disaster dog

Penticton fire chief Larry Watkinson takes a break with his disaster dog, Sam, in Abaco, Bahamas.

Larry Watkinson follows his golden retriever, Sam, through the wreckage-lined streets in Abaco. Cars lay on their roofs, buildings have been reduced to rubble and ships are docked on dry ground far from the sea. Sam bounds forward; his next move could change everything.

“Sam has two indications,” Watkinson, whose regular job is serving as Penticton fire chief, explained Tuesday, two days after his return from the Bahamas. “One for a live scent, which he gets very excited about and jumpy and barks and is very upbeat.

“When he finds human remains, he lays down and whines.”

The pair spent a week in the Bahamas assisting with search and rescue after Hurricane Dorian tore through the country, leaving upwards of 51 dead, 1,300 missing and approximately $7 billion in damages before reaching Nova Scotia. Wind speeds reached upwards of 295 kilometres an hour during the Category 5 hurricane, which is the country’s worst natural disaster on record.

Sam is a disaster dog, trained to find people in catastrophic environments such as the Bahamas. At seven years old, Watkinson said, Sam’s experience has made him one of the top-performing dogs in his group.

“He and I were in Nepal together, in Kathmandu after the earthquake there” in 2015, said Watkinson. “That’s where he really got his first indications of the cadaver scent.”

Watkinson works with the Urban Search and Rescue Team from the Burnaby Fire Department as a dog handler, and has done so since 2012, when he adopted Sam as a puppy.

An urban search and rescue team cannot operate without a dog handler, explained Watkinson, making his and Sam’s jobs global.

“I could be attached to (the USAR team) anywhere really internationally,” he said. “Sam is an internationally health-certified dog, so he can travel anywhere really in the world.”

Together, Watkinson and Sam worked upwards of 10 to 12 hours a day in Abaco in 40 C heat. Humidity levels were high, and with trees ripped from the ground, there was limited shade.

Watkinson said returning back to Penticton was an eye-opening experience.

“After a week of being there, it’s just normal. You’re driving through this devastation as a team and working and searching, and it just becomes the normality. So coming back to beautiful Penticton … it certainly gives you a mindful thought process of how good we have it here in B.C. and Canada.”

City manager Donny van Dyk said Watkinson received his regular salary while away as an acknowledgement of his good work and because it served as a training opportunity.