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First responders — both human and animal — were honored throughout the world on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Vet School professor Cynthia Otto treated search-and-rescue dogs that worked at ground zero. (Courtesy of Cynthia Otto)

While Penn remembers the brave souls of 9/11, the School of Veterinary Medicine is honoring a different breed of hero.

The Vet School hosted its second working dog conference titled “Defining, Developing and Documenting Success in Working Dogs” Sept. 7 through Sept. 9 in Pearl River, N.Y. The conference brought together veterinarians, breeders and dog handlers from all working dog disciplines, including guide, search and service. The conference was followed by a tribute held on Sept. 10 in West Nyack, N.Y., in honor of the search and rescue dogs who served in the aftermath of 9/11.

Cynthia Otto, professor of critical care at the Vet School, attended both events. Otto has worked with search and rescue dogs since 1994 as a member of the PA-TF1 federal urban search and rescue team. While working with the team, Otto was deployed to New York after 9/11 to provide medical care for the search and rescue dogs on duty. Her 9/11 experience served as the catalyst for research exploring the possible adverse health effects that working at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Staten Island may have had on these canines.

“While on-site it became clear that we needed to monitor these dogs for any adverse medical or behavioral effects,” Otto wrote in an email.

Afterwards, the team was awarded an American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation grant to “evaluate the long term effects of the 9/11 response on these dogs.”

Otto studied 95 search-and-rescue dogs involved in 9/11. Her study observed minimal lung abnormalities in the canines — a drastically different observation than in human responders, who suffered a much higher rate of cancer related to their service. While this sharp contrast between humans and canines remains largely unknown, it “may result from the longer noses that the dogs can filter the material better,” Otto wrote.

Less fortunately, Otto also found that handlers whose dogs passed away within three years of 9/11 suffered from a higher occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder, “demonstrating the importance of dogs to human health,” she explained. “There was an important role for dogs in providing comfort as therapy dogs or just by being there.”

Equally important are their roles as heroes. “They are the most amazing heroes and I am proud to be able to serve them,” Otto wrote.

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