Fifteen-year-old Golden Retriever, Bretagne, is believed to be the last surviving Ground Zero search dog after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Bretagne returned to the site of the former World Trade Center complex this week. She was accompanied by her handler and owner, Denise Corliss of Cypress, Texas. They were joined by NBC News’ Tom Brokaw, who told their story on TODAY on Thursday morning, Sept. 11.
“Seeing this kind of took my breath away a bit, similar to how the pile was the first time I saw it,” Corliss, 49, told TODAY.com. “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.”
Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) is a finalist for the American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog Awards. Dog and owner are preparing to travel to Beverly Hills in late September.
Corliss, is an electrical engineer. In the late ‘90s, she became fascinated by disaster search dogs. Volunteer civilians are not paid at all for their work and bear their own travel expenses. Dog and owner undergo rigorous training and if they’re good enough they are allowed to support federal emergency response efforts at disaster sites in the US.
Corliss has owned Bretagne since she was a 8-week-old puppy. The pup was always keen to learn.
“I was so excited about doing this, but I didn’t have the appreciation of how life-changing it would be,” Corliss recalled. “It took 20 to 30 hours a week easily to stay on top of training. This is what I did when I wasn’t at work.”
In 2000, Corliss and her Golden qualified as official members of Texas Task Force 1. They had what it takes to scour a disaster site for survivors.
Their very first deployment was where the World Trade Center once stood.
“I really believed we could find somebody – anybody! – if we could just get to the right void space,” Corliss said. “But our reality was much different. We found all various kinds of remains, some recognizable, others not so much.”
Two weeks of 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero were tough, but the pair persevered. Balancing on a wet metal beam, the dog slipped, but recovered quickly. She again pulled herself up onto the beam with her front paws, while continuing to sniff intently. The Golden had only just turned 2. Despite her youth, the pup continued to offer her services to first responders. Corliss recalls the dog leaving her and hurrying to a tired firefighter sitting on the ground. When she tried to call her back, the devoted dog stayed at the man’s side.
“I was surprised that she wasn’t listening to me, but she really wasn’t – it was like she was flipping me the paw,” Corliss said. “She went right to that firefighter and laid down next to him and put her head on his lap.”
Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinarian who cared for 9/11 search dogs at Ground Zero, said the 300+ dogs who worked the pile brought a lot more to the job than their sniffing skills.
“You’d see firefighters sitting there, unanimated, stone-faced, no emotion, and then they’d see a dog and break out into a smile,” Otto recalled. “Those dogs brought the power of hope. They removed the gloom for just an instant – and that was huge because it was a pretty dismal place to be.”
Otto spent years tracking the health of dozens of 9/11 working dogs following the attacks. Among her favorite findings: Search and rescue dogs tend to live longer than other dogs.
“They have a bond with their handlers, they have purpose, they have physical fitness – it’s all really good for the dog and for the person who does this work,” Otto said. “Even on terrible assignments when they’re finding remains instead of survivors – can you imagine the closure they provided for families?”
Otto was inspired to launch the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2012.
As a tribute, the puppies in training at the center get named after 9/11 dogs. Bretagne’s namesake recently moved in with a man who has diabetes.
“That makes me so proud!” Corliss said. “I’m so humbled that they would find Bretagne worthy to have a puppy named after her who’s carrying on the tradition of the working dog.”
In the years following 9/11, Bretagne and Corliss worked many disaster sites. These include Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ivan.
At age 9, Bretagne retired from formal search work, but she still does her share. In her service vest, she happily helps first-graders and special-needs children learn to read out loud.
She’s special! She senses the students that are having tough days.
“I’ve seen Bretagne almost select a child,” said Shelley Swedlaw, a search dog handler and a former special education director who accompanies Bretagne to reading sessions. “She’s just really good about knowing who needs that kind, canine attention.”