Thirteen years ago, a 2-year-old Golden Retriever worked tirelessly alongside nearly 100 other search-and-rescue dogs, digging through the rubble of the World Trade Center towers in hopes of finding survivors.
For the first time since the attacks, Bretagne (French for “Brittany”) and her handler/dog mom, Denise Corliss of Cypress, Texas, returned to Ground Zero this week.
“Seeing this kind of took my breath away a bit,” Corliss, who was interviewed by Tom Brokaw on NBC’s “TODAY” this morning, told TODAY.com yesterday.
“It’s so calm and peaceful now, unlike the chaos of before. After 9/11, everybody — all of us — felt such sadness. We all wanted to help. I just felt so honored that we were able to respond.”
Corliss has had Bretagne since 1999, when the Golden Retriever was just a puppy. After she found out that civilians and their dogs can join federal emergency response teams to help out after a disaster, she and Bretagne began taking training classes together. She told TODAY.com that she spent 20 to 30 hours a week training with Bretagne.
In 2000, she and Bretagne were accepted into Texas Task Force 1. Less than a year later, their very first deployment was to Ground Zero.
Bretagne worked 12-hour shifts for nearly two weeks. Along with the other search-and-rescue dogs, she became depressed when she found only human remains. To cheer the dogs, some workers buried themselves in the rubble so the dogs could discover someone alive.
The human responders, of course, were as upset as the dogs. At one point Bretagne left Corliss’ side and went to a firefighter who was sitting on the ground. Corliss called for her dog to come back, but Bretagne ignored her.
“I was surprised that she wasn’t listening to me — it was like she was flipping me the paw,” Corliss told TODAY.com. “She went right to that firefighter and laid down next to him, and put her head on his lap.”
When Brokaw asked Corliss about her most memorable experience at Ground Zero, she replied that it didn’t occur while searching through the debris, but as she and Bretagne waited in the staging area.
“Searchers would come by to pet her and to thank her, and would tell us their stories,” Corliss said. “So it became an unexpected role of therapy dog. That’s what, among the other things, sticks out to me the most.”
Veterinarian Cindy Otto, who treated Ground Zero’s search dogs, told TODAY.com they frequently brought smiles to weary firefighters.
“Those dogs brought the power of hope,” she said. “They removed the gloom for just an instant — and that was huge, because it was a pretty dismal place to be.”
Many animal lovers were concerned about the long-term health of the dogs working at Ground Zero. However, Dr. Otto, who in 2007 established the Penn Vet Working Dog Center to train and study search-and-rescue dogs, made a surprising discovery. After years of studying these dogs, she found they actually outlived dogs who didn’t work at Ground Zero. (In addition to Bretagne, there is one other surviving 9/11 search-and-rescue dog: Morgan, a 15-year-old English Springer Spaniel who was deployed to Staten Island after the attacks.)
After Ground Zero, Corliss and Bretagne worked at several other major disaster sites, including New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Bretagne officially retired when she was 9.
Even though she’s now at the age when most dogs enjoy lots of long naps, she continues to work. She’s a service dog at an elementary school, helping students with learning disabilities by being their audience as they read aloud to her.
“She still has this attitude of putting her paw up and saying, ‘Put me in, coach!’” Corliss told TODAY.com. “She absolutely loves it.”
Bretagne is one of eight finalists for the 2014 American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards, which will be held Sept. 27 in Los Angeles. You can vote for your favorite finalists through Sept. 15 at the American Humane Association website.
Photos via Facebook