COLUMBIA — Tuff walks toward her owner with slightly swollen hips, her hind legs wobbling slowly as she moves. Her elbows are calloused, and her brow and mouth peppered with gray hair.
But Tuff, 12, doesn’t stop watching Tom Andert for more than a second, a sign of her unwavering loyalty.
“Everything I can think of good in my life is because of Tuff,” Andert said, his eyes tearing up as he pats the chocolate Labrador.
Andert met his wife through Tuff. He got his job as an office manager at Horton Animal Hospital in the Forum Shopping Center thanks in part to Tuff. And he’s made many of his friends because of Tuff.
On the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Andert and Tuff traveled to New York with Missouri Task Force 1, a Boone County-based search-and-rescue group that was dispatched to ground zero by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They worked for more than a week, searching for survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings near the twin towers.
It was dark when Tuff started her searches on the night of Sept. 12, 2001. There were people everywhere, Andert said, describing the scene as “utter chaos.”
“New York was a giant mound of steel and concrete dust,” he said. “To get to go with your dog to try to help … I’ve been very fortunate.”
Andert said Tuff is the first dog he’s had that he can truly call his own. And since he’s had her, Tuff has always been a part of him, he said.
He bought Tuff when she was 8 weeks old, wanting to train a search-and-rescue dog. His friend, Cathy Schiltz of Ashland, helped pick her out. The two met during an EMT class and would later become partners at ground zero.
For two and a half years, Andert trained Tuff as a “live find” search dog to look for survivors in collapsed buildings. Tuff and Andert went to practice search sites around Missouri — and as far as Indiana and Nebraska — every weekend.
“It’s a game of hide and seek for the dogs,” Andert said, and Tuff was always “ready to go.”
Andert spoke proudly of the day Tuff ran straight into a cinder block during a training exercise. She broke all her front teeth and skinned her chest down to her abdomen. “It didn’t even faze her,” he said.
Still, he took Tuff to Horton Animal Hospital, where Jennifer Eichelberger was working as a receptionist. They’d met previously while tailgating at MU games, and they worked together as volunteer firefighters with the Boone County Fire Protection District.
His visits to Horton Animal Hospital became more frequent when Tuff repeatedly scraped her chest during training or a stick went through her paw and she needed her dressings cleaned.
Women Andert had dated before didn’t understand his bond with Tuff and the time commitment that search-and-rescue training took.
“With Jennifer, I’d say that I had to go home to let Tuff out, and she’d ask, ‘Why don’t you just bring her along next time?'” Andert said. “She understood that bond.”
Andert and Eichelberger married on Oct. 16, 2002.
Canine search efforts often consist of a pair of dogs working together, with the second dog searching behind the first to verify finds. In New York, Tuff’s partner was Hawk, Schiltz’s Australian shepherd, who was 8 years old at the time.
Going to New York was scary, Schiltz said. “We didn’t know what to expect.”
The relief workers in New York weren’t used to seeing the dogs work the way they did — “naked,” with no collars, leashes or special boots, Schiltz said. “When they did ask us to clear areas, they were really impressed with the range the dogs covered.”
Despite their efforts, Tuff and Hawk found no survivors at ground zero.
Hawk died in late 2007 at age 14.
Tuff and Andert returned to Missouri nine days after being dispatched. For Andert, working in New York made him realize what was most important to him: Settling down and starting a family.
The transition from search-and-rescue dog to family dog was easy for Tuff, Andert said.
These days, Tuff spends most of her time being a “couch potato,” Andert said. She goes to work with him at the animal hospital every Tuesday. Tuff’s routine is simple: Greet the kennel staff, get fed and fall asleep between the receptionists in the front office.
“I just love this dog,” Andert said. “You build a bond, you know.”