Eleven years ago I was in class when our teacher received a phone call. She got very still and announced that she was turning on the television because something terrible had happened. As I heard that the Pentagon had been hit as well as the Twin Towers, I worried about my sister. She was a college student in DC, working on the Hill. If the Pentagon had been a target, so could the Capital buildings.
My sister was safely evacuated away from danger, but so many others lost their lives. In the days after, I turned on the television to a subdued John Stewart, discussions of retribution, and seemingly endless searching through the rubble. I heard about the at least 400 Search and Rescue (SAR) dogs brought from miles away to search at both sites. Although the dogs had been trained to find survivors, they worked long days finding body parts that were later used to at least provide certainty to those who worried over the unknown fate of family members. The dogs appeared as upset as their handlers to not be able to do more.
When nothing else could be done, the dogs were simply there for people who were tired, grieving and afraid. Last year, we wrote about the therapy dogs who came from all over to join the SAR dogs. I remember tears welling up when I saw the now famous image of a rescue worker finding a small measure of comfort as he stroked a tired dog. The dog was unable to find survivors and he could not bark and attack the threat. Instead, he fought the grief by providing comfort to those who needed it most. Across the country, pets in homes provided relief to shocked people in front of their televisions as well. (Read how Petfinder staffer Jane cuddled with her cat while watching the events unfold.)
The SAR dogs were recently honored at the unveiling of a new memorial in Coram, NY, according to Newsday. Others have honored those animals by training their pets to be therapy animals. (Find out how to become a therapy dog team.)
In addition to petting a furry back, I have always found comfort in learning about preparations for the future. It’s the practical side of my optimism. Currently 600 dogs are deployed with Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan to help protect our troops and win hearts with their lolling tongues and wagging tails. The BBC recently reported on the IED Detector Dog program which is restructuring training of military dogs to improve their success rate. To be considered for the program, the IED Canine Operations program recruits dogs “who can perform at a high physical level, who love to work, and who love to be around people” according to the website.
BBC.com also reports that dogs are evaluated for their intelligence and they undergo intense physical training and testing. In addition, researchers are focusing on finding dogs who are resilient. The New York Times reported in December that “more than five percent” of deployed dogs come back with signs of canine Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Although professional acceptance of canine PTSD has only existed for about two years, the BBC reports that the IED Canine Operations program actively tries to find dogs who are less likely to suffer from it after their missions. Foreign Policy’s blog noted that it’s impossible to completely rule out a dog acquiring PTSD and the best method of treatment and prevention is a watchful handler.
While the effects of war on these dogs scare me — and are considered somewhat controversial, I’m glad that “man’s best friend” is still helping us. Knowing that there are not only animals helping survivors, but helping to ensure more people survive is comforting. I’ve always been told that dogs and people came together in part because dogs could protect the humans while the humans helped and fed the dogs. The means of protection and help have changed with the times. In the end though, it’s the same relationship it’s been since humans and canines first lived under one tent. These tents are just disaster issue.
Tell us: What do you think of “working dogs” like search and rescue dogs, dogs in the military and therapy dogs?