Remembering 9/11 Therapy dog helped families in New York City
Although the horror of the 2001 terror attack on America is never really far from her thoughts, the Sept. 11 anniversary every year reminds Salisbury Township resident Mary Minnich of the bond she and her German shepherd, Bryar, shared as they traveled to New York City in the days and weeks following 9/11 to try and bring solace to the families of those who lost loved ones when the World Trade Center towers came down.
Bryar, a now 13-year-old therapy dog, has made countless therapy visits in recent years with children, the aged and the sick, but Minnich says the therapy visits to New York City when the dog was one year old have left indelible emotions in her memory.
Minnich has had German shepherds in her life for 36 years; the last five have been trained therapy dogs, but "because of what we shared after 9/11, my heart belongs to Bryar," Minnich said.
"Bryar was different than any puppy I ever had," Minnich said. "She never needed a training collar. We worked hard as a novice team and she earned two obedience titles. But she had had enough of the obedience thing, and then we found our calling as a 'therapy dog team.'
"Bryar received her therapy dog certification on her first birthday, May 8, 2001," Minnich recalls. "I had been doing therapy dog work with two other shepherds since 1994, and saw how important my dogs were becoming in other people's lives - in nursing homes, in hospitals and with children. Bryar started just like her sisters – a little at a time, getting to know the routine of therapy visits.
"While we had done special events during the summer of 2001, it was Sept. 11 that changed our lives forever," Minnich said.
Minnich and some of her closest therapy dog friends were contacted to serve in teams near the site of the fallen towers.
"We thought we were being called to help heal the survivors," Minnich said, "when in reality it was the victim's families and first responders who we ministered to."
Minnich said she and Bryar worked in a large facility designated as a family center in a dock area along the Hudson River, near ground zero, that had been an embarkation point for large cruise liners.
"It was an amazing place," Minnich said. "There were areas for workers from Social Security, FEMA, the American Red Cross and other government and private relief agencies, as well as groups from every religious denomination you could think of. The response of people there to offer aid, information and counseling just made our hearts swell."
Minnich said families there arrived to try and reconcile the fate of their loved ones and to learn how to move on. The emotion she still feels from the experience makes it hard for her to talk about it without pausing to compose herself.
"I'll never forget the first time we arrived at the family center. Our vehicles were searched and our IDs checked to assure we had a valid reason to be there. As we entered the building, the 'Star-Spangled Banner' was playing and a hearse was carrying urns with ash from the towers for the families," Minnich recalls.
"A lone bagpiper playing 'Amazing Grace' ushered the hearse and two therapy dogs were in the lead, guiding them into the family center. After we took a moment to take stock in our surroundings, it was clear to us that we had a job to do.
"Bryar and I walked up and down the aisles of people waiting in lines and more lines, trying to comfort people as we could. Children leaned over to pet Bryar. Families would smile as she made herself available for a touch. What we saw showed us we were offering a few seconds of relief to people's grief.
"The people we met remained nameless," Minnich said. "We were not permitted to ask about their circumstances, but sometime, as they stroked our dogs they would just spontaneously open themselves up. I remember being able to see some of the tension leave people as they petted my special girl, Bryar."
Bryar is now an older dog, and one of only a few surviving dogs involved in the 2001 therapy visits, Minnich said. "She's a little hard of hearing and not as spry as she was then, but she is so special to me. Bryar does not owe me anything. What she has given to me through our shared experiences makes our years together so worthwhile."
Miinnich, who has worked for 16 years at the Emmaus Animal Hospital, said she wrote down her experiences with Bryar as a catharsis for herself, and to share the story with other animal lovers for the 100th anniversary of the German Shepherd Dog Club of America.
"My life was changed forever those few months working with Bryar in New York City," Minnich said. "Bryar has been a therapy dog through and through. I am yet one more person she has worked her magic on. She holds the core of my heart in her paws."