In so many ways, Bretagne — the last of the search dogs who worked at ground zero in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — is still here with all of us.
Even though she died in 2016, the golden retriever remains one of the most recognizable symbols of the arduous search and rescue work done by dogs and their human handlers at disaster sites all over the world. On her very first deployment 20 years ago, Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) was among the 300 or so search dogs who used their powerful noses to try to find survivors and human remains in the towering pile of rubble where the World Trade Center once stood.
In the years that followed, Bretagne did similarly grueling work in response to Hurricane Katrina and numerous other disasters. In her retirement years she volunteered as a reading assistance dog, listening serenely and nonjudgmentally as elementary school children practiced reading aloud to her.
Bretagne’s years of service were so impactful that, on the day of her death, battle-tested firefighters and other first responders stood at attention and saluted her as she entered her veterinary office for the last time. They saluted again as her body left the animal hospital draped in an American flag.
Two decades after 9/11, Bretagne’s handler and best friend, Denise Corliss, is still training dogs, mentoring dog handler teams and responding to disasters herself. When she does so, she wears a glass pendant containing Bretagne’s ashes.
“I don’t take that pendant off,” Corliss, 56, of Cypress, Texas, told TODAY. “Bretagne is always with me when we deploy.”
Bretagne also remains with Corliss in special ways when she returns home from disaster sites. As Corliss drives toward her house, she passes a life-size bronze memorial statue of her beloved dog at the entrance of her neighborhood. Then, when she walks through her front door, she is greeted ecstatically by Finn, Bretagne’s 1-year-old baby sister.
As their last act before they retired, Bretagne’s breeders decided to create a litter of puppies using the long-frozen genetic material of Bretagne’s biological father.
“They called me and asked me if I would be interested in having one of the puppies,” Corliss said. “As they were telling me the story, tears were running down my face. Of course, anything that’s close to Bretagne is one I want. ... I don’t even care if she becomes a working dog or not. I’m just so happy to have her.”
Unlike any of Corliss’ other golden retrievers over the years, Finn displays many of Bretagne’s same quirky behaviors. When relaxing, Finn kicks her back legs out in a froglike position; when eager to devour a snack, she carries bags of treats around in her mouth until her mom gives in and lets her have one.
“It’s these small physical things that are just so precious that are getting relived through this other dog,” Corliss said.
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Corliss’ current working search dog, Taser, is 9 years old and closing in on retirement. Waiting to get to work is Rennes, a 2-year-old dog Corliss described as a “little firecracker” who is named after the capital of France’s Bretagne region.
Rennes is on track to complete an advanced-level FEMA test in October that will allow her to deploy to disasters as a search and rescue dog.
Corliss said Finn — whose name is meant to evoke the word “finale” — might end up having what it takes to do human remains detection work.
“So I would have one dog that looks for the living and one that looks for the deceased,” Corliss said. “Both jobs are important.”
That importance is something Corliss understands all too well. When she and Bretagne traveled to New York City in September 2001 for their first deployment as members of Texas Task Force 1, she imagined their primary job would be to locate survivors. But when they arrived at the hulking pile of beams, concrete and ash, there were no human survivors to be found — only human remains.
“I really believed we could find somebody — anybody! — if we could just get to the right void space,” Corliss told TODAY in 2014. “But our reality was much different. We found all various kinds of remains, some recognizable, others not so much.”
Chuck Jones, 60, the current operations chief for Texas A&M Task Force 1 (renamed in 2018), was among those who deployed to New York with Corliss and Bretagne in September 2001. At that time, he was a veteran firefighter who had responded to countless emergencies and disasters — but he had never seen anything like ground zero.
“My heart dropped. I could not believe how massive the area of destruction was,” Jones told TODAY. “I’ve never been at an accident scene or disaster with that type of raw and utter destruction.”
His job during the deployment was to serve as a logistics manager and support the task force members working on the pile — including newbie Corliss and her cheerful young dog.
“I still remember this fresh-faced young lady with the kindest eyes I had ever seen, and she had this beautiful dog that was the most loving animal that you could ever want to be around,” Jones recalled. “Everyone that they came in contact with just fell in love with the both of them.
“It was really heartwarming to see these big, rough firefighters and rescue people sit down next to Bretagne. Bretagne would put her head in their laps, and you’d see the tension come off their faces. For a few minutes, you could just see it: This is comfort.”
Dr. Cynthia Otto, a veterinarian who cared for 9/11 search dogs at ground zero, said the dogs who worked the pile played a crucial role.
“Those dogs provided hope — hope that maybe we could find somebody,” Otto told TODAY. “And even when we didn’t find live humans, the ability of the dogs to find human remains turned out to be very, very important for so many families.”
After Sept. 11, Otto went on to launch the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In October 2020, the center released the results of its 15-year surveillance of dozens of 9/11 working dogs. Among her favorite findings: Search and rescue dogs tend to live longer than other dogs.
“We think that actually having a job and doing amazing things and working closely with a special person is really good for a dog,” Otto said. “It’s also good for the person who does this work.”
Corliss couldn’t agree more. She said her life has been changed so profoundly by her disaster response work that she maneuvered her affairs to retire early from her engineering job last year at age 55. Now she has more time to devote to her passions: training dogs, helping up-and-coming dog handler teams, responding to disasters and assisting people in need.
“Bretagne taught me the way, and I continue to be able to do the work,” Corliss said. “I just got to stay longer than Bretagne is all. I’ll catch up with her eventually.”
Bretagne's life story is featured in the bestselling book "My Old Dog: Rescued Pets with Remarkable Second Acts" by TODAY writer Laura T. Coffey. Bretagne's chapter includes comments from NBC News' Tom Brokaw and exclusive photographs of Bretagne at the 9/11 Memorial taken by award-winning photographer Lori Fusaro.