Canine Highlight – 9/11’s Bretagne

On September 11, 2001, Bretagne—pronounced by her handler Denise Corliss as ‘Brittany’—and her handler were one of 300 search-and-rescue teams that arrived immediately following the disaster. After Corliss rescued the golden retriever, she and Bretange trained twenty to thirty hours a week to become members of Texas Task Force One (TF-1), one of twenty-eight federal teams that work under FEMA’s Urban Search-and-Rescue System. Even though they had been members of TF-1 for a year by that point, in an amazing trial by fire, 9/11 was Bretagne’s first outing as a search-and-rescue dog. She and Corliss were on-site for nearly two weeks as the operation began as a rescue, and then inevitably morphed into a recovery. Completing gruelling twelve-hour shifts every day, the dogs often worked to exhaustion, many of them requiring IV fluids because of the conditions and effort required. Depression caused by the lack of live survivors is a common problem for search-and-rescue dogs, and was a significant problem during 9/11 since the last survivor was pulled from the rubble just twenty-seven hours after the attack. During the days and weeks that followed, only the dead were found. In an effort to keep the spirits of the dogs up, emergency workers hid in the rubble for the dogs to ‘find’.

Bretagne was not only a search-and-rescue dog during the 9/11 operations, she also worked as an impromptu therapy dog. One day, during their shift, Bretagne noticed a devastated fireman slumped on the ground. Ignoring Corliss’s commands to return, Bretagne went to the man, lay down beside him and put her head in his lap. Years later, Bretagne and the same fireman were reunited at a remembrance service and he remembered her and how crucial her act of comfort had been that day.

Bretagne worked for another seven years with Corliss as part of TF-1 and was involved in searches that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Even after she retired from search-and-rescue at ten years of age, she continued her work as a therapy dog, working with learning disabled children at a local elementary school as a reading buddy.

At the time of her death from kidney failure on June 6, 2016, Bretagne was the last known surviving search-and-rescue dog from Ground Zero. Active right up to her final days, Bretange was just two months shy of her seventeenth birthday, an incredible age for a dog who’d worked in disaster sites known for their toxicity. Studied for her entire life for the impact of 9/11 pollutants, Bretagne’s last gift was a medical screening and necropsy at Texas A&M Veterinary School. Months before, as a sign of appreciation and to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, hosted Corliss and Bretagne in New York City, putting them up at a luxury hotel, showering the dog with toys and cake, and even presenting her with the canine equivalent of the key to the city, the Bone of the Dog Park to Hudson River Park.

Photo credit: Denise Corliss and Andrea Booher/FEMA