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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Urban Search and Rescue Dogs: Barefoot or Booted, They Did Their Job and Lived to See Their Story Told

Watch me first.
Patriotic Picture of a Working Search & Rescue Dog taking a nap, Fire Department New York FDNY, World Trade Center, Twin Towers
Some of the most unforgettable photos from the rescue effort at the World Trade Center in New York showed the hardworking urban search and rescue dogs at work...or in this case, temporarily at rest. Photo courtesy of US Navy, taken by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres.
A search and rescue working dog is transported out of the depris of the World Trade Center in New York City
Dogs at Ground Zero: No, we'll never forget. Especially with images like this one to remind us of the bravery of humans and animals alike. U.S.Navy Photo by Journalist 1st Class Preston Keres.
The search and rescue dogs of 911 have been well-studied; not surprisingly, their feet were a central focus point of statistics, and some discussion has emerged on whether rescue dogs in urban settings are better off shod in booties or barefoot. I hope you'll enjoy this junket into the world of dog paws.

While many human rescuers are showing respiratory health problems a decade later, their canine colleagues have had minimal setbacks, according to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine 9/11 Medical Surveillance study.

With nearly $500,000 of financial support from the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (CHF), the study monitored the long-term health impacts on 95 search-and-rescue dogs deployed to the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Staten Island landfills. Researchers also compared their health to a control group of non-deployed search-and-rescue dogs.

“The most striking thing is that many of the humans that responded have developed reactive airway diseases, such as asthma, sinusitis or other chronic infections in their nasal sinuses. The dogs on the other hand have fared extremely well,” explained Dr. Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine associate professor of critical care who was the principal investigator. “They’re not developing any problems with their lungs or sinuses. That is a real surprise.”

One of the surprising bits of news from Ground Zero was that the dogs had optional access to protective boots to prevent them from cutting their paws on sharp debris. Dog boot technology and sales exploded after the publicity about the dog boots used at Ground Zero. FEMA News Agency photo.
In her report, Otto mention Kaiser, now a 12-year-old German shepherd, who was one of only four dogs in the study that required stitches while working at Ground Zero.“On our second day there, Kaiser sliced a pad on the pile,” said Tony Zintsmaster, Kaiser’s trainer and a charter member of Indiana Task Force One. “Once he was stitched up and felt better, Kaiser went back to work. He was quite amazing. He was able to adapt to the situation and showed great agility. He seemed happiest when he was on the pile working.”

Zintsmaster, along with other handlers who participated in the study, submitted annual X-rays, blood samples and surveys on his dog's health and behavior to researchers.

Kobe's paw
Unlike horse hooves, dog paws are covered with vulnerable, soft pad tissue that adapts by forming callus...or not. Stefsanatomy photo.
The University of Pennsylvania/American Kennel Club study also found that the average lifespan of deployed dogs was 12.5 years, while non-deployed search-and-rescue dogs lived an average 11.8 years. Today, at least 13 deployed search-and-rescue dogs that were part of the 911 study are still alive.

Boone and the Purple Paws
Cut and sore paws are one of the most common types of first aid given to dogs. (Natalie Greco photo)
Urban non-working dogs probably wear more boots than any other type of dogs.  A practical reason in cold-climate cities is the possibility of electrocution on sidewalk grates during winter months. But probably most apartment-dwelling owners just want to keep their dogs' feet dry (and their rugs clean). (Norma Thomas photo)
During the winter months in Boston, several dogs are routinely reported to have been electrocuted while walking on city streets. Winter snow, ice, and salt used to treat streets and sidewalks can contribute to wires shorting out. Humans might not feel shocks through grates, but horses and dogs will--to the point of being killed. Dog boots sound like a good idea for city dogs.

Dog boots come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. They even come with anti-odor silver-coated anti-bacterial sole inserts, toe caps, and heel re-inforcers. There are summer shoes and winter shoes. There are even boots for dogs that swim a lot, or dogs that paw the sides of swimming pools. Dog leg protector, shoulder braces and support boots are available as well for working and athletic dogs.

We always hear about the teams in the Iditarod race in Alaska wearing boots. According to the activist web site,, Iditarod Trail Committee rules require a musher to have "eight booties for each dog in the sled or in use" at all times. However, there are no standards regarding the materials of which the booties are made, nor do the rules require mushers to actually put the booties on the dogs.

When do the mushers decide it is time for a dog dogs to wear them, and when do they go barefoot? And do they clip the dogs' nails or let them grow for better traction? How long is too long? Is there an ideal length?

According to the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine's Patricia Ashley, DVM, the rate of a dog's pad callus growth is a critical element in dog paw problems. "In some cases, the pads accumulate too much callus or the callus forms unevenly," she writes. "Heavily callused pads lose their flexibility and the ability to absorb shock." Obesity is a common cause of uneven callus formation on dog paw pads.

Zinc absorption in dogs is also linked to pad problems. A dog that isn't getting enough zinc in its diet may develop very thick paw pads. (This problem doesn't occur in cats with zinc deficiency.) Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes often run low in zinc because they have a genetic defect that makes it hard for their bodies to absorb this important mineral according to Charles McLeod, DVM, a veterinary pathologist at Antech Diagnostics in Carney, Maryland.

Tonzona's giant paws
Splay-toed, webbed feet of a sled dog at Denali National Park in Alaska. Photo by Jessica Spengle

According to Melanie Donofro, DVM, an experienced sled dog race veterinarian who writes on the web site for the 1000-mile Yukon Quest sleddog race, paws are the first thing attended by race vets. "At every mandatory checkpoint, the veterinarians spend considerable time checking each toe and joint for any soreness; toenails for damage that may need to be addressed; pads on the soles of the feet for any blisters; areas where the booties may have rubbed under the dewclaw and caused soreness; and finally, the webbing between the feet for swelling, redness, or cracks that can occur on a wet trail."

Dr. Donofro observed that when the dogs arrive at a checkpoint, they start to chew on the velcro of their booties to get them off, possibly because the upper parts of the boots seem foreign to them, but the bottom-protection of the boots must be therapeutic to sore, tender feet.

From inside the avalanche
There are urban search and rescue dogs and there are rural search and rescue dogs. And then there are the highly-specialized avalanche rescue dogs. I hope I never need any of them, but I'm glad they're out there. Stefs Anatomy photo.
When it comes to urban search-and-rescue dogs, the genetics are usually far removed from sled dogs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reports that most of the certified canines are Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers.
But, FEMA says, few its search dogs actually wear boots when working on a rubble pile. Despite the hazards of sharp metal and broken glass, the dogs often need to perform what is called a "soft walk" where they splay their paws for maximum traction. Collars and booties can sometimes add to the risk of searching in tight or obstructed spaces.
While researching this article, a helpful resource was the paper Deployment morbidity among search-and-rescue dogs used after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by Slensky, Drobatz, Downend and Otto, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2004.

Sixty-five percent of the dogs deployed suffered injury or some type of medical problem during deployment, according to a survey of the dogs' handlers after the search was suspended; 35 percent of the dogs had an abrasion injury requiring treatment, 70 percent of which were on the foot pads. Four of nine dogs that wore foot protection had cuts and abrasions.

The survey noted that no dogs deployed to the Pentagon wore foot protection.

In Germany, police dogs are required to wear boots when on the job.

Dog´s leg TTT sheet plastinate
The anatomy of the dog's front limb and paw are beautifully illustrated in this plastinated specimen by Christoph von Horst PhD DVM. (Dr von Horst's plastinates of horse and dog limbs and feet are available from Hoofcare + Lameness, please inquire)

From the paper: "Most of the cuts and abrasions were on the feet or footpads of the dogs, and there was a higher incidence (although not significant) of wounds in those dogs that did not have foot protection, indicating that foot protection may be beneficial in reducing the incidence of injuries. Concerns voiced by handlers and FEMA regarding this issue are similar to those reported at the Oklahoma City bombing disaster site. Perhaps a type of foot protection can be developed that will combine needed traction and workability with desirable safety."

Writing in The Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, Cynthia Otto DVM of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine  and co-authors noted that the concrete dust at the World Trade Center was very abrasive, and packed between the dogs' toes. Dust and mud was periodically cleaned from the paws and it was necessary to dry the dogs' paws before they could go back to work.

Otto noted that initially, the dogs did not wear any foot protection. She explained that the dogs train on piles of rubble and that they need traction. She felt that, overall, the incidence of injury to the dogs was low.
This is Moxie. She lives nearby, on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Moxie served at the World Trade Centers as an urban search and rescue dog. She's retired now. Photo by Charlotte Dumas from the forthcoming book, Retrieved, about the 911 dogs.
And that's not quite the end of the story. Look forward to the book Retrieved by Dutch dog photographer Charlotte Dumas, who crisscrossed the USA to find and photograph the surviving dogs who worked search and rescue during the days after 911. Her photos also open in an exhibit in New York City later this month, where several of them will be auctioned to benefit a First Responder charity.

We started out to talk about paws and booties, but like everything about 911, it's about much more than that.

And like everything that seems to be covered under the banner of Hoofcare and Lameness, this is another example to show us that there are parallels in other species, or in other sports and industries, to what is going on in horse hoofcare. Maybe there are lessons to be learned from the dog handlers' choice of whether or not to put boots on their dogs. To be sure, they wanted to do what was best for their dogs, and they took into consideration how the dogs had trained to do the job they were asked to do.

In those days after 911, no one knew where s/he or the dogs would be ten years later. They were uncertain times and it's not likely that anyone had much of an agenda in the decisions they made to keep their dogs as safe as possible.

Ten years later,  dog owners and trainers are still asking the same questions that many horse owners and  trainers are asking. How do I decide what is the best footcare program for my horse? How do you balance out the animal's need traction, support, protection, and weight? What are the signs in an animal that it is best suited for a specific form of footcare?

Answers don't come easily, but for those days after 911, what mattered was how you framed the question, and what you had at stake. In the end, they put the boots on when and if the dogs needed them, and those dogs were glad to have them so they could stay on the job.

And what a job they did.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful story on search and rescue dogs. Do you know more about the Charlotte Dumas phtography exhibit. I'll be in New York later this month, and would love to see it if possible. Also interested in her book when it comes out. Thanks for a really great website. Linda

Fran Jurga said...

Hi Linda, it is September 29, at the Clic Gallery & Bookstore, 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm. The address is 255 Centre Street (corner of Broome), New York, NY 10013; contact them via To pre-order the book, go here: Thanks!

Anonymous said...

You should also know that in the following two days after 911, after they hounded the city until they were give permission, a group of volunteers went downtown and recused domestic animals that were trapped down there. Do not forget that many people live in lower Manhattan. They could not get to their pets. List where made and people went down to get them for their owners.

Almost 400 dogs were rescued (I do not know how many cats). To the best of my knowledge, no dog was lost that was on the lists.

Lisa John said...

Great post! Bringing home a new dog, whether it’s a puppy or an adult, is like bringing home a new baby – you need to be prepared, and you need supplies. So, I was looking for articles on buying shoes for dogs and then I came across yours inspiring read. Thanks!