Illustrations by Josie Portillo
When disaster struck last Christmas Eve, the Hawman family never imagined the hero of the day would be their rescue dog, Rex.
Santana Hawman was only a few minutes away from her acreage northeast of Saskatoon, driving her three young kids and nephew home from Christmas Eve dinner, when her husband's name lit up her caller ID. Though she wouldn't normally answer the phone while driving—especially at night on the dark country road—she knew Mitch would call from his truck, which followed just behind them, only if it was urgent. Mitch's frantic voice leaped from the speaker. He had just spoken with his mother, Noreen, who was visiting for the holidays but had stayed home for the evening with a fever and aches and pains; while she had been sleeping on the couch, the house caught fire. It was now burning to the ground.
As Mitch raced home, Santana called 911, watching an orange glow rise to the sky. "It was surreal," she says. "I had all four kids with me, so I was trying to keep it together and not freak out." She tried to give details to the operator, but all she knew was that Noreen had jumped into the family's third vehicle and pulled it out of the driveway, so she was safe and warm on that cold winter night. As Santana drove toward her swiftly burning home, her next thought was of the family's pets: four dogs, four cats, two rabbits and a hamster.
As soon as Santana pulled up to the house, she started counting the dogs: Rex, an eight-year-old German shepherd– Alaskan malamute cross, was howling; Ozzy, a Norwegian elkhound puppy, was running back and forth, unsure of what to do; Capone, the five-month-old golden retriever–Pyrenees baby of the family, was sitting in shock; and Phoebe, a schnauzer-Lab, was planted on the road, far from the house. "She wouldn't even come to us," remembers Santana. "I had to pick her up and put her in the vehicle." Three of the cats survived, but the family's indoor cat, Bella, died in the fire, along with the hamster and rabbits. An ambulance ferried Noreen to the hospital, and neighbours took in the kids and dogs, as Santana and Mitch watched their house burn out.
It wasn't until the following day, after Noreen was released and Santana noticed a rip in her pajama pant, that the family received the full story of that horrific night. "What happened?" asked Santana. "Rex," responded Noreen.
Rex had been part of the family since September 2007, when the Hawmans rescued him from the Saskatoon SPCA. Santana and Mitch originally had another dog in mind—a fluffy chow-chow mix that ended up showing little interest in the young couple or their 11-month-old daughter, Marley. They were drawn instead to a friendly puppy that was sitting in his kennel, wagging his tail. He sat next to the family for an hour in the visitation room, even allowing Marley to hang on to his neck. Though he was only eight months old, he was calm and well behaved. Rex came home with the Hawmans that day. No one could have predicted that, years later, he'd thank them with an epic act of bravery.
That fateful Christmas Eve, Noreen watched her son's family leave for dinner, then took a sleeping pill and fell asleep on the couch. When the house caught fire, three smoke detectors went off, but she slept through them all, curling herself deeper into the cushions. Rex began barking and pawing at Noreen, trying to rouse her, but the sleeping pill was strong and she simply turned away.
When Noreen didn't respond, Rex's survival instinct kicked in. Though almost nine years old at the time and much slower than he used to be, he found the strength to grab hold of Noreen's pajama leg with his teeth and yank multiple times, dragging her onto the ground. As soon as she hit the floor, she was jolted awake and sprang into action, grabbing the dogs and leading them out the front door. If Rex hadn't persevered, Noreen likely would have been trapped in the fire.
By Boxing Day, the local community had the Hawman family placed in a rental home, and everyone stopped by to pet "the hero dog." His story made the 6 o'clock news and was featured in local papers, which is how the Purina Animal Hall of Fame, an annual event in Toronto honouring pets that have performed life-saving feats, caught wind of Rex's heroic act. He was awarded a medal in May 2016. "It was super emotional," says Santana. "You meet these other fantastic families and their amazing pups, and then you watch your dog walk up there. He's got no idea what's going on, but you're just so proud."
The Hawmans have rebuilt on the site of their former home, and they made sure to take extra precautions when it comes to fire safety: There's a fire extinguisher in the garage, another under the kitchen sink and a third in the upstairs hall closet. They'll never know what caused the fire, which makes it difficult for them to relax, but at least they've got Rex keeping a watchful eye. "Each night, he'll walk around the whole house to see where everybody is before he lies down and goes to sleep," says Santana. "We're his people. He's always with us."
The Purina Animal Hall of Fame is an annual ceremony that recognizes heroic animals from across Canada—to the tune of 172 inductees in its 48 years. The vast majority are dogs, but there have also been feline inductees—and even a horse! This year, in addition to Rex, four other Canadian canines were honoured. Check out their stories here: 4 unbelievably heroic stories of dogs that will make you want to hug your own pooch.