New Dogs, Old Tricks

Man’s best friend: the dog. From following on the heels of presidents in the White House to easing the ways of the world for homeless people on city streets, dogs have deservedly found a special place at the center of our American culture and in many of our hearts with their steadfast loyalty and unconditional love.

Man’s best friend: the dog. From following on the heels of presidents in the White House to easing the ways of the world for homeless people on city streets, dogs have deservedly found a special place at the center of our American culture and in many of our hearts with their steadfast loyalty and unconditional love.

Artists, from Norman Rockwell to Andy Warhol, have painted their portraits; with their words, poets and authors have captured their courage and humor; and Hollywood movies like A Dog’s Life, Lassie, The Wizard of Oz and Old Yeller have created characters we will never forget. Although television and films have crafted award-winning and memorable dog stories played by some amazing animals, once in a while a dog comes along with a real-life story that not only outshines the best Hollywood scripts but also rewrites history and changes lives.
One such dog was a hero named Trakr.James Symington and Trakr in the aftermath of 9/11


On September 11, 2001, James Symington, a search and rescue manager and Canadian police officer at the time, heard of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and immediately left Nova Scotia, Canada with Trakr, his canine partner of six years. Together, they and James’ friend Officer Joe Hall, who was visiting from California and who has since retired from the canine unit of the Palos Verdes Police Department, drove for 15 hours to New York City. Throughout the drive, James did not know if they would be allowed to cross the U.S. border, let alone step foot on Ground Zero. But he did know with absolute certainty that the dog by his side had a job to do there, so James was determined to try to help.

Upon reaching the border, James, Trakr and Joe were welcomed into the U.S. as a responding police and search and rescue unit. Vehicles were moved so they could pass, and they were honorably saluted. Radio calls were placed ahead of them to clear the way. After passing through several military and tactical checkpoints, in the early morning hours on September 12 a NYC fire official escorted them into the 16 acres of catastrophic debris and the welcoming hugs of exhausted firefighters. They were among the first canine units to arrive and immediately began to search for survivors.

Unbeknownst to James and Joe, Trakr was about to make history and become a global hero, and James would forevermore become an American at heart. Late in the morning on September 12, Trakr got “a hit”—search and rescue speak for alerting James that someone was buried beneath the surface. James immediately advised nearby rescue workers as he and Trakr continued their search. Later in the day, James was informed that a woman was pulled alive from the ruins where Trakr got the hit.

With quiet dignity and deep compassion, James vividly describes his life-changing experience with Trakr at Ground Zero in words that are beyond comprehension for those who did not witness what he and Trakr did first-hand.

“In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Trakr worked for three days, braving unimaginable conditions to search for survivors. He walked across hot steel beams as fires raged in pits hundreds of feet below, crawled through narrow tunnels of unstable debris, breathed dense smoke and debris-filled air and braved treacherous footing—never once showing fear or hesitation. He simply forged ahead because of his remarkable valor and ability to sense the desperation around him.”

After three days of searching tirelessly alongside James, Trakr eventually collapsed with exhaustion. James picked up his beloved friend from the rubble and carried him to safety. Their job was done. Trakr not only located numerous victims, he was also credited with finding the last survivor of 9/11.

For their efforts, Dr. Jane Goodall of the United Nations presented James and Trakr with the “Messenger of Peace,” a humanitarian service award. They were featured in countless news stories, books and magazines dedicated to 9/11 heroes. In March 2011, Time magazine named Trakr as one of history’s “Top 10 Heroic Animals.”
Ground Zero was James and Trakr’s last partnered call of duty. 


After 9/11, James moved to the Westside of Los Angeles where Trakr enjoyed retirement with James’ family. James, meanwhile, transitioned from police service to the entertainment industry, starting Prodigy Talent Group, a boutique talent management firm. Time passed, and their new lives flourished, though the memories of the World Trade Center tragedy and James’ passion for dogs and search and rescue remained ever-present.

In honor of Trakr’s heroic efforts at Ground Zero and for his other police and search and rescue accomplishments, Trakr was later named the “World’s Most Cloneworthy Dog” by an international biotechnology company. This honor enabled Trakr’s DNA to be used to clone his puppy. In June 2009, two months after Trakr died peacefully at home at age 16, James received not one but five of Trakr’s male genetic double puppies. Later he was also delighted to receive a female Trakr puppy.

Though James soon recognized many of the traits that led to Trakr’s success, the pups, named in Trakr’s honor, all have their own unique personalities. According to James, Trustt is very focused; Valor is extremely courageous; Solace is very driven; Dejavu is the lover and cuddler; Prodigy is the problem solver; and Legacy is playful and shy.

With his sights set on the life-saving possibilities of Trakr’s offspring, James founded the Team Trakr Foundation in Trakr’s honor soon after the new family members arrived. The foundation is an international humanitarian and 501(c)3 organization committed to training and deploying elite canine search and rescue teams across the United States and around the world. All the dogs (except Legacy, who is working to overcome her sweet shyness) comprise Team Trakr and have been charged with carrying on Trakr’s extraordinary search and rescue tradition.

“The opportunity to continue Trakr’s extraordinary legacy is a tremendous gift,” says James. “There is a critical need for certified canine search and rescue resources in this country. Training five dogs who have Trakr’s exceptional traits is an important step in helping to bridge this gap and ultimately save more lives.”


While Team Trakr had a very unique beginning, it is the future that James Symington is focused on. “There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about Trakr. He was so much more than my partner. He was my best friend and constant companion,” says James. “But Team Trakr is not about holding onto the past. It’s about continuing the extraordinary journey of one remarkable dog.”

As Legacy curiously observes from afar, her five brothers are currently at work in an intense, 600-hour Team Trakr “boot camp” at various private Los Angeles locations in Palos Verdes, Pacific Palisades and Malibu. In an effort to duplicate Trakr’s training as closely as possible, James enlisted Canadian friend and police officer Kevin Gallivan to work side-by-side with him to ready Team Trakr for deployment. Kevin, a nationally certified canine trainer and evaluator with more than 25 years of experience, also conducted James’ and Trakr’s basic training in 1995.

“Trakr was an exceptional search dog, and it is an honor to help train his progeny to follow in his footsteps,” says Kevin. “Few dogs have what it takes to be an effective search dog, and all of these dogs are exhibiting the requisite drives and intelligence.”

Under the watchful eyes and skilled guiding hands of James and Kevin, like the hero before them, Trustt, Valor, Solace, Prodigy and Dejavu are being trained to find  live victims who are lost, trapped or missing due to emergency or disaster–natural or man-made. Their training consists of obedience, agility, urban and wilderness tracking, disaster search and rescue, and area and building search.  Though the program is rigorous and extremely precise, exuberant playful praise is a cornerstone of the program to foster gentle kindness–a requisite for a good search and rescue canine. 

James and Kevin often work alongside each other, handling the dogs one-on-one. “Sit! Down! Stay! Come! Speak! Find the guy! Where is he?” are distinctly heard as the dogs train with attentive ears pointed forward and their soft yet laser-like eyes seeking approval. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Short, focused training sessions always end with a jubilant, “Good boy!” followed by a big hug and the reward of a coveted rubber red toy to signify a job very well done.

At the end of the training program, the team will be ready to respond to any life-saving mission in the United States or around the world—in essence, canine search and rescue without borders. Because of their extraordinary abilities, such as ultra-sensitive hearing and keen sense of smell, dogs often increase the chances that a victim will be found alive. One dog can be as effective as 20 to 30 trained human searchers.

“We estimate that we will be ready for deployment by June,” relays James. “At that time, we will be available to partner with existing search and rescue organizations and assist first responders on rescue missions. If anyone needs our assistance or wants to support our efforts, we encourage them to contact us.”


In addition to his work with the Team Trakr Foundation, James spends much of his free time rescuing, fostering and training abandoned dogs. He is also a member of the board of directors for The Forgotten Dog Foundation—a non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and re-homing dogs. “I strongly urge anyone who can provide a good home to a dog to adopt from a local shelter or rescue group,” says James.

In keeping with his love for dogs and his compassion for those dogs forgotten, James plans to launch Operation Second Chance in 2012 as the next phase of the Team Trakr Foundation’s work. The foundation will rescue dogs from shelters, train and deploy them on life-saving search and rescue missions domestically and abroad, as well as provide support for other canine search and rescue organizations that do the same.

The late playwright and poet Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Often true, perhaps. But when it comes to our beloved dogs, art without question tries to imitate them. Though storybooks and movies can portray a dog’s loyalty, companionship, love and courage, only real-life dogs can dig deeply into a place in our hearts that they never leave.

I know. I have a special treasure chest of my own dogs inside my heart that I began to fill in childhood. Though I never had the honor of knowing Trakr, I have been delighted to meet and spend time with Trustt, Valor, Prodigy, Solace, Dejavu and Legacy. With their kind eyes, gentle spirits and the life-saving journey that awaits them, they too have forever made their way into this dog lover’s heart.

For Team Trakr Foundation sponsor and donor information, to volunteer as a canine handler or to learn more about Operation Second Chance, visit To follow the team, visit and 

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