9/11 Working Dogs: Bringing Us Hope, Then and Now

Bretagne, a search and rescue dog, was one of many helping out after the terror attacks and one of the few remaining today.

Bretagne, 9/11 search dog. By: Denise Corliss
Bretagne looks amazingly spry for her 15 years. By: Denise Corliss

Last week, on the 13th anniversary of 9/11, I was giving my dogs their last evening walk, not far from the WTC site.

The skyline held the welcome presence of the new One World Trade Center, familiar to me now as the new face of downtown.

But on this somber night, the buildings of New York shared the night with the 2 luminous tunnels of light that appear every year on 9/11, reaching into the great beyond over New York City.

On the evening news a few hours earlier, I had watched Tom Brokaw “interview” Bretagne, a 15-year-old Golden Retriever, 1 of just 2 surviving 9/11 search and rescue dogs. Bretagne looked amazingly spry for her 15 years young on her first visit back to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

From Service to Comfort

Bretagne’s dedicated trainer, Denise Corliss of Texas, remembered the long hours of searching and searching 13 years ago.

Corliss and Bretagne arrived at Ground Zero in 2001 about 10 days after the planes hit. They searched the pile for remains in 12-hour shifts, along with hundreds of other canines.

Denise did not anticipate that Bretagne’s other purpose at Ground Zero would be as therapy dog to the human rescuers. If Bretagne was resting near the pile after a tour, Denise remembers, the rescuers were drawn to the gentle Golden for comfort. Beaten down by finding no survivors, the men and women sat with the soft retriever and gave her belly rubs.

Don’t Miss: 9/11 Search Dogs — Remembering Their Service

They gained some peace watching her take serene dog naps on the empty stretchers in the midst of chaos. Here’s a FEMA News photo from that time:


No Long-Term Health Issues

The scope of the tragedy on 9/11 was uncharted territory for the brave canines who worked tirelessly in the rubble of the Twin Towers.

Nobody knows this better than Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinarian who has devoted her career to search and rescue dogs. I had the privilege to work with Dr. Otto when I was a student at Penn Vet and Dr. Otto was an intern.

Dr. Otto was one of the first veterinarians to arrive at Ground Zero. She stayed for 9 days, safeguarding the dogs’ health and working conditions. After the tragedy, having secured funds from the AKC’s Canine Health Foundation, Dr. Otto and colleagues followed the health of 95 of the rescue dogs from 9/11.

The results are impressive. Despite not having protective gear, the WTC working dogs did not suffer from any more debilitating conditions, cancers or diseases than control dogs. There was concern at the time that the dogs’ health at Ground Zero was put at risk.

This was not the case. Without protective respiratory gear, and needing their noses to work, the canines came out of their tour of duty without serious health problems.

Serendipity brought one of these great dogs to me in Massachusetts, a few years after 9/11, to confirm her health status through X-rays and bloodwork, and send the results back to Dr. Otto. It was an honor and a pleasure.

The Human–Animal Bond

Working dogs stay fit, have a purpose in life and enjoy a strong bond with their humans. Perhaps this is a lesson we all can learn from our faithful working canines.

Likewise, the animals protected their handlers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “The dog handlers have a lower incidence of PTSD overall,” Dr. Otto says, “but if the dog ended up dying within 3 years after 9/11, the incidence of PTSD went up.”

The human–animal bond protected against some of the psychological consequences of disaster and disaster relief work.

On September 11, 2012, Dr. Cindy Otto opened the Penn Vet Working Dog Center to provide training for more dogs in search and rescue, and as therapy dogs. The center is dedicated to training and enhancing the lives of working dogs to help them live longer, healthier and happy lives.

A Continuing Legacy

Bretagne shares her longevity with 1 other dog, a springer spaniel named Morgan, who helped during the WTC disaster on Staten Island.

Both Bretagne and Morgan have namesake pups trained at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. “Bretagne 2” has been trained to help a man with diabetes. She paws at his leg to alert him when his blood-sugar levels are running low. “Get something to eat!” says the paw of Bretagne 2.

Eight dogs have been nominated for this year’s Hero Dog Awards through the American Humane Association. Bretagne is one of them. If she wins, she will donate her $5,000 “dogararium” to the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

To all our brave and dedicated working dogs and handlers, our hats are off to you and our hearts are with you, now and forever.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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