At Ground Zero in 2001, Bretagne was a specially trained 2-year-old golden retriever who had a sixth sense about who needed her most.
Thirteen years later, that sixth sense is as strong as ever.
The Texas-based canine, now 15, is believed to be the only surviving search dog who worked at the World Trade Center site following the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and her mission to help others continues.
“She still has this attitude of putting her paw up and saying, ‘Put me in, coach!’ She absolutely loves it!” her owner, Denise Corliss, tells Today.com. (She also spoke to Tom Brokaw for a segment that aired on the Today show Thursday morning.)
In September 2001, Corliss and Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) traveled from their home in Texas to New York City – at their own expense and without pay – to assist responders desperately searching for survivors.
On the ground for her very first assignment, Bretagne’s mission was twofold: search for potential survivors and comfort the men and women on the scene.
Ultimately, Bretagne could only find human remains – although her ability to console workers was something to behold.
Specifically, Corliss recalls a moment when Bretagne uncharacteristically left her side to seek out a sad-looking firefighter on the ground.
“I was surprised that she wasn’t listening to me, but she really wasn’t – it was like she was flipping me the paw,” Corliss said. “She went right to that firefighter and laid down next to him and put her head on his lap.”
This week, the pair returned to the World Trade Center site for the first time since their mission – which Corliss said brought back the emotion of their 13-year-old assignment.
“Seeing this kind of took my breath away a bit, similar to how the pile was the first time I saw it,” Corliss said. “It’s so calm and peaceful now, unlike the chaos of before.”
(Technically, Bretagne is not the only dog who helped on 9/11 who is still alive. Today.com reports a 15-year-old English springer spaniel named Morgan assisted in Staten Island in the aftermath of the tragedy.)
In the years since 9/11, Corliss and Bretagne were on scene at other disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ivan.
At age 9, she retired from disaster work, but now uses her talents at a local elementary school, where she assists special-needs first graders who are learning to read aloud.
“I’ve seen Bretagne almost select a child,” Shelley Swedlaw, a search dog handler and a onetime special education director who works with Bretagne at the school, told the site. “She’s just really good about knowing who needs that kind, canine attention.”