another anniversary of 9-11 just passed and for some it was a time of reflection, others a visit to a deep wound and for some it was just another day. each anniversary takes us further away from a day that changed our world and yet our world continues on. as with so much other trauma big and small, we adjust.
the shock of the towers collapsing mobilized hundreds of professionals to handle the aftermath, including handlers of search and rescue dogs. as we all know now, there were few survivors. the search and rescue teams with their dogs worked in 12 hour shifts but found only destruction and despair, the dogs detected only the scent of cadavers. i remember seeing exhausted and traumatized handlers with their dogs, some who worried that the dogs were becoming depressed because their searches turned up no humans alive.
along with all the other images associated with 9-11, the image of distraught dogs was heart wrenching. somehow an exhausted working dog translates the burden of the work more deeply, perhaps because the humans can choose to be there, the dogs cannot. we know how the human search and rescue teams fared in the years following the attack – depression, illness, post-traumatic stress some deaths. dr. cynthia otto of the university of pennsylvania’s new working dog center wanted to find out how the dogs fared.
turns out the dogs were fine. actually, better than fine. the search and rescue dogs lived on average much longer than the average pet dog. turns out, dogs benefit from having a job.
you can see the stunning portraits of some these dogs in a book titled Retrieved.
the worry about the dog’s emotional well-being in light of having to constantly track the scent of dead bodies was a projected human emotion. to a dog, a scent is a scent. they don’t attach any human emotion to the fact that they are searching for the scent of a dead body, only that they are doing a job that pleases their handler. on that level they were immensely successful. any distress they felt was based on the emotional changes they sensed in their handler, along with simple exhaustion from working too many hours.
in the years that passed between 2001 and now, all of the dogs retired, most moving in with handlers and living out their lives in blissful retirement. though retired from their first job, the ‘retirement’ job of these dogs became helping their former handler now best friend recover from the trauma of 9-11. in no deliberate way, just by being who they are, by being a continued presence, by being a constant and non-judgmental companion.
every pet owner will tell you that their lives are greatly enhanced by having a pet. turns out, our pets feel the same way about us.
rather than remembering the trauma, tragedy or anger of 9-11, maybe we could think about the dogs, or better yet, think like the dogs and focus our attention on pleasing someone we love. and doing a great job of taking care of them.