners do to protect their feet. And while I was doing research for the episode, I noticed a lot of YouTube comments mentioning the same thing, where are the booties on their feet. But Dr. Otto was able to explain to me that in an environment like ground zero, this isn't really an option. So

Dr. Cindy Otto  26:41  
in any kind of environment where we have an unstable surface where they're traversing a rubble pile, they're using their toes, and you can actually watch them grip with their toes. And they have never come up with a booty that could protect them, but still give them that ability to grip. And so that's the challenge at the Pentagon, they were able to wear booties because they were mostly working on flat surfaces. And so on the perimeter some of the dogs weren't war booties, but any dog that was actually working in that unstable surface. And in the rubble pile, we did not have them wear booty, any booties.

Nicholas Hill  27:15  
The second challenge they faced was that this pile of destruction was literally smoldering. With many areas actively on fire. This meant you had to constantly check that areas were cool enough for the dogs to traverse. And it also created the secondary concern of toxic gases accumulating in confined spaces.

Bob Deeds  27:35  
And this was my first disaster environment where not only do we have steel and concrete that's broken on the sharp stuff that goes with that we had the component of fire because the World Trade Center was actively on fire the whole time we were there. In fact, there were times where we would get ready to go into a hole. And before I'd climbed down the ladder center down I'd take water and pour it in to see if it seemed you know hit anything and steamed or bubbled or anything. And so you're constantly dealing with fire with smoke with stain. But then we also had the element of hazardous materials, phosgene chlorine antifreeze. Now, keep in mind, we had been trained for all this. But now it was all thrown together in a blender at the same time, that was something new that we had to deal with.

Dr. Cindy Otto  28:26  
As far as any confined space, the big issue is we always would have somebody makes sure that there aren't toxic gases there. So we wouldn't send a dog into an unknown space, it would have to be cleared first, that it's safe to send a dog into that area.

Nicholas Hill  28:41  
On top of these challenges, once you sent a dog into an opening that you couldn't get through yourself, they were on their own, and you had to trust that they could get the job done.

Sarah Atlas  28:52  
One of my teammates, dogs, another shepherd, she had sent him into an opening and the dog didn't come right back. And maybe 45 minutes later. Obviously, she's panicking calling for her dog because they're not just our partners. They live with us. They're with us 24/7. And the dog came he had gotten out underground through the rubble, several blocks away and made his way back to her. Another

Nicholas Hill  29:17  
challenge in this environment is that the entire area is inherently unstable to walk on. And there's no telling how close this section of rubble is to collapsing.

Bob Deeds  29:27  
There's a lot of times that we're not allowed to enter a structure that we have engineers that travel with us and they'll say no, till we get it short, it's going to be too unstable for you to walk on it. We'd rather get this 70 pound dog up there instead of a 200 pound handler. As the dogs are much more stable. They've got four points of contact. But best five may have three points of contact but I'm having to bend over to do that and we're just not as stable as they are. They

Dr. Cindy Otto  29:57  
will traverse huge amounts of area They will go in places that we wouldn't go. And they sometimes can go on things that are unstable for a human, but they could still traverse as a dog because they're going to move a little bit lighter. But in general, we want to keep them out of anything that has the risk of further collapse, whether they would create the collapse or get caught in the collapse, were really looking out for the safety of the dogs as well, because they're so valuable.

Nicholas Hill  30:26  
Ultimately, all of these challenges converge to create one of the trickiest search and rescue environments many of these teams had seen in their career, Sara notices that despite the number of obstacles, the search and rescue dogs, like her dog, Anna are undeterred, performing their training with focus and dedication. If

Sarah Atlas  30:48  
you think about the 1000s of people that were there trying to help move the rubble because a lot of it was done by hand. And with buckets at that point, hoping that we were still would be people that would be found alive, there was heavy machinery, there was a lot of organized chaos. And these dogs stayed on task, and it was so proud of them. And then you have buildings that and like I said, it was seven World Trade Centers that was on fire and eventually collapse, but you have a lot of stuff going on. And these dogs stayed focused, they ignored other dogs, they did their job, we made sure they kept hydrated. So a lot of agility, an awful lot of some of the dogs were balancing the rebar that was just hanging in. It was amazing what these dogs are doing it just even though we train with these dogs on a constant basis, it still amazed me how athletic and dedicated the floor.

Nicholas Hill  31:39  
Dr. Otto echoed this praise as this is something that she consistently sees in the search and rescue dogs that she works with.

Dr. Cindy Otto  31:47  
We talked about them as canine athletes, and they're actually they are professional athletes and what they do and what they have to do physically, mentally, it is different than your average pet dog.

Nicholas Hill  31:57  
The search and rescue dogs at Ground Zero had two primary goals. Here's Bob,

Bob Deeds  32:03  
our mission was finding first and foremost anybody that was alive, that was trapped in rubble. And the second part of it was clearing an area so that we could be sure that nobody was alive in an area so they could bring in heavy equipment, and dismantle the pile. Because when they dismantled it, it wasn't pretty. They would literally come in with a big claw or grapple, and they would get a hold of stuff and just rip it apart. And if you think of a disaster site as an onion, you got to peel back layers. And as you feel layers, you send dogs back in and you continue to search, because it may open up a pocket where older, the Santa is able to escape and get out we can work with it. Probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, is to look somebody in the face and say there's nobody here. Because if I made a mistake, I just killed somebody. And I can still remember the faces of the people that I told that to because they were putting all their faith in me and putting all their faith in my dog. And they didn't know us from Adam. And that was absolutely the toughest thing I've ever done in my career.

Nicholas Hill  33:14  
Now there was one moment where Bob's dog Kinsey did indicate a live find. But it turned out to be a bit of a false alarm.

Bob Deeds  33:23  
There was a solarium it was a kind of adult building. And we were asked to search the base of that area. And Kinzie went in and immediately went into a full blown indication. This is not the World Trade Center, right. And I pulled her out and my search team manager was already sending cello in to verify we pull cello out, we were thinking that both of these dogs have hit a French team was walking by they went in and their dogs indicated and they were given us thumbs up. Yeah, our dogs indicated to and we're standing there with one of the Florida task forces and we were talking about how they were going to divide up the actual rescue component. And about that time, this guy up at the top of that area will research and sticks his head out and he goes Hey, what are all the dogs barking at? And apparently he and another guy had been sitting down on the other side of the wall eating some sandwiches taking a break. And we didn't realize they were there. And so we went from this feeling of elation to to just totally being bummed out that we thought we had found somebody we had and

Nicholas Hill  34:38  
as the days went on the prospect of finding any live survivors dwindled, but the rescue workers remained hopeful. Here's Dr. Otto.

Dr. Cindy Otto  34:47  
So the main goal is live human search, and that's so time sensitive. There have been people who have been rescued a few days after a disaster, but for the most part, there were no Live finds there were plenty of finds of human remains that the dogs made. But the hope lasted into about day six or seven, we're still thinking maybe somebody in an elevator shaft, maybe they had water, maybe they could have survived. But after that it really became a recovery effort.

Nicholas Hill  35:18  
Now many of these dogs were trained specifically to find the live survivors. So the fact that there were no live survivors meant the dogs wouldn't get the payoff that was usually associated with their work. In order to account for this, the handlers had to get creative. Here's Sara Atlas, there

Sarah Atlas  35:38  
weren't live people to find for us. So we had teammate, people said the dogs got depressed was which wasn't correct. The dogs were not successful locating person that would give them their final reward, which was their toy. So we hit our teammate, and then the dogs would pug. So that was a misconception that the dogs were getting depressed. We did allow the dogs to get rewarded with teammates. While

Nicholas Hill  36:04  
the volunteers were helping to keep the spirits up for the rescue dogs. Cindy Ehlers and her therapy dog teqsa are hard at work comforting the first responders on scene,

Cindy Ehlers  36:15  
I did not know what to do at the World Trade Center site, I was out of my league, I had not really been trained in crisis response. I just had a little bit of information and went with that. I let cheek foot do a lot of the leading. I trained her specifically that if she saw somebody withdrawn head down, not speaking, because isolation is huge with trauma. I taught her to go up and to make contests in some way. And one of the things I had taught her to do was if I told her to go say hi, that meant she would go approach. And then before she got there, she would wave. And we practiced this in the hospitals. And that day, I told her to go up and to say hi to a firefighter sitting on a bucket. She went up to him and she did not do that. She bowed. So I specifically instructed her to go say hi, she was supposed to wave. I swear this dog knew that it was not appropriate. It was not the right setting. And she bowed and I'll never forget that. So it was like, Oh my gosh, what can I learn from these dogs? And these firefighters? They would do anything for that dog. They would run along behind her and say do you want to feed her? Does she want this? Does she want a hot dog? It was a relationship that impacted me emotionally. And it wasn't

Nicholas Hill  37:40  
only Tikva who provided therapeutic support at Ground Zero. During that time, every dog became a sort of therapy dog. Bob recounts several moments of his dog Kinsey comforting the first responders as well. I

Bob Deeds  37:56  
have always felt like she was about 25% Search Dog on that deployment and 75% therapy dog. Our very first night. After I had cleared that one area, we were waiting to be called back in and I was sitting on this Home Depot or Lowe's bucket something like that was upside down. Kinzie was between my knees facing out. And this firefighter comes walking up and he gets down on his knees. And he's just bawling. And he has his head on top of her head. And she's licking his tears and, and his tears are just running down her ears. And usually if we were working, we would ask people out to mass fly them. But I didn't stop anybody from wanting to touch her and wanting to holder. The comfort that I felt like they got from our dogs just being there. I felt was as important if not even more important than the actual search component that we were there for. Something

Nicholas Hill  38:56  
that really stood out to the handlers and especially to Sarah Atlas was not just the support that their dogs provided to those on scene, but the support that the surrounding community provided to the dogs.

Sarah Atlas  39:07  
What we did see was the most I'm getting choked up the humanity and compassion of people in this country. Everybody came together. We had people bringing ice cream cones for the dogs as treats. We had people dropping off toys, booties, so the dogs would be comfortable. And so the kindness was just overwhelming. People were sending cakes and food and it was just amazing. The kindness, the compassion. That was the biggest thing I took away, I think from 911.

Nicholas Hill  39:50  
After the search and rescue was complete, the canine teams returned to their daily lives. But Dr. Otto was curious about something given the dangers we've just discussed the dust of the rubble, the fires and toxic chemicals, the chaos, trauma and stress of being at Ground Zero, it's natural to wonder what if any long term health effects this environment had on the dogs that were present. This was something that Dr. Otto was thinking about, even during the operation.

Dr. Cindy Otto  40:20  
So there was actually a moment and what it was, was that somebody was talking and talking about Oklahoma City, and that the comment they made was, did you know that 50% of the dogs that worked in Oklahoma City have died. And I'm like, huh, that would be really bad. And there was a paper published about the effects of Oklahoma City. And most of the problems were that they had irritated eyes and a couple of other things. And people would get very worked up about what might be happening. And they were talking about dogs that were dying. And in the 911 response, no dog that was working at 911 died as part of the response, one dog serious died when the building came down. But he had been put in his kennel because his handler was helping to evacuate people. There was no dog that was actually working, that died directly as a result of the response. There were dogs that were injured, most of the injuries were incredibly mild. But what to me was really important is data and facts, because it gets really emotional. And people start hearing something is Oh, my gosh, these dogs all died. And I even heard it post 911, you know, half of the dogs from 911 died of cancer. And it's like, well, let's look at that. And let's really determine is that real? Or is that something that we're seeing? Because we know that one of the most common reasons that dogs die of cancer? Is there a connection? And that's really the important sort of scientific driven curiosity that I wasn't going to let go

Nicholas Hill  41:57  
of. So Cindy and her team set out to answer a simple question, did being at Ground Zero, cause these dogs to die earlier? Or to develop health problems that they otherwise wouldn't have developed? And to really answer that question, she needed to follow these dogs for their entire lives,

Dr. Cindy Otto  42:18  
what we needed to do is to look at what actually happened to the dogs on site. So what happened in the immediate response, but we couldn't leave it at that we needed to think about the long term effects. And so not only physical effects, but behavioral effects. And we wanted to follow these dogs for their entire lifetime. And part of that was just getting the word out. So social media wasn't as big of a thing. In 2001, the biggest challenge we had was that there was no actual registry of dogs that responded. But we had contacts where all the female dogs, so we really were doing a lot of searching and connecting with people and passing word along to try and figure out who was there. Cindy's

Nicholas Hill  43:00  
team also knew that in order to truly separate fact from fiction to make sure that their findings weren't coincidental. This needed to be a controlled experiment.

Dr. Cindy Otto  43:11  
We ended up getting 95 dogs to participate. And then we did collect control dogs and those were search and rescue dogs that didn't respond to this event. And, and we thought that was really important because the specific breeds that are most common in search and rescue are German Shepherds, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and those dogs as a breed are predisposed to certain diseases, we want to make sure that it wasn't just a breed event. We also know that search and rescue dogs do a lot of training and they train in places that most people don't go like rubble piles and disaster sites. So we wanted to make sure that we're making things as controlled as possible. And we were really privileged to have 55 handlers enrolled their dogs as controls to serve in that role, so we could have something to compare to.

Nicholas Hill  44:01  
Dr. Otto and her team begin the experiment. One of the challenges they have to overcome is that after the rescue operation, the dogs at Ground Zero all returned home, and they were spread all across the country. So in order to observe them Doctor autos team partners with their local veterinarians, to get the data and the observations they need.

Dr. Cindy Otto  44:23  
So they would go in annually for an exam from their local veterinarian, the veterinarian would draw blood, they would take chest X rays, they would send all of that to us. The handler would then fill out a medical survey, filling us in on any kind of events, any kind of surgeries, the dog had any kind of medical things, any kind of other problems. If the dog developed a terminal condition, we would perform an autopsy what we refer to in the veterinary world is a necropsy and trying to determine the exact cause of death. And we were monitoring for toxin levels as well. And then they did the behavioral surveys. Just to identify if there are any behavioral changes associated with their work or over time,

Nicholas Hill  45:05  
Bob and his dog Kinsey participated in Dr. Otto study, and Bob remembers a few of the tests.

Bob Deeds  45:11  
Yeah, Dr. Otto, who was one that put that together. And she tabulated all the findings afterwards. And Kinsey was a part of that. We did three different locations that we went to for MRIs, they actually with Kinzie, had to do X rays, because they detected metal in her nose. And when they did the X ray, they found a 25 caliber bullet that was embedded in her nose. And I think it was probably from her days on the street before I got her. And I used to tell people that was her gang days when she was out on the streets.

Nicholas Hill  45:48  
After performing the study on 95 dogs that were at Ground Zero and 55 dogs in the control group, the results were in, and Dr. Otto was surprised at the findings. So

Dr. Cindy Otto  46:00  
this is what was most amazing. When we look at the controls versus the deployed dogs, there were very few effects that we could attribute to 911. When we looked at causes of death, the most common reason that they died was degenerative things like cognitive dysfunction, arthritis, there's a close second was cancer. And we know that 30 to 50% of pet dogs die of cancer, there's a lot of cancer in our canine world. And it's something we certainly want to get on top of. But it didn't seem to be associated to me, my very favorite result that we got was that the average lifespan of these dogs, whether they were controls or deployed was 12 and a half years. And when we compare that to the breed standard, the breed average for the German Shepherd, the Labrador, the golden retriever, our search and rescue dogs were actually living longer than our average in that breed. And to me, what that said was a lot about the relationship that handler had with the dog, about the physical work and the condition, the athleticism, and also the mental stimulation, because these dogs are doing things and they're active and their brains are active. And I think that is really cool. Because what we can say is, yet we're asking them to do hard things. They're in potentially dangerous situations. But they're thriving, they are actually doing really well. And this kind of physical and mental activity and relationship that they have with that handler. That's good for them. It's good for us. And so that was probably the best finding that we found.

Nicholas Hill  47:47  
One of the specific concerns that was raised after the 911 recovery operation was the amount of dust and particulate that was in the air at Ground Zero. In fact, the American Lung Association reports that first responders who had intense early exposure sustained around a 10% reduction in lung function, and that this reduction was sustained after more than a decade. I asked Cindy if she saw any similar effects and the lungs of the search and rescue dogs she studied.

Dr. Cindy Otto  48:17  
If we look at lung cancer, which is a big concern in the human responders, our control dogs have a higher incidence than our deployed dogs. So we actually didn't see lung cancer as a problem in these dogs. What we can say is the for the dogs that we did the the necropsies on and had tissue lung tissue, they did have more particulates in their lungs. If they went to 911 than that then the dogs that didn't, but it didn't seem like it translated into a problem. And so that's the important part of it. It was a surprise actually having been there and seen what the environment was like we expected there were going to be problems, but the dogs are seem to be quite resilient in that and they're just, they're amazing.

Nicholas Hill  48:58  
Although the study didn't show long term aggregate effects on the dogs that were present, there were some dogs like Sarah's dog Anna, who did become sick after the 911 operation.

Sarah Atlas  49:10  
University of Pennsylvania developed the study to monitor many of the dogs Unfortunately, my dog became quite ill. She was diagnosed with bacterial and fungal infections in every major Oregon, and elementary school students used to come by and visit her and pet her and give her a kiss. And when it was deemed that she could no longer work. She was euthanized. About a month or two later. And I guess it made these papers all over the world. I believe she was the first dog that had suffered after effects. And I got cards and letters from all over the world and sympathy. Some local person bought out the local pet store and we received so many toys Use in beds and I donated from the local shelters, the town of Haddonfield had decided that they were going to raise a fundraiser for a new dog for me. And they did. And funds came in from multiple sources. And with that I was able to purchase another dog. And that dog went on to become another search and rescue dog.

Nicholas Hill  50:23  
I did ask Dr. Otto about these exceptions, stories of dogs that had become sick after being at ground zero.

Dr. Cindy Otto  50:31  
And we only had 95 dogs in the study that were at 911, we might have missed something. It's certainly possible. But to me, the classic example was a handler who had a dog who was probably 13 years old, that was on the pile. And that dog within six or eight months came down with some form of cancer, and it was a golden retriever. And you're like, but yes, it's a 13 year old golden retriever, the chance of it having cancer is really high, we need to look at this data so that we can see if there's anything that systematically shows us an effect. And we just we didn't find that. And again, there always could be that needle in the haystack that we're missing out on something. But certainly if there was a big effect, it's not showing up in the data.

Nicholas Hill  51:21  
After the events of 911, each of the four guests I spoke with honored the experience in their own way. Cindy ellers, after leaving Ground Zero, wanting to continue helping firefighter teams.

Cindy Ehlers  51:34  
It was something that a firefighter said that stuck to me. He said, These comfort dogs are the only thing that helped me through the day. And the day that he said it. He also asked me, you're going to be back tomorrow, right? And I promised him I would. And then they called me out. They call me home. And I never was able to go back. And then when I came home, all I could think about was these firefighters and how could we help them? How can we help them, I volunteered for the Red Cross at home, I would get called and go to the fires. And I took teqsa and he would stay in my vehicle. And then at the end, I get her out when all the firefighters were putting their gear away. And we would we just hang out together.

Nicholas Hill  52:20  
Cindy would go on to found hope, Animal Assisted crisis response, which gives comfort in times of crisis by bringing emotional support with specially trained dog and handler teams. Sara Atlas would also go on to start a nonprofit in service of these animals.

Sarah Atlas  52:39  
I decided I would pay it forward and I started a nonprofit called the search and rescue dog Foundation. And what we do is we give money to replace dogs that are no longer able to serve through retirement injury. And it has since expanded into also donating some of my own German shepherds to police departments. And funding is basically very minimal now, but I still donate dogs from breathing that I have my own from my own dogs.

Nicholas Hill  53:13  
Dr. Cindy Otto serves as Executive Director at the Pennsylvania veterinary working dog Center, which was inspired by the search and rescue dogs of 911.

Dr. Cindy Otto  53:23  
These dogs are what inspired us to open the Penn vet working dog center. We opened on September 11 of 2012 as a legacy of 911. And all of our dogs here are named after dogs that were part of the study. So we have a really strong routing in 911. But just as you were talking about how do you turn something horrible into something that pays forward that benefits humanity benefits dogs, and we feel like the pen bit working dog center is exactly the manifestation of that. Dr.

Nicholas Hill  53:54  
Otto went on to point out that if you're wanting to get involved with canine search and rescue, there are many ways to do so.

Dr. Cindy Otto  54:01  
Most of these dogs are privately owned, and the people that work with them are volunteers. If they're part of a FEMA team, when there is a deployment then they become employees of the government. But the amount of time and effort and expense that individuals invest in these dogs for the public good, is unimaginable and so anything that anybody can do to support these dogs, I would encourage that and not the pen but working dog center we have volunteers we have people who foster the dogs on evenings and weekends because they come to school five days a week and train with us and we have interns that come and spend time with us and so there's a great chance to get involved or get involved locally with search and rescue teams because they're always looking for people to hide for the dogs or people that to help out and support the the the team's Bob

Nicholas Hill  54:55  
deeds are tired from Texas Task Force One, but he and his wife Karen continue to mentor new handlers to respond to local and national search and rescue events through their organization, deeds canine connection. I asked Bob, if there was anything else he wanted listeners to take away from today's story.

Bob Deeds  55:15  
The biggest thing is, you know, I want people to realize that if they don't see us on an event like this, it doesn't mean that we're not there. I know, FEMA got a really bad rap during Katrina. And I remember I'm sitting at home watching the TV like everybody else. And they're filming California Task Force eight, which is a FEMA team going down the street and a couple of boats, and they're saying this team from California has gotten here. And famous Phil has shown up. And I wanted to throw something at the TV because we were doing operations. From the moment that hurricane went in, we had stuff going on there. And know that we're there, you know, you'll see stuff on TV, like real big deal at the hurricanes and stuff is the Cajun navy. You know, it's a volunteer group that does great work when they come out. But they're in areas that they're able to get to where in areas that nobody can get to the media can't get to. And of course, we're not doing this for media coverage. We're not doing it for accolades or anything like that. But from a standpoint of remaining hopeful, citizens need to realize that we're there and we're working and we're training, the amount of work that goes into this. It's just off the charts, and know that they're working. You may not see him, but they're out there.

Nicholas Hill  56:41  
I hope that you enjoyed today's episode, I'd like to give special thanks to Dr. Otto, Bob, Sarah and Sandy for their time and their unique experience and expertise. If you'd like to get involved, I'll add links to each of the four organizations we discussed in the show notes for today's episode. Today's show was directed and produced by me with music from Alex girls. If you know of a story of an act of impact that you'd like for me to tell, send me an email info at acts of If you like today's episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts, and consider leaving a review, as it will help us to spread the word about the show. You can view more information about today's episode online at x of Thank you for listening