awareness@work 23 – December 15, 2021 9/11 and the Growth of Canine Helpers and Therapy Dogs
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9/11 and the Growth of Canine Helpers and Therapy Dogs

Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.

December 15, 2021

    Since the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, our Wednesday articles have been dedicated to the enormous contributions made by families of victims and the community at large aimed at helping others. This month we will detail how 9/11 catapulted the use of Canine units in disaster response and ultimately, the growth in use of therapy dogs throughout the world.

"Most people in this country had never heard of disaster search dogs,” says National Search Dog Foundation (NSDF) Executive Director, Debra Tosch. When the news media started focusing on the dogs at Ground Zero, public knowledge really exploded.

    Approximately 300 search teams responded to 9/11. About 100 therapy-dog teams worked at the Family Assistance Center, and more volunteered at other sites where families gathered. While sniffer dogs have been around for decades, the public had little understanding of what they could do. Media  focused on the dogs as the one “ray of sunshine” in the bleak situation. When television coverage listed NSDF’s phone number, donations poured in—helping growth in programs for training dogs and handlers, also paving the way for longitudinal research on rescue and therapy dogs.

Smoky, a 4-pound Yorkshire terrier is credited with being the original therapy dog cheering wounded soldiers in hospitals on the islands around New Guinea during World War II. And after 9/11, therapy dogs would gain increased acceptance. 

    While therapy dogs have been around for 3 decades, their work with families of 9/11 fostered a new appreciation of the unique canine capacity to soothe the human soul. 

“People don’t talk to other people. But they’ll talk to you when you have a dog.” 

-Ursula A. Kempe, President and CEO of Therapy Dogs International, Inc. (TDI) 

    Numerous stories circulated in the media about the success of the canine therapists. Many of the stories involved children who were unable to speak with adults about their feelings, but sat stroking a dog while parents and friends engaged in very painful discussions about those who were missing. One handler told of her dog leaving her side to be near a child who was obviously grieving, but unable to relate those around him. Stroking the dog calmed him and he appeared more able to withstand the suffering of the adults around him. 

Mental health professionals noticed that some of the firefighters and other emergency teams were not talking to counselors, and thought that they might relate to the canine helpers.

    There were many stories of adults for whom the dogs successfully supported as well. Dog trainer, Cindy Ehlers travelled with her dog to New York to help with the enormous grief. Whereas most teams stayed in the Family Assistance Center, helping relatives who were grieving and distressed over looking for missing relatives, Cindy and her dog were able to assist first responders. 

    Mental health professionals noticed that some of the firefighters and other emergency teams were not talking to counselors, and thought that they might relate to the canine helpers. They were correct—and one story goes that after the four-legged therapists went home, a firefighter called up the Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams and asked, “Where are those comfort dogs? They’re the only thing that helps me get through the day.” 

“I think that the only beings that were able to give us solace and consolation, in terms of their unconditional love, were our pets.”

-Herbert Nieburg, Ph.D.

    Psychologist Herbert Nieburg, Ph.D. was practicing in Westchester, NY and coordinated mental health for the NY Guard and Ground Zero military personnel. Nieburg observed the way in which 9/11 breached the complacency that many people had. He and others noticed how people clung to their own pets at home during those dark days in our history. 

    The events of 9/11 brought great awareness to many as to the value of pets. Today, the pandemic has shown us even more our need for our four-legged companions. In a previous article this year, we reviewed research that showed the power that our pets have in raising oxytocin levels, as we stroke their fur and care for them. 

    Whether working dogs, therapy dogs, or our own beloved companions, few can dispute the value of their unconditional love for their “people.” And I for one am grateful that all of the attention focused on dogs as a result of 9/11 allowed for greater research on their health and how we as humans can more greatly care for them in whatever role they play in our lives. 


For more about the Foundation and how you can download a copy of the video Integrating the Losses, and learn about other programs, please contact Cheri Johnson, or visit us at 

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