On Monday, two dozen firefighters and search-and-rescue volunteers in Cypress, Texas, lined the entrance to the Fairfield Animal Hospital to pay tribute to the final walk of 16-year-old Bretagne, thought to be the last surviving search dog that participated in the 9/11 recovery effort in 2001.
According to a press release from the urban search-and-rescue group Texas Task Force 1, Bretagne (pronounced "Brittany") met her handler Denise Corliss, an electrician and volunteer fire fighter with the Cy-Fair Fire Department in 1999 at eight weeks old. At the age of one, the golden retriever began official search-and-rescue training with Texas Task Force 1, working with Corliss 20 to 30 hours a week, eventually receiving certification as a search dog from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Bretagne and Corliss traveled to the site of the World Trade Center for their first deployment, one of 300 canine teams that volunteered at the site. According to a profile of Bretagne by Laura T. Coffey on Today, the two worked twelve-hour shifts at Ground Zero, with Bretagne balancing on the steel beams and piles of rubble sniffing for survivors.
“I really believed we could find somebody — anybody! — if we could just get to the right void space,” said Corliss. “But our reality was much different. We found all various kinds of remains, some recognizable, others not so much.”
After that deployment, Corliss and Bretagne went on to work in many other disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ivan. Bretagne retired from search-and-rescue duty at the age of nine, but stayed active, working as a service dog in a local elementary school, giving first graders and special needs students a friendly face to read out loud to.
In 2014, Bretagne was a finalist for the American Humane Association Hero Dog Award, and last year, on her 16th birthday, the website Bark Post honored her with a “Dog’s Best Day” in New York City, where she stayed at a Central Park hotel, got her name in lights and gobbled up burgers and birthday cake.
Corliss tells Coffey she knew it was time to put Bretagne down when she didn’t eat for three days. “She was really anxious last night and she just wanted to be with me,” Corliss says. “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.”
The next day, members of the Cy-Fair Fire Department and Texas Task Force 1 turned out to salute her as she made her way into the vet clinic before accompanying her flag-draped remains to Texas A&M, where she will undergo an autopsy as part of an ongoing study on 9/11 search-and-rescue dogs.
“This was a very small way for us to pay tribute to a dog who truly has been a hero,” Cy-Fair volunteer fire department captain David Padovan tells Coffey. “Just because she's a K9 doesn't make her any less part of our department than any other member.”