When Ed Apple started training dogs in 1964, little did he know the path it would set his life on.
Apple, a Memphis resident, learned about bird dog training from a friend with a Labrador retriever. He watched the dog work and was inspired to train his dog Candy, an Irish setter.
In 1973, Apple started running his dogs in the American Kennel Club field trials that test dogs’ searching and retrieving skills.
What followed was over 20 years of competitive and breeding success. Some of his dogs became field trial champions. Three of them were the only British field trial champions used for breeding in the United States.
He would import dogs from England, where he was friends with Queen Elizabeth’s dog trainer. Once, he even met the queen.
However, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, Apple’s dog training motivation changed.
Inspired by the search dogs, he wanted to use his own dogs in the same way.
“Rather than chasing blue ribbons, I ought to do something more really worthwhile,” he said.
A few days later, Apple and his wife were on their way to Boulder, Colorado, where a seminar on search and rescue dogs was being held. He immediately went all in.
“If you’re going to get in, you might as well get in all the way,” he said.
(Apple said he also applied this principle to scuba diving, a hobby he took up in the 1970s.)
Apple has trained dogs for live victim search and body recovery. Body recovery gives families closure, he said.
“Now that they’re found, they can go on and do what’s normal in that next chain of events rather than sitting there wondering for the rest of their life,” he said.
In a speech at the National Bird Dog Hall of Fame, Apple said that in the search for live victims, dogs can’t be less than perfect.
“There is no room for error in a search dog,” he said.
Apple trained several search dogs and volunteered with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department as a K-9 search specialist. While with the department, he became involved with the Tennessee Task Force, a group of 80-90 emergency service professionals who are called on during times of national disaster.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the task force was rallied to go to the Pentagon almost immediately after the plane hit. Apple and his dogs Tan and Gus arrived Sept. 12 while the Pentagon was still burning.
Apple and the three other trainers soon found out that there were no survivors so only dogs that could find bodies were being used. Every dog the task force brought was for live searches.
Except for Apple’s dog Gus.
Gus, an American Labrador retriever, was unique in that he was trained to find alive and dead victims. Apple said training dogs for both kinds of search is tricky.
“We do not want to risk a dog alerting on a deceased victim when there may be a live victim yet undiscovered,” he said in his speech.
Apple got Gus when he was 6 weeks old while he was still training dogs for field trials. Three years after getting Gus, he pivoted to training for search.
At the Pentagon, he took Gus around the piles of rubble and marked where he hit. Sometimes, Apple said, dogs can get hyper while finding bodies. Gus did not.
“He was completely under control and more like a robot,” Apple said.
Keith Lindley, a firefighter with the Shelby County Fire Department, also went to the Pentagon with the task force. He said Gus was incredible.
“We loved watching him work,” he said. “He was probably one of the best dogs I watched.”
Lindley brought his dog Bailey. However, she wasn’t able to be used since she was trained to search for live victims.
Lindley and the other trainers who couldn’t search instead used their dogs to provide comfort to those at the Pentagon who missed their dogs and family.
Gus, Bailey and all the other dogs who worked at the Pentagon have since died, Lindley said.
After a week of being at the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency discussed sending the task force to New York. However, someone at FEMA later decided not to.
“All of us were ready,” Apple said.
Apple was 62 at the time of 9/11, but his search and rescue career continued for another 10 years around the country. After Hurricane Katrina, he went to the Gulf Coast several times to search for victims. He also searched for remains from the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003.
Apple said 9/11 changed his perspective on life and made him more sensitive. Material things and everyday mishaps were suddenly put into perspective.
“I used to never cry. I never teared up. You could have the saddest movie on, and I wouldn’t shed a tear, but after 9/11, I did,” he said.
Apple said he wanted people to remember the service of the first responders after 9/11.
“They risk their life just to save someone or to recover someone, and they’re willing to take that risk without even thinking about it,” he said.