This piece has been adapted from our 2016 edition of People We’ll Miss.
We tend to define our lives by moments of achievement or emotional highs. Once we’ve reached these zeniths, there is an inevitable drop-off, a loss of identity that can make our lives seem like nothing but a struggle in search of another big moment. Think of a parent sending its youngest child off to college, or a novelist who has just finished his or her pièce de résistance. It can be unbearably distressing to finish something. This dilemma is particularly poignant for people who were part of something a little bigger than the rest of us: an ex-world leader spends his post-presidency painting sub-par portraits; a former star quarterback whittles away the rest of his days in a vacuous mansion, occasionally doing spots for local TV commercials peddling used cars or above-ground pools.
It makes perfect sense, though, that Bretagne is the rare exception to the post-heroism struggle. Bretagne was always good at finding things when others couldn’t. During her long career as a FEMA-certified disaster search dog, Bretagne and her handler, Denise Corliss, responded to a number of the nation’s worst disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But her defining moment came in September 2001, when she traveled to New York City with Texas Task Force 1 in the days following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
For ten days after the 9/11 attack, then two-year-old Bretagne sniffed through the wreckage working twelve-hour shifts. She and the other rescuers found only human remains. But Bretagne became a sort of therapy dog at the scene, as responders would often pet the golden retriever and share their personal stories with Corliss. They spoke of loved ones, friends, and family they were searching for. For a few moments there amid the mass destruction, they found some comfort and strength in Bretagne.
Bretagne retired six years ago, but she remained a fixture at the Cy-Fair volunteer firehouse and continued to be an important member of her community, making public appearances and regularly visiting an elementary school in Waller County. “Each week, she would visit a first grade classroom and listen to young readers, providing a non-judgmental ear, and soft paw,” the department said in a press release after Bretagne passed away in June. “Her calm demeanor and warm heart helped the young and old through their own difficult moments.”
Bretagne was widely recognized for her service. In 2014, she accompanied Corliss to the “Hero Dog Awards” in Beverly Hills, California. In 2015, she was honored by a dog charity and invited back to New York City for her sixteenth birthday, where she enjoyed a ritzy hotel room, a gourmet burger, toys, treats, and a personalized welcome message on a billboard in Times Square. She was believed to be the last living rescue dog who responded to 9/11.
Once back in Texas after her New York trip, Bretagne’s age began to catch up with her. She slowed, stopped eating, and became anxious. On the night of Sunday, June 5, 2016 Corliss slept alongside the dog, a touching role reversal that undoubtedly provided Bretagne herself some comfort and solace. The next day, Corliss took Bretagne to the vet to be euthanized.
When Corliss arrived at the vet with Bretagne in the back seat of her car, the pair was greeted by a line of firefighters gathered to honor their beloved Bretagne. The dog trotted slowly, stoically, past the firefighters as they raised their arms in salute. When Bretagne, this time in a casket draped in a Texas flag, exited the vet’s office later that afternoon, the firefighters again lined up wearing black armbands. Members of the rescue unit served as pallbearers and walked with Bretagne for one last time, a fitting send-off for a hero.