Therapy Dogs Offer Comfort After 9/11 - A Firsthand Account

I always thought that I had been blessed with two incredible therapy dogs and after 9/11 I found out that I was right!

I lived in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001 with my husband and my two dogs Piper, a Corgi, and Girlie, an Australian Shepherd. Prior to 9/11 our daily morning routine was to stop at the three local firehouses on our way to work to say good morning. Both dogs would race into the back to be fed bagels and were met with giggles and hugs. I had NO IDEA how those little rituals would prepare us (somewhat) for September 11th and the work that we would soon undertake.

I know everyone has seen countless images of the World Trade Centers’ collapse but I ended up in the thick of it with my dogs by my side. Since I was only a ¼ mile away from the WTC, I watched people rushing up Broadway covered with dust and blood. I did all I could to help. Uninjured people, like me, went into the local deli to grab bottles of water to wash out people’s eyes. In this chaos, I’d forgotten about my two dogs. I panicked, but there they were, sitting on the sidewalk, waiting for me.

After the initial trauma, I wanted to help but wasn’t sure what to do. I decided that maybe it was just best to continue to visit the fire stations with Piper and Girlie. Sadly, on Thursday morning 9/13, I arrived at the first firehouse only to see candles and photos of all of the men there with a note stating that they had all perished. The second and third firehouses we visited lost over half of their men as well. From that day forward when we visited, I never said much, instead, I would just let the dogs run into the back to beg for bagels and hugs, which was all that seemed to be needed.

Soon after I contacted TDI, Therapy Dog International (with whom both dogs were certified) to see what else I could do to help. I was told that they needed therapy dogs desperately at the WTC Family Crisis Center on the Piers. The center was put into place to help the families of those lost with hundreds of various counseling services.

On my first day I went into a nursery for children that had lost one or both parents. I had to step back to get control of my emotions; there were so many children in there. I expected the place to be an emotionally charged climate but I was never going to be prepared for what I saw. One of the most emotional places we would visit, besides the nursery, was called “The Wall of Bears”. It was a 40 ft wall of stuffed animals sent from the families of the Oklahoma City bombing to symbolize their empathy for these latest terrorist victims. Each bear had a note attached with photos of a loved one who was lost in the Oklahoma bombing.

Once we got underway with our daily visits to the Crisis Center, I realized that each dog gravitated toward different people. Piper tended to go towards the quieter people and would just lean up against their legs. Girlie would push toward outwardly emotional people and do her happy dance and kiss them. Girlie was exceptionally good with all of the kids, I would bring a bag of costumes for the kids to dress her in but Piper swayed towards the quiet and sad children.

I overheard a woman say to her son, in Spanish, that she was very afraid of dogs. I understood her but did not say anything. Luckily her son, sensing the comfort that Piper and Girlie could provide said, “It is ok mom the dogs are here for you.” Instinctively Piper gently leaned against the woman who then cried “this is a sign from my son (who perished) that he is doing ok.” It was a moment that I will never forget and it made me realize that my dogs and I were EXACTLY where we were supposed to be. We saw that same women on several occasions and she would come right up to Piper and hug her…..incredible.

When I first started at the crisis center I thought I was there just for the families of the attack but I soon also realized that there was a second, equally important, purpose to our visits - taking care of the very large and exhausted support staff, so that they could help others. We comforted Chaplains, Nuns, Police officers, and others working there who were just trying to hold it together. Playing Corgi catch or Aussie games lightened the burden and helped keep spirits a bit higher. We work there almost every day despite the emotional stress and being quite sick with what is now called the WTC cough, because I realized that the three of us had a purpose and were able to make an impact. We worked there for over three months and I would do it again in a minute if I were called to.

This experience shows the different nature between predictable therapy visits (such as in nursing homes) and in crisis situations. For therapy dog owners wanting to “be ready” and learn from what we faced, I would say not to impose yourself on anyone. People don’t want to chat in a crisis; they will find their own way to connect if they want to interact with the dogs. All I would say at the end of a visit is “I’m so very sorry for your loss” and leave it at that. Piper and Girlie, with their nurturing spirit, did all the rest.

Written by Jean Owen

Jean is Training Director for NJ Fix My Dog. Among her many achievements, she is a top agility instructor and competitor at the masters level. She is also a member in good standing with APDT, IACP, GRCA, GSGRC, NSDTRC, NADAC and USDAA.