This is Bretagne, a 15-year-old retired search and rescue dog. She appeared on the Today show this morning with her longtime handler and owner, Denise Corliss of Cypress, Texas. Tom Brokaw sat in to tell their story, because it’s a big, important story — Bretagne is the last surviving search dog who worked at Ground Zero in New York City after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Corliss was with Bretagne on that day, her handler and search and rescue partner. It was their first deployment together. This week Bretagne and Corliss visited the site of the former World Trade Center, their first time back after the attacks.
“Seeing this kind of took my breath away a bit, similar to how the pile was the first time I saw it,” Corliss 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.”
Corliss and Bretagne have spent their lives together. Corliss brought the dog home when she was eight weeks old, in 1999, after she became fascinated with disaster dogs and wanted to train one and become a dog/handler team. In 2000, they became official members of Texas Task Force 1.
On Sept. 11, 2001, they got their first assignment: Ground Zero. They worked 12-hour shifts for two weeks, a demanding, frustrating assignment for a search dog, as there were no survivors to be found.
“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.”
But the 300 or so rescue dogs who worked the site did so much more than search in those trying days. They brought hope and moments of joy to all the rescue workers.
“You’d see firefighters sitting there, un-animated, stone-faced, no emotion, and then they’d see a dog and break out into a smile,” Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinarian who cared for 9/11 search dogs at Ground Zero, told Today.com. “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.”
After 9/11, Corliss and Bretagne worked other disaster sites, including Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, and Hurricane Ivan, before the dog retired at age nine. But even then, she went to work at locals schools, where she helps first-graders and special needs kids read out loud.
“She still has this attitude of putting her paw up and saying, ‘Put me in, coach!’” Corliss said. “She absolutely loves it.”
Bretagne has done a lot for her country in her 15 years, and now you can do something for her. She’s up for a Hero Dog Award, in the Search and Rescue Dogs category. Vote for her here.
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