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Canadian disaster dogs arrive home after Mexican earthquake work

Denise Ryan

A group of dog handlers, including Jeanette Van Dijk with Phoenix and dogs from the Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association, arrive at Vancouver International Airport from helping with the Mexico City earthquake search, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/Postmedia Network)

A group of dog handlers, including Jeanette Van Dijk with Phoenix and dogs from the Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association, arrive at Vancouver International Airport from helping with the Mexico City earthquake search, in Richmond, B.C., on Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. (NICK PROCAYLO/Postmedia Network)

When a devastating earthquake shook Mexico two weeks ago, Burnaby resident Jeanette Van Dijk and her dog Phoenix got the call to help.

Phoenix had just passed her certification with the International Rescue Dog Organization. When the call came to deploy to Mexico with the Canadian Search and Disaster Dogs Association team (CASDDA), Van Dijk, 28, said her bosses at Bosley's pet store in Coquitlam didn't hesitate to let her go. Within minutes her shifts were covered, Van Dijk packed a bag and headed to the airport with Phoenix.

Air Canada pitched in, and Phoenix was whisked through the lineups at the airport: "Air Canada was really helpful, they found me, got me to the gate and through security."

Phoenix got to fly in the cabin, stretched across the floor at Van Dijk's feet.

"In Mexico we worked with UNAM, the Mexican civil protection unit and their canine team for 10 days," said Van Dijk.

Phoenix was deployed daily to search collapsed buildings while Van Dijk waited on the sidelines. "She was able to locate several victims, barking and alerting the recovery team," said Van Dijk.

Jeanette and Phoenix stayed with other global volunteer rescue teams at the UNAM canine unit in Mexico City. "She did very good, she stayed very relaxed, she took it all in stride, didn't stress about anything," said Van Dijk. "I'm very proud of her. Being the first disaster, you don't know that she is going to do well, but now I know that whatever happens she is going to do it, and do it well."

Van Dijk said Phoenix, a four-year-old Labrador mix, was a little traumatized when she took her in as a rescue 18 months ago. Van Dijk found out about CASDDA and attended a seminar where the dogs were encouraged to sniff out a person hiding with treats. "She loved it, she excelled and really came out of her shell," said Van Dijk.

Although there were no live rescues, Van Dijk said the gratitude of the Mexican people made it worthwhile: "They were able to get closure. We did our job. We did help them."

As for the hero's welcome Phoenix received at the airport, complete with media and camera crews, Van Dijk said Phoenix is taking it all in stride: "She seems to enjoy the camera time."

dryan@postmedia.com