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The World Trade Center attacks prompted an intense search-and-rescue effort. How have the 9/11 dogs and their human handlers been faring? Two Penn professors, Dr. Cindy Otto and Dr. Melissa Hunt, are trying to find out.

By Susan Frith | Photography by Candace diCarlo

“Bones” is the word Lynne Engelbert whispers into her dog Lucy’s ear when she needs her to find the dead: a body, a piece of skin, even a tooth that will give an answer to someone’s loved ones.

And in late September 2001, crossing a pile of mangled steel that used to be part of the World Trade Center complex, the 10-year-old Border collie followed that command, returning to sit by her handler’s side to announce a discovery.

“Show me,” said Engelbert, a volunteer from Saratoga, California, who is now taking part in a three-year Penn-based study of the September 11 search-and rescue dogs and their handlers.

Lucy went to the spot, tapped it with her nose, and came back with an ebullience that could not be misread. “She was in my face: ‘I’ve done my job. Give me my reward.’”

Engelbert, a veteran rescue-worker from the Oklahoma City bombing who works professionally as an emergency-response-and-recovery program coordinator for NASA, couldn’t see anything, but she knew that Lucy had given a “rock-solid alert.” So she took off her glove and used it to play a game of tug with her dog.

Four hours later, the body of a firefighter was recovered deep within the wreckage at that very spot.

They came from California, from New Jersey, and places in-between, to search for the living, and then for the dead. As many as 300 dogs and their handlers took part in the rescue-and-recovery effort prompted by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Many of the volunteers brought years of training and experience; others brought only good intentions.

Dr. Cindy Otto, a Penn Veterinary School professor who was on hand to care for some of the dogs in the first days after September 11, wondered what effects the intense search, the long working hours, and the exposure to numerous, potentially harmful chemicals would have on the canines. That curiosity led her to become lead investigator in a three-year, $330,000 study—the first to look at the long-term health and well being of search-and-rescue dogs and their human handlers. Working as co-investigator on the human side of the equation is Dr. Melissa Hunt G’90 Gr’96, an associate professor in Penn’s psychology department.

Using data on 101 of the deployed dogs and 70 of the handlers, the two professors hope their study—sponsored largely by a grant from the American Kennel Club Health Foundation—will reveal any health risks associated with working at disaster sites of this magnitude as well as ways to make this work safer; offer insight into the bonds between dogs and their handlers; and provide clues about why some people respond to traumatic events with resilience while others struggle long after with feelings of depression or anxiety.

The first year of data collection and analysis has notturned up a pattern of health problems in the dogs—though this certainly could change over time; researchers also are surprised by the low numbers of human handlers meeting clinical guidelines for post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, to date. 

Psychologist Melissa Hunt G’90 Gr’96.
Sept. 11 volunteer and Amtrak Police dog, Ronnie handled by Dave Lee.
Veterinary School professor Cindy Otto, at the examining table with Ronnie and Willow, a FEMA dog handled by Bobbie Snyder.

Otto was working in her office at the School of Veterinary Medicine the morning of September 11, when the phone rang. It was her husband, relaying the news that a second plane had hit the World Trade Center complex. “I told him I knew I’d be going” to New York, she recalls. That night, the associate professor of critical care in the Department of Clinical Studies left Philadelphia with 61 human volunteers from Pennsylvania Task Force One and four dogs.

In the past, her official role with the task force, which is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s network of trained urban search-and-rescue groups, has been as a technical-information specialist, documenting everything through photography and written reports. It bothered her, however, that FEMA traditionally has relied on physicians, instead of veterinarians, to provide medical care for the dogs at a rescue site. Because Otto’s task force traveled by ground to New York, however, it was able to take some extra support specialists. “They brought me along strictly to take care of the dogs, which turned out to be a really valuable thing.”

For eight nights, Otto put on her safety boots, strapped on her helmet, and walked out onto the rubble, which was lit up like a movie set, to start her 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero. “This is a bad movie,” she thought. “It just didn’t seem real.” Easier for her to fathom are the canine blood test and X-ray results that now fill a long filing cabinet drawer in her campus office. 

Otto’s main job at Ground Zero was preventive medicine. “We flushed [the dogs’] eyes anytime they came off the [rubble] pile, and checked their feet for cuts and scrapes. The other really important thing, which was hard to do, was enforcing rest and drinking, and giving the dogs a chance to be in a place that was quiet and not stressful.” 

Though the dogs under Otto’s care never required fluid therapy, she says, dehydration was a problem for many others. One of the dogs in her task force, a Labrador retriever named Bear, “likes Kool Aid, so he would drink Kool-Aid wherever. But some of the dogs were just too worked up” to drink anything. Other dogs sustained cuts to their unprotected paws, and one dog collapsed after inhaling dust in its lungs.

Everyone, dogs and human volunteers, was overworked, observed Otto. “There was such a need to find victims that every time you turned around, people were screaming for a dog.”

The humans and dogs that worked in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—and those involved in searching for body parts in the wreckage taken to the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (all three groups are being studied by Otto)—potentially were exposed to numerous hazardous materials, from lead and mercury to asbestos and PCBs. On top of that was the concrete dust that blanketed everything.

As she monitors the dogs’ health over the next several years, Otto will look for increased incidences of particular diseases—data that would help the dogs and provide an early alert to health officials about the need for screening human dog handlers and other rescue workers. “The data is still pending statistical analysis, but we have not identified any clinically significant abnormalities in the bloodwork or radiographs to date,” Otto says. “There are a few dogs that have had problems, but we cannot be certain if the problems are related to the work at the World Trade Center.” One dog that worked at the Fresh Kills landfill, for example, continues to have a chronic cough, but it’s unclear at this point whether the condition is directly related to the landfill work. Another dog had to be euthanized for a bone tumor in its leg and an additional dog was euthanized after contracting a fungal infection in her spine. Again there is no evidence the diseases resulted from work at Ground Zero, she says. Time will reveal more.

It takes a certain kind of dog to do this work … A dog that “can make you crazy at home because it just hasto have a job.

Because dogs’ life-spans are so much shorter than humans’, a cancer such as mesothelioma—caused by asbestos exposure—for example, might show up in a dog in five years, as opposed to the 20 years it would take to develop in a person. In addition, the dogs were not wearing protective equipment, such as respirators, and were closer to the ground than the humans, exposing them to more hazards. Dogs participating in the study get a year of free health insurance.

Otto’s study also will examine surveys handlers have completed about their dogs’ health and behavior—displays of aggression, willingness to learn, and signs of anxiety—since their deployment last September, to see if the dogs suffered from working long hours, being deprived of play, or picking up on their owners’ stress. 

The dogs “don’t care what they find [at a disaster site] as long as they find what allows them to get their reward,” she explains. For that reason, volunteers at Ground Zero occasionally were enlisted to hide in the rubble to give the dogs a live person to find.

The dogs also respond to the moods of their handlers. “If the handler is having trouble, they have trouble,” Otto says. “They’re so interconnected. I’m hoping we’ll have evidence to show how tight that bond is.”

Though the ongoing data collection will shape their recommendations, Otto says her gut feeling is that there should be more enforced rest cycles for everyone—dogs and handlers—during a search-and-rescue effort. And more training beforehand.

It takes a certain kind of dog to do this work:Large enough to jump over crevices, but small enough to be carried if necessary. A dog that, as Otto describes, “can make you crazy at home because it just has to have a job.”

Tony and Annette Zintsmaster, FEMA volunteers from Indiana, began training dogs for search-and-rescue work 12 years ago, after their German shepherd puppy, Thor, quickly disassembled the cardboard box they put him in his first night at home. “He took to everything,” says Tony, whose paid occupation is contract work for quality assurance plans. Eventually Thor learned how to do all kinds of searches: collapsed structure, wilderness, water recovery. Working for a local volunteer team in cooperation with law enforcement, Zintsmaster recalls, “We put a guy in prison when Thor found a single drop of [the suspect’s] blood six blocks from a murder scene.” 

Lynne Engelbert describes her dog, Lucy, as having “an incredible work ethic. She’s smart, she’s overbearing. She’s a true bitch, I’ll tell you that. And that has absolutely nothing to do with her gender.”

At Ground Zero Lucy “was in her element” and didn’t seem to notice the bone spurs in her elbows and digits. “I watched her carefully,” says Engelbert, “and she didn’t even have a limp. I think the older, experienced dogs have a tendency to pace themselves.”

But there were dogs that got hurt: dogs “that had never worked a rubble site or a concrete pile, much less what the World Trade Center looked like,” Engelbert says. “Some [dogs] would just shut down.” (The Penn study is primarily looking at FEMA search-and-rescue dogs, although owners of 27 non-FEMA dogs—including some unaffiliated with any rescue group—have completed surveys about their dogs’ health and behavior.) 

FEMA’s extensive certification requirements take up a 56-page document on the agency’s Web site and for the dogs include such abilities as “proper command control, agility skills, barking alert skills, and willingness to overcome innate fears of tunnels and wobbly surfaces under the guidance of the handler.”

Beyond that, Tony Zintsmaster says he and his wife have prepared their dogs (two of which were deployed at Manhattan’s Ground Zero; Thor had retired by then) for the challenges of search work by “teach[ing] them to cope with stress when they are little puppies, and then throughout life with little challenges. If you build it in them a step at a time, then when they encounter it they don’t go, ‘Oh my God, what do I do?’”

So he tells them, “‘You want your dinner? It’s in the hallway behind one of five doors.’ When they’re younger, you might leave the door open a crack.” 

As a result of this preparation, he says, “A dozen generators are running [at Ground Zero], and you’re trying to walk through the street and go through all this dust and confusion. But you get out on the pile and the dog says, ‘Ah, I know what to do.’ In a way [this preparation] affected me the same way, too.”

The issue of resilience in humans is one that interests Dr. Melissa Hunt, the co-investigator from Penn’s psychology 

Hunt recently completed a coping-skills and depression-prevention project in which she recruited pet owners from the emergency-room waiting area at Penn’s Veterinary Hospital. With sick or dying pets, this population was at high risk for depression, she explains, so she wanted to examine whether certain therapies such as expressive-writing exercises might help them cope more effectively with their grief.

Otto attended a presentation that Hunt gave to faculty about her findings and approached her afterward to ask that she serve as a co-investigator on the rescue-dogs project, studying the wellbeing of the human handlers.

Participants in Hunt’s half of the joint study fill out questionnaires about themselves and take part in a series of informational and diagnostic interviews with clinicians. Among other factors, Hunt is looking at the amount of rescue experience handlers had before September 11; whether there is a history of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder for an individual; and how that person fits into a normal range of personality types. “We’re predicting that more training, more experience and in particular a history of successful search-and-rescue missions will lead people to be more resilient than people who were more novice and had less formal training.” There also may be something unique in the personalities of many people who choose to go into search-and-rescue work that fortifies them against depression or anxiety, she says.

“We’re also looking at things like relationship quality and support,” adds Hunt. “We know the divorce rate for rescue workers who were in Oklahoma City was about 70 percent. [Many of those people also dropped out of the rescue work because of post-traumatic stress disorder.] So one of the things we’re concerned about is what are the long-term consequences. That is not something we are going to see in the first six weeks or first six months, but something that’s going to play itself out over several years. And we’re interested in whether having a solid marital relationship pre-trauma is a real protective factor.” So far no marital problems have been reported within the deployed group from the World Trade Center.

FEMA dogs must demonstrate “proper command control, agility skills, barking alert skills, and willingness to overcome innate fears of tunnels and wobbly surfaces.”

“You’ve got a zebra that’s been mauled by a lionand barely escaped with its life,” Hunt is saying. Sitting in her campus office, far from any perilous savannahs, she is trying to explain the neurocognitive survival mechanism that we humans share with other animals to our benefit and detriment. “You want that zebra to have learned something. You want that zebra to be extremely sensitized to a little bit of grass moving … to be extremely conscious of trauma-related cues.”

But for humans, events like the World Trade Center attacks represent “violence perpetuated by our own species. And you’ve got this whole other added layer of meaning—and difficulty in knowing who is the enemy,” Hunt says. “‘Why did this happen? What does this say about the safety of the world in general?’—not just, ‘What does this say about grass waving at the water hole?’ So trauma becomes magnified and generalized.”

According to Hunt, the dog handlers at Ground Zero, for the most part, have been doing well. Based on structured, clinical interviews, nine out of 70 people in the deployed group are meeting the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, compared to none in the control group of 30 handlers who did not go to New York or the Pentagon.

None of the handlers in the deployed or control groups are meeting the criteria for major depressive disorder. However, in questionnaires they completed for the study, additional handlers in the deployed group have self-reported “mild-to-moderate” symptoms of those two disorders.

“We were anticipating much higher levels of psychopathology in the samples than we were actually getting,” Hunt says. It will take time for a fuller picture to emerge, but the results raise the question of how this event and its aftermath might have differed from the Oklahoma City bombing.

“What is striking and compelling about reading interview transcripts is that by and large, this is a highly professional, highly dedicated, competent group of people. They have been able to put the horrific things they experienced into a special context, much the way we would expect trauma surgeons to do.”

In interviews for the study, for example, one man stated that he had found “one corpse and one piece of flesh.” For this man, Hunt says, that discovery was a very important part of the success of the rescue mission, “because he knew it was going to be possible to do a DNA identification of that piece of flesh and that was going to bring closure to the victim’s family.

“My sense is that the handlers who were handling cadaver-trained dogs have generally done better,” Hunt says. “They could help. They could do something.” Handlers whose dogs only had experience with live searches, on the other hand, felt more frustrated, because there were so few live victims to find. 

Hunt plans to test the effectiveness of “preventive, expressive writing” in helping study participants put their experiences into a healthier context. This month she will mail out writing exercises to a randomly selected group of rescue-dog handlers “to see if we can prevent disabling anniversary reactions” as September 11 approaches again.

Over three days, she explains, those people will be asked to write three different essays. Not only will this allow them to talk about their feelings, but it will encourage them to find a constructive way of looking at the events connected with September 11, “to tell a story that makes sense, that fits within their lives, with how they see themselves as emergency rescue workers.”

With 20 years of emergency response behind her, says Lynne Engelbert, the handler from California, the hardest part of her own deployment was the “emotional roller coaster before we got out the door,” watching the events unfold on television and “wanting to be there to do what we could to help, no matter how small that was.”

She feels great, however, about the role that she and Lucy played once they arrived at Ground Zero, noting that Lucy’s nose began twitching immediately and she “did what she was trained to do.”

Tony Zintsmaster, the handler from Indiana, speaks as one who is proud of his contribution—and touched by the New Yorkers who daily cheered rescue workers from the sidewalks—but is still sorting through the memories and meanings of September 11. He and his wife had the double stress of working their dogs separately for the Indiana and Missouri task forces, seeing each other only briefly between shifts at Ground Zero: “We used to call it ‘a hug, and a kiss, and a be careful out there.’”

The events of September 11 “did create a sense of stress,” he says. “It changed your perspective. I’m sitting here looking at my backyard right now and thinking, ‘What do I love about where I’m at and where do I want to go with the rest of my life?’ Fortunately, I have an exceptional wife and it gives me someone good to bounce things off, and someone who is really honest with me. 

“At times” since September 11, “I feel I’ve gotten a little too angry easily or let things bother me more than they should,” he notes, “but I can’t be sure that’s what it is. Maybe you appreciate the selfless act of someone a little more and maybe you’re less tolerant of people who don’t think of anybody but themselves.”

For all of her objectivity in analyzing x-rays and blood tests, Otto shares her own rescue team’s deep frustration about not being able to find and extract live victims. “And it was horrible,” she says. “That comes back.”

“Doing the study has helped,” Otto adds, “because I am still involved, doing something good out of something horrible. I think what we can learn from this is just incredible. It’s going to be good for the dogs, and good for the people.”

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