09/10/2011 at 10:10 AM EDT
She had been trained to find survivors, to follow the scent of someone alive and in need of help.
On Sept. 11, 2001, and in the week following, a search-and-rescue dog named Moxie worked 12-hour days at the World Trade Center site. She found no survivors, but her efforts were not in vain – and she didn't go unnoticed, either.
"You couldn't walk through the site without people stopping to pet your dog," Moxie's handler, Mark Aliberti, tells PEOPLE. "The F.D.N.Y. guys would want to hug your dog because they hadn't seen theirs for days. It keeps you motivated."
Having Moxie as his partner kept Aliberti, a 46-year-old firefighter from Winthrop, Mass., from falling into despair.
"It's almost like you don't have time to get involved in your own stuff," he says. "You're going through a tough time but you have to take care of somebody. The dog isn't thinking, 'Wow, look at this mess,' but if you're stressed out or wound up, the dog feels all that. The dogs did good, and they helped us do well."
Now 13 and slightly deaf, Moxie is the last surviving member of a team of six search-and-rescue canines that deployed with Massachusetts Task Force 1
10 years ago. It was to be her first and only deployment.
The pliable, easy-going Labrador retriever had to retire at 7 years old when Aliberti's second son was born (the unpaid job required a 20-hour commitment each week).
"Moxie, although she's a good search dog, she never was the sharpest knife in the drawer," Aliberti says. "Things that should have bothered her – dangerous stuff – they didn't. She'd jump right in."
While working through a section at the World Trade Center one day, Moxie ran right along the edge of some debris. When Aliberti went over to look at where she'd been, he saw that the edge dropped off and went six stories down, but she hadn't seemed fazed at all.
"The thing is, she's a dog," Aliberti says. "They sleep, they wake up, and it's like you've hit the reset button on the computer. They start from scratch all over again."