Last June in Harris County, Texas, the firefighters in Cypress gave a hero’s farewell to a fallen comrade named Bretagne. They saluted as she went into the hospital for the last time and lined the street when her coffin-draped body was carried out. Although she did not live to see two decades, Bretagne did more in that short time than most people do in seventy or eighty years.
When she died, she was the last of her kind — but she had also been among the first of her kind. Her story began unexpectedly, as it did for almost everyone, on a bright, clear morning in late summer. Bretagne, a golden retriever, was with her handler and owner, Denise Corliss — fresh graduates from disaster training, ready for their first assignment. It was the second Tuesday in September, 2001.
Bretagne (pronounced “Britney”) became one of the hundreds of search and rescue dogs sent from around the world to use their special skills at Ground Zero in order to find survivors under the debris from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. Like the other dogs and their handlers, Bretagne and Corliss worked non-stop twelve-hour days for two weeks, but while there was a lot of search going on there was little rescue. It was a man-made disaster that left very few survivors to be found.
However, Corliss gradually discovered another of Bretagne’s skills, and one that dogs have become well-known for in the years since. Other rescue workers and firefighters, exhausted from their work, would approach the dog and just pet her and talk to her. They would tell the dog — and Corliss — their stories, of people they had lost and people they were looking for. Bretagne would just listen without judging, and so without even planning for it, she became a therapy dog during that time down in the ruins of southern Manhattan.
Bretagne also continued her career doing search and rescue, logging hours at other famous natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and never tiring of the hunt for survivors. Bretagne had what it took to be a search and rescue dog: a natural assertiveness, strong focus, lack of fear, a strong prey drive, and extreme motivation in exchange for the reward of her favorite toy.
The only thing that ended her career was age. After moving from the big disasters both natural and manmade, she worked with the local fire department in Texas until she was about eleven. That’s when she took on an entirely new career — teaching kids how to read. She did that the same way she gave therapy and comfort to all those human first-responders at Ground Zero: by listening patiently, without judgment.
It turns out that this skill in dogs can help kids with reading disorders overcome them faster and more confidently than human therapists can by helping the kids get over their fear of failing. Nothing can do this for them like a friendly dog who doesn’t care if you fumble and stumble over words. The dog just cares that your energy stays positive.
Bretagne’s career and life were ended by advanced old age (for a dog of her breed) on a late spring Monday in 2016, but there have been and will be other dogs to carry on doing what she did, which is helping humans, tirelessly and without question. When a dog is given a job to do, a balanced dog does it. They don’t wonder how much they’re going to get paid or whether they’ll get along with their co-workers or how far their commute is.
It’s an attitude that humans should aspire to, although, oddly enough, it’s one that we, as a species, often default to in times of crisis. Disasters and tragedies seem to bring us together into a pack and remind us that we are all one human tribe. The 15th anniversary of 9/11 is a good occasion to remember and honor that human tendency to come together for our common benefit in the face of catastrophe. Any time is a good time to remember that dogs do this naturally and constantly.
We have the instinct to unite for the betterment of our species as a whole. Luckily, we also have dogs to show us how it’s done, and to inspire us to do it and find our own inner greatness.
Here’s to Bretagne, the last of the Ground Zero rescue dogs, to all of the other dogs who joined her in the tireless quest for survivors, and every other dog that gives a human somewhere a little bit of hope and inspiration every single day.
Stay calm, and find your inner greatness.