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Arson Dogs

If this were a fire scene, Baer would place a clean poker chip on the spot. That’s for the fire investigator, who follows up and determines whether to take a sample and send it to the lab. This process cuts down on time-consuming guesswork in the field. Plus, fewer and better samples cut down on the workload at overburdened crime labs.

In the messy, chaotic aftermath of a real fire, Baer might also point exactly to each spot he wants her to check, saying, “Seek. Seek. Seek.” Arson dogs are taught to discriminate among the variety of scents they might confront at a fire scene —plus deliberate distractions such as beef jerky—and to alert only to substances used to start fires.

Henny joined the Accelerant Detection K-9 Program at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) after flunking out of guide-dog training due to an overactive sniffer. The majority of arson dogs in the United States are trained and certified either by ATF or State Farm. The ATF program dates back to 1984, and 127 accelerant-detection dogs have been placed with agencies in the U.S. and 21 foreign countries since 1991. (It’s a small number, especially when compared to the 595 explosives-detection dogs certified in that same period.)

March 2006, the teammates have been apart only once—during Baer’s honeymoon. They train twice a day to keep Henny’s skills sharp; also, Henny only eats when she’s working. She is always fed from Baer’s hand, as is common with most arson dogs.

Accelerant-detection dogs aren’t limited to fire scenes. Jerry Means’ current arson dog, Sadie, was called in to “survey” two juveniles in a fire at an abandoned flour mill in Longmont, Colo. The suspects originally denied involvement, but when the dog alerted to their shoes, it was only 15 minutes before they confessed to starting the fire.

Arson dogs also make appearances in courtrooms when handlers present evidence—including the dog’s training and experience, and the procedure followed at the incident in question.

What makes a good arson dog? “The ideal dog has high energy,” says Paul Gallagher, the owner-trainer of Maine Specialty Dogs. “It’s basically the semi-problem child.” A former Maine State Police K-9 trainer and supervisor, Gallagher saw one of the first accelerantdetection dogs being trained back in the day, and decided to train one for Maine. This led to training arson dogs for other departments. When he retired from the police force in 1996, he paired up with State Farm to continue the work. State Farm covers the $23,000 training costs for each dog.

Both ATF and State Farm prefer Labradors or Lab-mixes because of their curiosity, energy, tracking ability and easygoing demeanor. Guide dog training “dropouts” are particular favorites. Gunny is fairly typical. He had to find a new career when he slipped a hamburger right off the table in front of a blind person. Now a State Farm–sponsored arson dog in Grand Haven Township, Mich., he’s great at his job because he’s extremely motivated to work for kibble.

Susan Piron of Lake Gaston, N.C., has seen two of the five puppies she raised for Guiding Eyes for the Blind go on to careers in arson detection. In 2008, she was given the option of adopting Elway, a yellow Labrador she’d raised, when he didn’t seem suited for guide dog work. “That was probably the toughest decision,” Piron says, “whether to bring him back to the lake or let him go on to do something for other people and become the best he can be. Elway had a lot of energy and initiative; he needed a job.” Today, he sniffs out accelerants for the Connecticut State Police.

State Farm also enlists one- to twoyear- old dogs from humane societies and rescues, including one Hurricane Katrina rescue.

“We’ve saved a few from being put down,” Gallagher says.

Ultimately, though, it’s not about second chances for dogs so much as saving lives and money. An estimated 32,500 structural fires were set intentionally in 2007, resulting in 295 civilian deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association’s most recent assessment. The cost in property loss due to arson for 2007 is estimated at around $733 million. Arson is tough to prove, but a dog is a huge asset.

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