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Virginia 9/11 Rescue Dog Passes Away

If you were ever stranded, lost or trapped, Joey would find you.

And in the midst of the nation's worst terrorist attack, he would comfort you. Just ask the firefighters who met Joey while he searched for remains at the Pentagon after Sept. 11, 2001.

For more than a decade, lost children, missing hunters, suspected homicide sites or anyone trapped in rubble following natural disasters were targets of Joey, an Australian shepherd, and his handler, Trish Cartino.

Among the first certified search-and-rescue dogs based in Hampton Roads, Joey recently passed away, shortly after turning 16.

A true survivor, Joey was one of the last three dogs remaining from the World Trade Center and Pentagon search sites, according to a University of Pennsylvania study on the health of search-and-rescue dogs.

"He's probably one of the best search dogs I've ever seen," Cartino said. "He never missed anybody his entire career."

Cartino started training him as an 8-week-old puppy.

"He was a pleasure to work with," said Cartino, a retired Virginia Beach firefighter from Back Bay. "He knew what he needed to do and would just do it."

All for the promise of a pull toy to play with as a reward for a successful find.

Locally, most of their searches were for people lost in the woods as part of the all-volunteer Greater Atlantic Rescue Dogs.

Cartino and Joey also deployed with Virginia Beach Fire Department's Urban Search and Rescue Taskforce 2, the volunteer team run under the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, Taskforce?2 deployed to the Pentagon. For more than a week, Joey and Cartino worked from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. searching the site. There wasn't a search that went by where Joey didn't find remains, she said.

Even after a 12-hour day, other firefighters often asked Cartino if they could spend a few minutes with Joey, taking him for a walk or just petting him. Firemen would even play hide-and-seek with him in an empty room, and Joey would go find them. Though tired, he always was happy to go along.

"He could almost tell when people needed him, like there was part therapy dog in him," Cartino said.

As an air-scent search dog, Joey investigated specific areas, notifying Cartino anytime he found a human or remains.

Search dogs, such as Joey, can survey large swaths of terrain, following voice or hand signals from their handlers. With dogs covering remote areas, authorities can better deploy human searchers.

Increasingly, as wilderness undergoes development, Cartino said local search-and-rescue dogs are used to locate human remains, such as possible homicides.

The constant work of training and searching wears on a dog, shortening their lifespan, said Dr. Mark Honaker, veterinarian at Bay Beach Veterinary Hospital and a member of Taskforce 2.

Training occurs every weekend and most evenings. Certification requires dogs to climb ladders, walk across narrow planks and search 160 acres in a set period of time. Successful dogs are focused, but full of energy.

"He was blessed with great genetics," Honaker said. "He lived to 16 years. For a working dog to do that, that's unheard of."

Character, more than anything, counts most when identifying a search dog, Honaker said. Handlers look for outgoing, friendly dogs.

"They don't want a shy dog or an aggressive dog," Honaker said. "They have to have a high play drive."

Cartino laughs about it now, but when Joey was younger, he never relaxed and rarely let her do the same.

"He was so annoying," she said. "He always wanted to be doing something. Play Frisbee. Go for a walk. Play pull toy."

Joey's playfulness and friendly demeanor was great for public appearances, Cartino said.

When Joey was about 12, Cartino noticed him resting more. It wasn't easy, but she knew it was time for him to retire. He still wanted to go out as he watched Cartino leave with another search dog she had started training.

But he never lost his skill, Cartino said. About two years ago, on a whim, she brought Joey to a training exercise. He hadn't worked in more than two years, but performed the search perfectly.

"Then he decided he was tired and went back to the car," she said.

That was the last time Joey worked.

Ben Werner, benwerner@mac.com


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