[Image Source – Texas Task Force 1]
In her nearly 17 years of life, Bretagne the Golden Retriever fulfilled many jobs. She was a dog who loved to work, and who loved to help people even more. Up until her death on Monday, June 8th, Bretagne fulfilled those duties in many ways. But her very first call to action came after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th, 2001.
Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) and her handler Denise Corliss were recent graduates of the Disaster City training program in 2001 when they were sent to New York City shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Bretagne was two years old at the time. Corliss and Bretagne – along with hundreds of other handler and dog teams – worked non-stop for two weeks searching for survivors. The pair worked 12 hour days, often sleeping outdoors in the wreckage. Yet even with that much dedication, Corliss and Bretagne found no survivors.
“I really believed we could find somebody — anybody! — if we could just get to the right void space,” Corliss told Today. “But our reality was much different.”
Though their first call to action was incredibly challenging, that didn’t deter either Bretagne or Corliss. The pair went on to perform search and rescue operations following Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Ivan, and other disasters. Bretagne continued to fulfill the call of duty until her formal retirement at age 9.
Bretagne spent a great deal of time in the public eye during her retirement. At age 15, she and Corliss returned to Ground Zero to visit the site where their work began. During that visit, Tom Brokaw interviewed Corliss and spent time with the two of them at the 9/11 memorial. That same year, Bretagne was a finalist in the American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog Awards.
In August, 2015 Bretagne turned 16. To celebrate her birthday, she and Corliss returned again to New York City where the dog was pampered and treated like a true hero. Some of the highlights of Bretagne’s “Sweet 16” included a gourmet hamburger, a dog friendly cake, plenty of new toys, and even a billboard dedicated to her in Times Square.
It’s evident that retirement didn’t slow Bretagne down. Up until her final weeks, Bretagne spent her time teaching first graders how to read. Though that may seem surprising, studies show that children who struggle with reading are more likely to open up to a dog than a person. Bretagne offered a quiet and non-judgmental ear for the children. Once a week, first graders would practice their skills by reading aloud to her. This natural ability to comfort others was something Corliss noticed in Bretagne during their first deployment.
While performing search and rescue at Ground Zero, Corliss noticed Bretagne had a knack for comforting others. Corliss told CNN that her dog had a way of encouraging people to open up – to talk about their stories of hurt, and to find comfort in petting and hugging Bretagne. “Dogs can be so comforting, so it makes sense to me now,” Corliss said. “I just didn’t anticipate that, then.”
It’s no accident that Bretagne has a knack for these things. Search and rescue dogs are thoroughly screened from an early age. According to a 2014 article in CNN, one of the first qualities a puppy needs to demonstrate to succeed at search and rescue is pushiness. A pushy puppy is a puppy with drive. This drive will serve a dog well when working 12 hour days searching for signs of life. The dogs need to never get discouraged, and always push to find their target.
But age catches up with even the pushiest of puppies. When she was 13 years old, Bretagne began to have difficulties walking up and down stairs. To keep her in shape, Corliss set up an above ground pool for the aging dog. After starting a regiment of swimming for at least 10 minutes a day, Bretagne began to regain her strength. After that, stairs were no trouble.
Even on her last day, Bretagne was (mostly) walking on her own. Unfortunately, failing kidneys were giving her too much trouble, and Corliss decided it was best to put her down. The night before her scheduled vet appointment, Bretagne and Corliss spent their final, heartfelt moments together.
“She was really anxious last night and she just wanted to be with me,” Corliss told Today on June 6th. “So I laid down with her, right next to her. When she could feel me, she could settle down and go to sleep. I slept with her like that all night.”
When Corliss took Bretagne to Fairfield Animal Hospital in Cypress, Texas, members of the Texas Task Force 1 and the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department were waiting for them. The agency representatives stood at attention, and saluted Bretagne as she entered the veterinary office. They waited, and saluted as her body was carried outside, draped in the American flag. It was a fitting tribute for a true American hero.