by Diane Herbst
Her first assignment as a search dog at a disaster was monumental. A 3-year-old black lab named Abby flew from California to New York after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center to climb over twisted metal and sharp, hot slabs of concrete, breathing in dust and smoke to find survivors.
Abby, now almost 14, is one of the many unsung canine heroes of 9/11, with some 300 dogs reportedly helping at Ground Zero. "We did not find anyone alive, but we searched all the areas to make sure no one was left behind," says Abby's handler, Debra Tosch, now executive director of the Search Dog Foundation
in Ojai, California, which sent 13 dogs and handlers to Ground Zero. "For Abby, she had a great time. Their world is searching. They don't understand a terrorist caused this, it was time to go play again."
Like other search dogs on the pile at Ground Zero, Abby didn't wear protective booties as she traversed glass and other sharp objects. "It was more important that she feel what she was walking on and to keep her balance," says Tosch. "None of our dogs' paws got cut. These dogs are used to that environment, they are training on rubble twice a week, it's like if you go barefoot every day, your feet get tough."
Abby also served as a comfort for the scores of firefighters and other responders overwhelmed by the tragedy. "There was one time we were walking to the site to go search and there was a fire engine there in case of a second collapse," Tosch recalls. "As we walked by, a firefighter heard one of his friends' names on the radio, that he was found dead. And the firefighter buried his face in Abby's neck until he composed himself. He thanked me for allowing him to do that."
Since 9/11, Abby has searched for survivors of a deadly mudslide in California, and through the flooded aftermaths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At 11, with some physical aches, Abby retired. "She misses (disaster searching) all the time," says Tosch, of Ventura, California. "These dogs, this is what they are born to do; these dogs never lose that desire. So when they retire, their body may not be able to do it but their mind wants to."
These days, Abby accompanies Tosch daily to the SDF offices, and signs every thank you letter to donors with a paw print. Freekibble.com
loves the work of SDF, and last year donated 10,000 meals of Halo's Spot's Stew to one of the shelters who finds SDF the special dogs used for this demanding work.
Many of the dogs who worked at Ground Zero, including Abby, are included in the book Dog Heroes of 9/11
. "When I look back 10 years later, I try to look at the positive," says Tosch, "and one of the positives out of it is that 9/11 brought these dogs to the public's eye and educated people to what these dogs are doing."