Retired TSA canine finds special path to fur-ever home

Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Rex photo

Thanks to a new partnership, a recently retired TSA canine has a fur-ever home.

McDonnells and Rex photo
Kevin and Ann McDonnell add a new member to their family – Rex, a retired TSA canine, adopted through Project K-9 Hero. (Photo by Jason Johnson)

Rex, a 9-year-old German shorthaired pointer, successfully finished his service with TSA in Washington state in late May. Unlike most TSA canines, his handler unfortunately wasn’t able to adopt Rex.

For the first time in history, TSA partnered with an outside organization to find an adoptive family for Rex. TSA Headquarters Canine Coordinator Andrew Hotinger reached out to Jason Johnson, the founder of Project K-9 Hero, to see if Johnson’s nonprofit group could find Rex a permanent home.

Project K-9 Hero’s vision is to ensure the best quality of life for our nation’s retired military and police canine heroes by assisting with medical costs, food, rehabilitation, adoption and end of duty services.

Rex turned out to be a perfect fit!

“TSA is special to me,” Johnson said. “I am a former [TSA] employee and field canine coordinator. Rex met the full requirements to be in our program. He is a police canine who served with the Washington State Patrol, and he deserves all the benefits our organization has to offer.”

Project K-9 Hero quickly found a permanent home for Rex despite the organization’s very strict adoption criteria. Rex landed in El Paso, Texas, and is now part of Kevin and Ann McDonnell’s family.

“We are very honored to be granted this opportunity to provide a home and love for this retired canine,” said Kevin, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran.

His wife, Ann, recently retired from the Department of Army as a civilian and said timing is everything.

“When we saw Rex up for adoption, we immediately submitted our application for consideration,” Ann recalled. “Given Rex was a canine with no behavioral issues or aggressive tendencies, we knew he was the canine for us to adopt.”

Ann admits it’s a little more hectic around the house since the McDonnells have two other family dogs vying to be the center of attention, but she noted “Rex fits in well with the family” and is really enjoying retirement.

“He wakes up around 6 a.m., stretches and takes a 2 1/2-mile walk/jog with me,” said Ann. “Once the walk is done, he cools down before eating breakfast. The rest of the day is spent lounging, napping and sniffing around our air-conditioned house. Rex receives a lot of outside time, playing with the other family dogs, Sis (border collie) and Bro (pug).”

Ann admits Rex sometimes still thinks he’s on the job.

“He gets excited when he sees his vest and leash, as he thinks it’s time for work,” Ann said. “His nose is always working. It will be some time before he realizes he’s a family member (pet) and doesn’t have to work.”

The McDonnells appreciate Rex and all of the heroic canines who protect our country.

Family photo with Rex
From left, Ann and Kevin McDonnell, Celeste Aragon and Austin McDonnell with their new family member Rex. (Photo by Jason Johnson)
Family photo with Rex
Ann and Kevin McDonnell play with their new family member, Rex. (Photo by Jason Johnson)

“The canines who serve our nation across the U.S. didn’t sign up for the dangers and associated health issues that come from their service,” Ann emphasized. “They deserve to be cared for in their retirement.”

Project K-9 Hero is paying for all of Rex’s food and medical care and remains in constant communication with the family to make sure he’s transitioning well. Johnson said Rex had three small growths that needed to be immediately removed when Rex retired, and Project K-9 Hero paid the $1,038 bill. Fortunately, doctors didn’t find any cancer and gave Rex a clean bill of health.

TSA, Project K-9 Hero’s new partnership

Even though this is the first time TSA has partnered with an outside organization to adopt a retiring canine, Hotinger was completely comfortable with the idea. Hotinger and Johnson got to know each other during Johnson’s days as a TSA field canine coordinator, and it was Johnson and Project K-9 Hero who helped Hotinger when Hotinger’s canine partner Cheddar suffered health issues in retirement.

“If we had any reservations, we would not have opted to take this path,” said Hotinger. “The process went smoothly. As a [former TSA] field canine coordinator, Jason used to process retirements and canine transport. His understanding of the process and flexibility in receiving [Rex] was spectacular.”

Hotinger said it’s rare when TSA canine handlers are unable to permanently adopt their partners, but it does happen.

“It may be a family situation, or the handler is retiring simultaneously and a pet may not fit into their retirement plans,” he described. “It may also be a financial consideration. Adopting a former working canine comes with some very specific veterinary needs.”

While finding a permanent adoptive home for a TSA canine is new, Project K-9 Hero has helped cover over $30,000 in medical costs for several other TSA canines since 2016.

Hotinger believes this could be the start of a long partnership between TSA and Project K-9 Hero and extend the mission of TSA’s canine program, which is to deter and detect explosive devices into the nation’s transportation system.

“Executing this mission builds a bond between the handler and canine that is undeniably unique and stronger than most people will ever experience with a four-legged friend,” explained Hotinger. “We understand the bond firsthand and will always exhaust all efforts to care for our partners while on duty and see to it they have a comfortable and well cared for retirement.”

Editor’s Note: Project K-9 Hero relies mostly on private donations. Johnson said his nonprofit has over 105,000 private donors, who in 2021 donated $3.8 million. To learn more about Project K-9 Hero and provide financial support so the organization may help numerous other TSA canines for which assistance applications have been submitted, full details are available on the nonprofit’s website.

By Don Wagner, TSA Strategic Communications & Public Affairs