Life of beloved rescue dog offers hope in dismal times

Austin American-Statesman, June 16, 2016

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With Donald Trump at the helm, like the rest of the world I couldn’t resist following the Republican campaign last fall. But rather than watching dignified auditions for the American presidency, it soon felt voyeuristic.

Even worse, my fellow Americans loved him. Filling the debate venues, raucous mobs drowned out the moderators. His vote tally as of June 7 was 13.3 million according to the Wall Street Journal.

Amusement turned to shock, leaving me disgusted and investors and the rest of the world fearful. Disgust gradually slid into a gloom that turned me into a real scrooge. Just ask my husband Ian.

Then out of the blue, a Golden Retriever named Bretagne threw me a rope and pulled me out of the darkness.

Of the 300 9/11 search dogs, the last survivor known living died June 6 in the Houston suburb of Cypress.

Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) was just shy of her 17th birthday. Let’s take a look at this great American’s life.

Bretagne at 9 weeks

When Denise Corliss, a volunteer firefighter with the Cy-Fair Fire Department, sought a special dog to train for disaster work, she picked a precocious 8-week-old puppy who had pushed her way through the litter from the back of the kennel to greet her. At 12 months of age, she and Corliss began formal training with Texas Task Force 1 to become a canine team certified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

GZ work 250On Sept. 11, 2001, Bretagne was two years old when they were called to Ground Zero for their first deployment. Corliss told Tom Brokaw in a 2014 interview that when she first saw the massive twisted steel beams, concrete and ash where the World Trade Center once stood, it took her breath away, dashing her hopes of rescue. But young Bretagne went straight to work digging through the rubble to find human scent. With an eye always on her trainer, she worked 12-hour shifts for 10 days.

GZ therapy 250Before long, Corliss discovered something unexpected: Bretagne was sensitive to the expressions of the rescuers. She knew which one needed comfort. The grieving NYFD firefighters would hold her close and stroke her fur as they shared their personal stories describing the missing friends, loved ones and colleagues for whom they searched. Bretagne had become a therapy dog.

reading 250Nearly a dozen deployments followed to disasters including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At age 9, Bretagne retired from search work and became a goodwill ambassador. Each week she would visit an elementary school near her home, mingling with special needs students and serving as a reading assistance dog. Children, otherwise intimidated to read aloud, would read to her.


Bretagne (foreground) swimming in pool with sibling Aid'N

Bretagne (foreground) swimming in pool with sibling Aid’N

At age 13, she began experiencing so much stiffness and joint pain that she could no longer climb the stairs in her home. Corliss installed an above-ground pool in her backyard and helped Bretagne swim in it for at least 10 minutes a day. She took daily walks around a pond, where she chased squirrels and ducks. Soon she was able to climb the stairs again.

B bday w cake 250She drew worldwide media attention in August 2015 as the Big Apple threw her a Sweet 16 birthday bash, complete with an illuminated billboard in Times Square and the dedication of a cobblestone in her honor on the plaza of the 9/11 Memorial.

Lately, Bretagne’s kidneys began to fail, slowing her down. When she stopped her favorite thing — eating — for three days, Corliss knew it was time to say goodbye.

long walk 250They arrived at Fairfield Animal Hospital to find dozens of uniformed search and rescue workers and volunteer firefighters lining both sides of the walkway, standing erect as they solemnly saluted. Her trainer’s husband tenderly lifted Bretagne out of their car and gently placed her on the ground. Corliss led the dog on her final walk. With head lowered, she wagged her low-slung tail slowly and paused once to look up at the sky.

After about 30 minutes, Bretagne was solemnly carried from the office in a casket draped with a folded casket 250American flag as the service men and women bid a tearful farewell, still saluting. She was transported in formal procession to Texas A&M University in College Station where she would undergo an autopsy as part of a long-running study of 9/11 search dogs.




Denise Corliss and Bretagne at Ground Zero

Denise Corliss and Bretagne at Ground Zero

Even in death Bretagne serves as therapy dog. She made America great again for me.











Toni Inglis, MSN, RN CNS (retired), FAAN, a lifelong Austin resident, is a retired neonatal intensive care nurse and editor of NursingNews. She also wrote a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial pages for 10 years.