Image via iStock.com/photosbyjim
By Michael Arbeiter
Just as inherent an image of the American fire department as the tall metal sliding pole, the blaring siren, or the bright red firehouse, is the smiling Dalmatian perched with pride at the front of the firehouse, ready for duty. This picture has persisted for more than a century, proving not only an iconic symbol for one of our country’s most esteemed public institutions, but for the country itself. And yet it’s quite unlikely that you’ve actually ever seen a Dalmatian hitching a ride on any firefighter’s beat.
“That came about when [Dalmatians] were still using horse-drawn fire pumps,” says Brian M. Riedmayer, Canine Accelerant Detection Association (CADA) secretary and chairman of the board, and himself a former firefighter. “They would have Dalmatians that would run through the streets and bark to clear the streets for the horses. And they became the international symbol for firehouse dogs.”
However, these spotted canines are hardly a fixture of the modern day fire safety routine. Nowadays, the breeds most closely associated with the department are of the more stoic variety.
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“The fire departments tend to use foster dogs. They’ll have Labs and Golden Retrievers,” Riedmayer says. “If there’s ever an event like 9/11, or a major building collapse or structural collapse, we have urban search and rescue [dogs]. [They are] not like tracking dogs—these are trained to find live people.”
This, however, is not the only possible gig a pooch might nab if he or she is angling for a life in public service. An increasingly prevalent job for dogs nationwide is the accelerant detection canine; a dog that investigates a fire scene to detect for the possibility of arson.
“Accelerant detection canines really came into existence in the public arena in September 1986,” says Heather Paul, national coordinator for the State Farm Arson Dog Program. “It was a [black lab] named Mattie, and she was with the Connecticut State Police. She investigated suspicious fires across the United States for 11 years.”
After having taken note of what Paul calls an “incredible tool for community safety,” State Farm adopted the practice of employing dogs for this work.
Dog trainer Victoria Stilwell, who has her own arson dog training web series, walks us through the process of training a dog for a life in accelerant detection. “It’s called imprinting,” she says. “They’re trained that the specific odor of different accelerants means that they get food. The only time that they get food from the time that they start training to the end of their working life is after they have detected the smell of an accelerant. [And] they will always get the food from a trainer’s hand.”
Rest assured, the dogs never go hungry in between jobs—in fact, thanks in large part to this regimen of diet and exercise, Paul assures me that accelerant detection canines are some of the healthiest dogs in the world. “They’re working for seven to 10 years and living to be 17, 18 years old,” she says.
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Across the board, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and hybrids of the two (Goldadors) may be most prevalent in this line of work, but other breeds are hardly exempt from the trade. “The Alabama Department of Forestry has a bloodhound that they use for wildfires,” says Paul. “We’ve seen beagles. We’ve seen German Shepherds.”
And not only large dogs need apply. “We had a dog in our [fire] education department. It was a Pomeranian,” Riedmayer said.
So where do these organizations find right the right canines for the job?
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“The dogs that we acquire for our program,” says Paul, “rather than buy them from breeders, we actually utilize dogs that are from animal shelters, and seeing-eye or disability assistance programs. They’re called ‘career change dogs.’”
Usually, these pooches weren’t well suited for the aforementioned positions due to an excess of energy or a penchant for sniffing… both of which are terrific characteristics for an arson dog.
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In the two decades since first bringing the program to life, State Farm has worked with more than 360 arson dog teams nationwide and currently has 93 operational in the United States and Canada. The presence of these four-legged agents makes a world of difference.
“It takes an average of 30 minutes for an average dog to cover an entire fire scene, which it would take a human days to cover,” says Stilwell. “And the conviction rate rises from about 10 percent to about 40 or 50 percent when an accelerant detection canine is used.”
Oftentimes, the very presence of these dogs on the force can serve as a deterrent to fire-starters. In Allentown, PA, a dog named Judge joined the Allentown Fire Department to serve as their accelerant detection K-9, or arson dog, in 2011. “They’ve actually seen a reduction in their arson fires in Allentown by 52% over the past six years [since] they have had Judge,” says Paul.
Some cases, in fact, are just shy of miraculous. Riedmayer recalls having once investigated a restaurant fire in South Florida. “I was there a month after the fire,” he says. “The fire had happened at two or three in the morning. There was a lot of smoke damage. Some of the key indicators that I was seeing, it wasn’t adding up with being an accidental fire.” Luckily, Riedmayer had his arson dog Julie on hand.
“As soon as I opened the front door, she was sitting in the fire response [position], where she would sit and point her nose at the source where the strongest concentration is,” he says. “I got nine different alerts from her, within a few feet of each one, all the way down the wall. And this was like a month after the fire!”
Not only that, he said, this was only a short while before Lucy retired; her senses still as keen as ever. “She’s at home now. Lays around the couch,” Riedmayer adds for good measure.
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Still together long after her career has come to an end, Riedmayer and Julie prove that the relationship between handler and dog is paramount.
“Dogs may be paired up with a police officer, a fire investigator, or a fire marshal,” says Paul. “Being in law enforcement or being a firefighter, you see some of the most horrible things. The arson dog ends up kind of being a therapy dog. They know and they can sense—even though it’s not what they’re trained to do—when somebody’s having a hard day. Something as simple as petting the dog or having the dog come over and put its head on someone’s lap is incredibly healing.”
Paul adds that fire dogs “end up with many jobs. Their primary job is accelerant detection, but there’s also being cute and fuzzy.”