The City of Long Beach Fire Department announced today the retirement of their first search and rescue Canine. The dog, a Black Labrador Retriever named “Rex” has faithfully served the City of Long Beach, the State of California, and the Country for the last 11 years. “Rex” was placed with his handler, Fire Captain Wade Haller on June 9, 2009. Since then, Rex has been “on-call” to respond to any major disaster throughout the United States. In September of 2017, “Rex” was deployed to Texas in support of Hurricane Harvey. In January of 2018, “Rex” searched the areas in and around the devastating mud flows of Montecito after the Thomas Fire.
Over the last 11 years, Rex has been assigned to the Long Beach Fire Department as part of the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) Urban Search and Rescue Regional Task Force #3 and to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search and Rescue Federal Task Force #5 out of Orange County, California.
Rex was born on April 16, 2008 and with the support of the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) was trained and placed with his handler, Fire Captain Wade Haller. Founded in 1996, the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (SDF) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Santa Paula, California. The SDF offers professionally trained canines and an ongoing training program at no cost to fire departments throughout the Country. There are currently 83 SDF-trained canine disaster search teams located in Baja California, California, Florida, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. Thanks to mutual aid agreements between counties, cities and states, these precious, life-saving resources can be deployed regionally and nationally to make sure that when disaster strikes, no one is left behind.
“We are grateful to all the agencies and organizations that supported Rex throughout his career. There is no question that it takes extreme dedication and passion to train and maintain a constant state of readiness for these amazing animals” said Long Beach Fire Chief Xavier Espino. “Although he is retiring, Rex will always be part of the Long Beach Fire Department family.”
Rex’s storied career began one day in the summer of 2008, Penny Woodruff, an SDF volunteer from Graeagle, CA, received word from a friend about a Labrador breeder in Central California needing to place one of her puppies. The breeder had a reputation for producing high-drive field trial and duck hunting dogs – exactly the type of dogs the Search Dog Foundation (SDF) looks for.
Penny called then SDF Canine Manager Karen Klingberg to see if she was interested in a puppy. SDF doesn’t normally accept puppies because it’s difficult to tell at that age if the animal has all the characteristics needed in a Search Dog. But when Karen heard that this puppy was from champion field trial and duck hunting breeding, she felt his chances of completing the training were better than average.
So Karen jumped in the car and made the eight-hour drive north to the town of Fairfield. Penny met her there, and they were greeted by Barbara Ornbaun, the puppy’s breeder. When Karen and Penny got to the puppy run, three Black Lab puppies, only about three months old, came charging out of the pen to greet them. They were so excited to have company!
Barbara singled out Rex, a wild-eyed boy running in circles and jumping up, full of life and fun. It had recently rained and everyone was soon covered in mud. Karen picked him up and tried to hold him, but he would have none of it! He wiggled and squirmed and wanted down to run some more.
When Barbara learned that Rex would be under the supervision of SDF’s Lead Trainer Pluis Davern, a trainer renowned in the dog world, she was thrilled. It turns out that Barbara and Pluis have been friends for many years and Barbara was very happy to know that Rex would be in her care, receiving the very best instruction.
Once home, Karen played endless retrieving and tugging games with Rex, giving him loads of positive reinforcement. Pluis advised her against any high retrieves. “Keep the toy low,” she said. “If he looks up and a bird catches his attention, he may focus on the bird and not the toy. After all, he’s a duck-hunter!”
From that moment on, Karen’s life changed. Everything she did, wanted to do, or thought of doing, revolved around Rex. He was a mischievous boy who took over her household and everything in it, but would still respect lines that were drawn. He went everywhere with Karen: to the SDF office, on her long Canine Recruitment trips up and down California and to several SDF training events.
By November of 2008, Rex was old enough to be evaluated by Pluis. The moment of truth came, and there was no doubt of this boy’s future as a Search Dog. Karen had to say goodbye to her wild-eyed boy, but left feeling confident that he would make it all the way.
In 2009, Rex was partnered with Wade Haller of the Long Beach Fire Department, who, at the time was a first-time SDF handler. They trained intensively and in April of 2010, just six months after being paired, Wade and Rex achieved their FEMA Certification in Las Vegas, NV. Teams must undergo FEMA evaluations every three years in order to maintain their deployment-ready status at the nation’s highest level, so in February 2013, and then again in January 2016 and March 2018, Rex and Wade attained Re-Certification. In December of 2020, Rex was ready to retire and pass the torch on to Dallas, a new search dog who has already been placed with Captain Haller and has started to work.
“It has been amazing to watch the growth of this dog that was repurposed to become what he has become. He has been a fantastic search dog and an amazing partner” said Rex’s handler, Fire Captain Wade Haller. “It’s definitely bittersweet to come to the culmination of a great career. I am so thankful for all those that have been on this journey with us.”
Some of the high points of Rex’s career include:
September 27th 2009 - Rex officially becomes a member of the LBFD family
February 25th 2010 - Rex passes the Fundamental Skills Assessment (1st of 2 FEMA qualification tests)
April 11th 2010 - Rex passes the FEMA Certification Exam in Las Vegas, Nevada
May 2010 - Rex completes the FEMA Canine Search Specialist class in San Diego, California
February 2013 - Rex passes the FEMA Re-Certification Exam in Los Angeles, California
January 2016 - Rex passes the FEMA Re-Certification Exam in Miami, Florida
March 2018 - Rex passes the FEMA RE-Certification Exam in Riverside, California
Rex Completes 10 Mobilization exercises (MOBEX) 2011-2019
September 2017- Hurricane Harvey
January 2018 - Montecito Mudslide
March 2018 - Montecito storm pre-deployment
May 2018 - Long Beach Injury Traffic Accident (ITA) missing person
September 2018 - Whittier missing person
About Long Beach Fire Department
The mission of the Long Beach Fire Department is to protect lives, property, and the environment, improving the quality of life and safety of the community and our visitors. Visit us at www.longbeach.gov/fire, "Like" us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram.