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In honor of unsung 9/11 heros

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 DOG IS GOD SPELLED BACKWARDS

By Nancy Cohen koan

written originally a month after 9/11 commissioned for a magazine…never published as I needed more time to incorporate all the dogs.

As the statues for the dogs are ready to be unveiled, I admit to having always loved them. Dogs love unconditionally and unless they’re owned by lawyers in San Francisco, (https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-attorney-dog-mauling-no-parole-20190207-story.html) make for wonderful friends and neighbors. But it wasn’t until the tragedy of the WTC that I understood just how loving they really can be.

My introduction to the rescue dogs first came at the Javits Center where I along with hundreds of others was awaiting instructions on what to do as a volunteer. I had already met a cute French fireman and was really ready to do some work.  Most of us had been standing around for ages and except for an occasional flirtation, were feeling like crap and basically in shock. There was plenty of free food and sun, but not enough to do to fill up the hours of disbelief and confusion.

 I think it was about five thirty when a work shift was finishing and the people started coming back from downtown.  Everyone was looking for signs of hope but all we saw were exhausted, saddened faces.  Then, suddenly, a police captain walked by with a worn-out German Shepherd at his side. Perhaps as much for himself as for the anxious volunteers, he turned to the crowd and announced that his dog had made eight “finds” that day.  At that point in the rescue effort, no one knew precisely what “finds” meant, but we understood that something good had happened and that the dog was a big part of it. We gave them both a standing ovation, just as we had done for the returning rescue fireman.  The dog wagged his tail and off they went. It was the beginning of many such moments.

Porkchop, Max, Molly, Senta and Daisy, just a few of the names from the heroic group of rescue dogs who came to New York to help the fallen on September 11th. They poured in from everywhere: California, Florida, Arkansas Chicago, France – the world. They were mostly work dogs, shepherds, collies, a bloodhound, a few rottweilers, some labs and yes, even one part poodle. Some of them belonged to FEMA, some to the police department, and some to just ordinary civilians, many who paid their own way to New York to offer their skills in what instantly became known as Ground Zero.

Dr. Garvey of the Animal Medical Center in New York said that he had never seen anything like it. “These dogs worked in the most adverse conditions. In the beginning of the search there was a great amount of dust, which got into their ears, nose and eyes. Wuss, a Belgian Malinois from St. Louis fell face first into a hole and had to be treated for asphyxiation. Ammo, a German shepherd, who had had 200 saves, collapsed from dehydration, but they both went home in good condition,” he reported. Clearly, these were not games being played on a field. Ground Zero was a true test of the canines’ rescue skills and their loyalty to the handlers.

These pooches worked longer hours than most of my friends. Each day was a 12- hour shift with a few breaks for ear cleaning and a bath.  They had to walk on jagged material, teetering on shaky debris in the hopes of picking up a scent that would lead them to a living or dead body.  Dr. Glenn Anderson, working at the Triage center in Tribeca said that the circumstances under which the dogs and handlers worked were unimaginable, and he was even more amazed by the camaraderie and cooperation.

Rescue dogs are trained in two ways: live finds and cadavers.  For live, they often learn by searching for their handler who is hidden in a forest or hole, invisible to the human eye. The dogs sniff them out. Their reward is finding the person they love. For human remains, they practice with products that give off the scent of a corpse.  Sometimes they work with actual dead bodies.  Their sense of smell is so powerful that they can pick up scents through asphalt.  In the case of the World Trade Center, finding cadavers has been an important element for families desperately in need of closure.

Not surprisingly, these dogs experienced a kind of stress and depression at what they found. Unlike us, they are not usually prescribed Prozac.  But like the best in us, they kept on looking and hoping. 

All of these wonderful dogs and their handlers have a story. Here are just a few of them:

SENTA

Senta is a 5-year-old German Shepherd who works with veterinarian Dr. Dan Bacalaglu, from Lakehurst, New Jersey. He was adopted from a shelter and trained at the Naval base, OEM.  September 11th was his first real job. The two of them came to help at 2 p.m. on the Tuesday of the attack and had been working for more than a week when we met.

“Of the dogs trained, 70% make it through wilderness search training, and 30% urban training, said Dr. Bacalaglu. Senta, like many of the dogs, is cross-trained — he finds live bodies and uses an air scenting technique to locate cadavers which may be deeply under rubble.  Senta barks when he finds something live and digs with his feet when the body is dead.

“Communication between the handler and the dog is very important as often only the most subtle signs can indicate whether a body has been spotted,” said Dr. Bacalaglu.  Senta searches for children and to my surprise and relief, Alzheimer patients. As the two of them strolled up the West Side Highway after a grueling 12-hour shift, it was clear that their friendship was more than that of work partners. Does the dog sleep in the house? Yes, but not in the bed.

DAISY

Daisy, big –eyed bloodhound with draping ears, the picture of a young girl out for her first real job.  Prior to this assignment, handler Gary Curdiff of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, had done lots of repetitive tracking in wooded areas. He felt that Daisy was ready for this work and was confident she would succeed. Daisy was adopted from the Allige Foundation, founded by a father in memory of his abducted daughter.  Daisy was extremely affectionate, washing my face salty repeatedly with her soft tongue.  The last I spotted them was when they boarded the van for their first visit to Ground Zero, Daisy’s till spinning as she furiously licked her handler’s hand.

OFFICER JOAQUIN GUERRERO AND ROOKIE

I bumped into Rookie when he was having his paws checked for cuts at the Triage center. Joaquin Guerrero, of the Saginaw Police in Michigan fell in love with German Shepherd Rookie when he was just a pup in 1996 and they’ve patrolled the streets of Saginaw ever since.  As Guerrero’s partner, Rookie is considered a full-fledged police officer.  He is trained as a “full utility” dog.  Rookie can search, track, do SWAT team work, evidence searches, narcotic detection and K-9 therapy.  Sorry Scoobie Doo, this is not therapy for other dogs, but for people.  Rookie seems to specialize in nursing homes where he simply sits and allows the residents to pet him. My kind of job.

Rookie and Guerrero created a program in Michigan called PRECINCT 131 where they educate elementary school children on the harmful effects of cigarettes and other drugs, along with the dangers of guns, gangs and violence.  It’s been such a great success that they’re adding a Rookie look-alike puppet to help teach the kids when Rookie is out on the beat.

While Rookie was getting his paws looked after, Guerrero confided to me that he owes his happy marriage to his dog. Listen up, girls. According to him, his wife Cari originally first met Rookie and was smitten by the dog. Then she met Guerrero.  Apparently to be closer to Rookie, she married Guerrero, joined the PRECINCT 131 and adopted Rookie’s little sister for her own.  They’re a police family so they wanted to give Cari’s dog an appropriate name, but his brothers had already taken Misdemeanor and Miranda. By default, she called her dog, Felony. In Saginaw they do “ride a longs” together, but in New York they were pure search and rescue.

Guerrero couldn’t praise these dogs enough. “The dog’s ability to discern scents is so acute that they can be trained for narcotics as well as poison. Yorkies can even walk around a patient and find where the cancer is”, he assured me.  Wow.  That would be some TV show.

Rookie is so well loved in his hometown, that the children have been raising funds to have a bullet proof vest made just for their hero.  They then hope to provide them for all the rescue dogs.

MAX

Max, a Shepherd, also made an appearance at the Triage center where he was getting fluids for dehydration and Tagamet for an upset stomach.  His handler, Jasmine Fraleigh of Fort Smith, Arkansas had come with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team.  Jasmine said that Max, a four-year-old Sagittarius (meaning he likes to travel), could never have been prepared for anything of this nature.  One time back home though, she said, Max picked up a scent after 18 hours of a lost thirteen-year-old.” She felt that Max was definitely suffering depression from the lack of live finds, but at least was able to give comfort therapy to the fireman on site where they “could cry onto his broad furry back.”

Fraleigh thinks a mask and goggle would be great for the dogs in an environment like Ground Zero, if they could only still catch scents through it. She said that rescue dogs are so sensitive they can even warn an epileptic of an oncoming attack. Max not only sleeps in her house, he sleeps at the foot of the bed, though my suspicion is he sometimes climbs in.

KERMIT

Another hero, Kermit, a German Shepherd working with Merlin Durkman, a volunteer from Colorado, pulled in for medical attention from the Veterinary Assistance Medical Team known as VMAT. Everyone seemed to know Kermit, a bright and friendly, though totally pooped dog. Merlin and Kermit had been in New York since the day after the attack.

Kermit, who trained with Durkman under master trainer Joe Cligan of the US Police Canine Association is trained to find human scent, blood, fluid, bodies, and clothing. He has an extremely sensitive nose but was because of the dust, was experiencing some difficulty because of the great amount of dust.

THE FRENCH TEAM

The international response to the tragedy had been no less than the national.  A rescue team from France arrived on Sunday, anxious to put their hounds to the test. They were from C.I.C.R.S. or Group Intervention Cinophile Rescue Search.  Their Belgian Malinois is like a Shepherd but shorter haired.  He is intelligent, understands rapidly and “has a very good nose” said trainer/handler Lancelot Fabrice.  Fabrice believes it takes two to three years of training before they are ready for search and rescue. When they find someone alive, the dogs jump up and yelp; when they find a dead body, they drop down and look sad.  Ah, the French technique. Their dogs are especially adept at finding lost children.  They once found a little girl in Armonje, France after ten days.

They team was anxious to start working and had to wait for a diplomatic release before joining the search. If my college French served me correctly, I believe Fabrice saw the moment as a first for people worldwide to unite. Again, I asked about the sleeping arrangements, them being French and all, but alas the dog doesn’t share the bed. When the volunteers offered snacks for the handlers and food for the canines, they men took the candy but refused the dog food.  Their dogs eat only a French food called Royal Canal.

HEDGES

Search dogs do a variety of different jobs. Hedges, a 3 1/2-year-old black and tan German Shepherd, is part of the New York State Police explosives detection and K-9 unit. He and his handler, Neil Dow of Troop F in Orange County, New York specialize in bomb searches.

Hedges, named after an officer Richard Hedges who died in the line of duty in 1942, trains three times a year for a full week.  He and Dow do tactical maneuvers and are observed as a team. Bomb dogs go on a fifteen- foot lead and are trained to detect 17 different types of bombs, from TNT to dynamite.

They were brought into the World Trade Center scene to do “bomb sweeps” ensuring that there were no planted bombs in public places. At that point there had been 90 threats and they had just “swept” JFK, La Guardia and the Javits Center.

Officer Dow uses hand gestures with Hedges for commands like sit, stay and come. “The three key words with dogs are patience, repetition and praise.” he says.  “Also, they like to be spoken to in a high-pitched voice when training. “I was personally thrilled to hear that.  I have always spoken to my animal companions in a “girly” voice that has driven many of my human friends crazy.

 Watching Hedges and Dow together almost made me yearn for a relationship as sweet as theirs, their bond is so tight.  Dow says “if a perpetrator gives off a “vibe” that the dog mistrusts, the dog will react to protect his handler.”  This includes subtle energies that are only picked up by the dog. “Dogs have jumped through car windows to protect their handlers”, Dow said.

“Patrol dogs’ lives are quite stressful. They have a career span of six to eight years”, Dow said, because of the climbing up and down, which can be hard on their hips.” But even when Hedges retires, he will continue to live with Dow.  They are a real team.

________________________

MOSES

“Moses led people out of Egypt” said Chief Rabiela as a way of explaining his German Shepherd’s name. They came from Chicago, from the Fellowship of Christian Firefighers, thus further explaining the nomenclature. “Moses has zero aggression and he does therapy work, too”, said the Chief proudly.   Moses had to have three stitches on his paw after he cut it while climbing on a wire. But like Moses, he was back out in the field the very next day.

PORKCHOP

Certainly, one of the volunteer stars of the rescue effort and my personal fav is a sweet little Australian Shepherd with a pinkish nose named Porkchop.  Porkchop was trained in live scent and cadaver work with the California Rescue Dog Association and spends his days in Oakhurst, California with handsome handler Eric Robertson.  They’ve been together since Porkchop was 10 weeks old. The breed is apparently good for avalanche work, able to work long, hard shifts with great find success.  They train regularly every day for four hours.

The two of them travel with a second handler Mark Lagerquist.  “With rescue dogs, it’s wise to have a second, so that one can be in the lead, and the other can help push the dog from behind on steep inclines”, said Mark.

 Assigned to the New York Police Department canine unit, Porkchop and Robertson were considered the confirmation team.  FEMA people would go in first, then Porkchop would go in and confirm. According to Robertson, Porkchop made recoveries every day, often within the first thirty minutes of starting the shift.  His technique is to bark three times when he makes a “live find” and to sneeze when he finds a cadaver. There were no survivors found, but everyday remains were discovered.

Porkchop was the first dog I saw with little booties. . Some of the dogs wear booties to help protect the soft pads of their feet from the rubble. Many sets of booties had been donated.

“But, when his vest is off, he’s just like a regular dog”, insisted Robertson.  “He loves to carry everything,” he says.  I saw this in action when he tried to carry my notepad right out of my hands.  “He loves to please, and doesn’t mind wearing the booties.” added Robertson.  He was certainly an endearing picture with sparkling eyes, bright vest and slippers.  It was all I could do not to fawn all over either of him.  

 “And how did he get such a goofy name?” I asked.  “When he was a puppy, we put him in the shopping cart at a grocery store and when we went to the checkout line, the sticker from the pork chops was stuck to his butt,” answered Robertson. Lucky it wasn’t the leg of lamb. And why can’t we take our dogs into grocery stores in New York?

Even after returning to California, Eric was anxious to come back to do more work with Porkchop in New York.

There were so many more canine workers: MOLLY, the yellow lab; MORGAN, and BIGFOOT and the Siberian husky from New Jersey who came daily to volunteer, but wasn’t qualified as a certified rescue dog.  There came from all over this country and the world, but they had one thing in common – they shared a love for their handlers. We New Yorkers were fortunate, for with that love came incredible skill, training, loyalty and devotion.  Qualities that this city so desperately needed and will continue to need as we heal.  The statues that are being erected are a nice touch … a reminder to us all that these shaggy heroes are truly loving friends.

Written by nancykoan

September 8, 2021 at 12:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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