About two dozen uniformed firefighters lined up in two rows outside the Fairfield Animal Hospital in Cypress, Texas. Between them, an aged golden retriever limped toward the clinic’s doors wagging its tail.
Some had tears in their eyes. They were bidding farewell to a hero. The dog Bretagne (pronounced “Brittany”) was the last known search-and-rescue dog who aided first responders following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011.
Bretagne was euthanized on Monday at age 16 after a long battle with arthritis and possibly cancer, according to the Houston Chronicle. The uniformed men and women saluted her as her body was carried out in a casket draped with the Texas flag.
Denise Corliss, Bretagne’s handler of 16 years, was with her throughout the ordeal. With tears in her eyes she walked beside her firefighter husband Randy as pallbearers carried the casket.
“Some may say that the most a dog could be is a pet. However, to the over 400 members of the Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department, Bretagne was a civil servant, a hero and is family,” the department said in a statement.
A Heroic Past
Bretagne was a member of Texas Task Force 1. Weeks after her second birthday, she and Corliss were deployed to Ground Zero, where they spent 10 days searching for survivors and human remains.
The pair also aided in the rescue efforts following Hurricane Katrina and Rita. After Bretagne retired from the unit at age 10, she volunteered for a reading program at a local elementary school where she also worked with autistic children.
“She never forgot the game,” said Shelley Swedlaw, a member of the canine rescue unit, in an interview with The Houston Chronicle. “She never stopped being of service.”
That service landed her to the list of finalists for the 2014 Hero Dog Award by the American Humane Association.
Despite the grueling demands that a hero’s life put on her, Bretagne surpassed a golden retriever’s life expectancy of 10 to 11 years.
Corliss may have been her handler, but Bretagne sparked a bond with everyone from the The Cy-Fair Volunteer Fire Department.
“She touched every station,” said Cy-Fair VFD Chief Amy Ramon. “She’s a part of the Cy-Fair family.”
Fellow handler Rebecca Pennington agrees.
“At some point, they all become our dogs,” she said.
Leaving Behind a Legacy
Bretagne was among the hundreds of search-and-rescue dogs from around the country who answered the call when terror struck the U.S. on 9/11/2001. Those attacks claimed the lives of 343 firefighters and paramedics, according to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. They were among about 2,750 people killed in New York.
The 9/11 rescue effort was Bretagne’s first assignment with the Texas unit. She was believed to be the last living dog who contributed to the rescue mission.
To celebrate her 16th birthday, Corliss took Bretagne to New York. They visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Bretagne was also awarded a key to the city.