They had names like Cara, Porkchop, Blizzard and Moxie. They hailed from all over the continent and even Europe. There were 350 of them. Rescue dogs. Dogs trained to find those still alive and those deceased. They were mostly black or yellow labs and German shepherds. But came they did, and the work they did was grueling, incredibly useful but horribly frustrating.
Dogs are perfect for getting into small spaces, moving through debris that an average person can’t, and walking lightly over the piles of broken and melted beams, so as not to disturb them. They have a sense of smell that is far more sensitive than a human’s and can pick up scents even through concrete– all valuable skills in the weeks that followed the collapse of the two towers.
The training they go through is grueling. They have to override their basic instincts, which is hard for any creature. They learn to run without digging in their claws. They’re trained to keep their paws spread apart and to stay put if the ground begins to move. They’re trained to stay calm amidst mayhem. Cadaver dogs have a unique skill set, because they are trained to use their sense of smell to ferret out bodies.
The work was torturous. Shifts for the average dog was 12 hours, and many of them suffered from exhaustion, as well as serious injuries to their paws from shrapnel and melting debris and to their eyes for toxic fumes and concrete dust. Others required intravenous hydration because of extreme heat stroke. A first aid tent was erected near the smoldering site just for the dogs. A pharmaceutical company donated nebulizer medications for them and Rockefeller University donated doggie goggles to protect them.
But many of the dogs were trained to find living survivors. Handlers grew increasingly concerned as the days went by and it was clear that that would not be the case. The dogs were growing depressed, and the handlers resorted to hiding so that their dogs could find them. They also made sure their dogs were held and cuddled a lot to help with their growing sense of despair. Yet even though the animals had become dispirited, their overall presence had a therapeutic effect on the rescue workers working onsite. Their very presence was uplifting.