'He helped me get through it': Penticton Fire Chief reflects on past international disaster recovery missions as his K9 companion retires

Four-legged hero retires

Penticton fire chief Larry Watkinson's beloved canine companion is hanging up his vest for rescue missions, after years of training and tough work.

Sammy, the 12-year-old golden retriever, will now be spending his days at home to be spoiled with treats and belly rubs.

Watkinson's journey with his trained disaster response dog started off when a friend who worked as a canine handler told him he should look into training his next pup. He had a Dalmatian at the time who would come to work with him, but wasn't involved operationally.

Research led the fire chief to decide that a purebred golden retriever had the right mix of emotional intelligence, gentle spirit and easily trained breeding to pick up Sammy from Chilliwack.

"We did all the puppy tests with him and he had all the specifications for this type of work. He was non-aggressive, very relaxed and easily trained, and driven with treats. He hit all the marks. So we picked up Sam and three months later, we were already in the training box," Watkinson said.

Sammy started off with basic training, playing hide and seek and learning how to bark when it's appropriate. He graduated to advanced hikes and rubble pile walks, learning how to maneuver with Watkinson over difficult terrain.

He then moved into live scent training.

"The idea is to try to start large and narrow the point of origin down to where the person may be buried or trapped or otherwise. He picked up on that really quickly. He just naturally had an incredible drive for that."

The pair trained for years together before being tasked out to Nepal alongside a team of urban search and rescue firefighters from Burnaby in 2015.

Over 14 days, Watkinson and Sammy went through the city of Kathmandu and a remote village nearby, scouring through building collapses and rubble.

"Sam sadly didn't find any live victims on that deployment. But strangely, we had never taught him how to do human remains detection, but in the environment that we were working in, he picked up on that scent and naturally indicated," Watkinson said.

"So he would lay down and whine when there were human remains identified. While on deployment, we realized that Sam's behaviour was changing when he found human remains. He was able to pick up on that and we trained him to indicate specifically for human remains detection. As sad or dark as that is, it can take a long time to teach a dog how to identify."

Sammy took his work seriously when he was tasked with recovering bodies.

"I remember Sam in Nepal, we were on this seventh-storey collapse, pancake collapse, high rise, student housing and he was going so deep into the building and I was following him and I was scared for him," Watkinson said.

"I [thought], 'Oh my God, he's never gonna come back' and I had my long leash on him and he's crawling on his belly trying to get down to the scent and I'm crawling after him on this concrete slab and [thinking] 'What am I doing here, this is very dangerous.' But he kept going and I'm not going to let him go by himself.

"So here we are crawling our way through this collapsed building...I think it creates such a bond, that level of connection."

Watkinson said his dog was also an "amazing humanitarian."

Sammy would comfort not only the thousands of people going through the darkest moments of their life but also the rescue team working to help them.

"At the end of the day, we're all trying to reset our emotions, what we've been through and Sam was always going door to door or cot to cot saying hi to every one of the team members."

The resilience of the pup during such tragic events brings forward emotion in Watkinson's voice.

"He helped me get through it," he said. "I don't know how I would have gotten through without him. You have that partner to kind of lean on it, we will always have that memory."

Upon their return from Nepal, Watkinson kept training Sammy in recovery.

"He still loves putting his vest on. He knows he's going to do some training and loves the game when we're playing. But when it's real life, and we're dealing with cadavers and human remains, it's pretty dark. Still, he's a happy, 12-year-old golden, he just loves playing and swimming and he's got a great attitude. I don't think it's aged him, he's just himself."

In 2019, the two were off to the Bahamas for a 10-day deployment after Hurricane Dorian battered the country.

"We did a lot of searches there. He did find a live victim but was just a fellow looking for a place to have a nap under the sun and underneath a fallen down palm tree. As excited as he was, the person was just lightly injured but he was just really having some rest," Watkinson said with a chuckle.

"But Sam was very, very productive when it came to the cadaver-ing."

Reflecting back on these two missions, Watkinson said it brings up some really heavy emotional feelings for him.

He added that the work, however difficult, was able to bring closure to many families whose loved ones were lost.

The fire chief was grateful that in his position with the City of Penticton and Mission, they were both supportive of him going on international deployments.

"That's what really kind of fires me up as a fire chief. I love serving my community every day, but when I get to do these extraordinary kinds of circumstances, it really kind of adds fire for me and that soul food and Sam has been a big part of that for me for a lot of years."

The decision to retire Sammy was not an easy one, Watkinson said, especially since he was hoping to do one last trip with him.

"His age, and he's not moving around like he used to. It's kind of at that time when he's almost 12 years old. Now it's time to shut 'er down," he said, adding that it's still a happy retirement.

"He's first and foremost my personal companion. But he's been an incredible dog to be with and train with. He's part of this incredible team of urban search and rescue firefighters. I'm glad to say that we did what we did. And took a lot of work to get them there, but I don't regret any of it."

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