If you were to make a Molotov cocktail, you’d have to wash your hands at least 17 times before a dog would be unable to detect traces of petroleum on your skin. Until fairly recently, this information probably was not much of a concern to would-be flame-throwers.But these days, arsonists of every stripe should beware. While most fire departments have phased out the Dalmatian, fire investigative units have been adding another dog to their teams.
Since the mid-1980s, an elite cadre of canines has been using the ability for smelling in the parts-per-quintillion to help investigators determine whether a fire was deliberately set, and sometimes even who set it. The more than 200 arson dogs (formally known as accelerant- detection dogs) working today can quickly and accurately sniff out tiny amounts of anything from lamp oil to lighter fluid in a scene flooded with several inches of water or covered in snow, ice, mud or thick layers of fire debris.
“The K-9s have the ability to survey a variety of terrain in a fire scene in an incredibly short time,” says Jerry Means, an agent with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. “The dogs dramatically increase the investigator’s ability to retrieve an accurate reflection of the flammable products present in a fire scene and increase the chances of collecting a positive sample.” Of course, it can be equally important when a dog does not alert to fire-starting substances—helping to rule out arson.
Means investigated approximately 800 fires with his first arson dog, a black Lab named Erin. “We had a fire that occurred in a home where three small children were killed in the blaze,” he says. The fire initially looked like a tragic accident, and an arson dog was not going to be used. “However, considering the magnitude of the loss, it was decided to throw every available tool at the fire investigation.”
Erin alerted a dozen times in the area where it was believed the fire started. Based on these samples tested at the lab, investigators determined that the blaze had been set intentionally. “After four years of investigative work and two separate trials, the children’s father and mother were each convicted of three counts of first-degree murder.”
Means acquired his dogs, first Erin and later Sadie, through a program run by State Farm Insurance Company. Since 1993, the Bloomington, Ill.–based underwriter has teamed up with Maine Specialty Dogs and the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to provide arson dogs— about 10 per year—to communities where at least 50 suspicious fires occur annually. Most dogs are placed so they can help the greatest number of people, and they and their handlers often help neighboring jurisdictions. Overall, 250 State Farm–sponsored teams have set to work in 43 states, three Canadian Provinces and the District of Columbia.
Once an arson dog is certified and placed with a handler, he or she works every day of the year and must be recertified annually. Captain Stephen Baer, founder of the arson dog program at the Seattle Fire Department, recently put his dog Henny through her paces.
Out on the blacktop at a fire-training center south of the city, Baer has set up a simulation. Before I arrive, he has burned a carpet remnant with a torch, squeezed one drop of 50 percent evaporated gasoline in two spots, and burned it a second time. He has also put a tiny drop on a T-shirt in a row of clothes (to simulate a clothing lineup).
At some distance from the demo area, he dons a belt with a kibble pouch. Henny tunes in, ignoring the floating cotton that had captivated her only moments earlier. “She goes from being friendly and looking for Chicken McNuggets on the ground to, Oh, Dad put the belt on, now I’m looking for gasoline,” Baer says. With out the belt, they could walk through a sea of hydrocarbons and she wouldn’t react.
“Seek,” Baer says, as we near the carpet. Henny eagerly noses the ground for a few seconds, then sits on the edge of the carpet and stares at Baer. An alert. “Good,” he says, passing her some kibble. “Show me better.” She circles and sniffs again, then sits in almost the same spot. “Good,” he says in a high, happy voice. More kibble. Baer always asks Henny to double-check and pinpoint the location where she alerts.