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The Nose Knows: State Farm’s Arson Dog Program

Did you know that Maine is home to the State Farm Arson Dog Program? Me neither! That’s why I was beyond excited when I got a rare invitation from Heather Paul of State Farm to observe the program in action. Let’s go check it out together!

First, some basics: The State Farm Arson Dog Program was established with direction from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.  There are only two ways to become a certified Arson Dog. One is through the State Farm program in Maine and the other is the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

From State Farm, “To help combat arson fraud and increase community awareness of the problem, State Farm has been providing financial support for the acquisition and training of an arsonist’s worst nightmare: accelerant detection canines, better known as the arson dog. Since 1993, the State Farm Arson Dog Program has put more than 300 dogs and their partners to work in 44 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces.

Arson dogs are trained to sniff out minute traces of accelerants (gasoline, lighter fluid, etc.) that may have been used to start a fire. Each arson dog works and lives with their handler, a law enforcement officer or firefighter trained to investigate fire scenes. The canines and handlers are required to complete four weeks of training in Maine, training every day during those four weeks. The intensive training school is led by Paul Gallagher, Owner and Head Trainer of Maine Specialty Dogs.”

State Farm Arson Dog Spring Training 2013

State Farm Arson Dog Spring Training 2013

I was invited to observe one day of the 2013 Spring training session. Here’s what I learned:

Arson dogs are fast: The teams can work an entire scene in less 30 minutes. It can take humans days to do what a dog does in minutes.

Arson dogs are accurate: At best, humans can make educated guesses about possible accelerant use and will need to collect an average of 20 samples to send off to a lab for testing. With an arson dog, their nose narrows down the guess work and they wind up taking 3 samples on average.

Arson dogs save time and money: Fewer (but better) samples saves money at the lab. The dog’s work speeds up investigations and provides for a higher conviction rate. Often, arson dog teams are brought in to rule out an arson. This allows the claim process to move forward more quickly.

Arson dogs know how to work a crowd:  At a fire scene, the dogs are encouraged to mingle with the crowds and give them a good sniff. If the arsonist is in the crowd watching (a common phenomenon, especially with kids aka “firebugs”), the arson dogs will alert to smell the accelerant on their clothes, shoes, or body. The dogs may be brought in during a suspect’s questioning to do a sniff as well. And the dogs also make appearances in courtrooms when their handlers present evidence (which may include the dog’s training, experience, and the procedure followed at the incident in question).

Arson dogs are unbiased: The dogs just stick to the truth. If there’s an accelerant present, they alert. The dogs are simply communicating that something is there (or not there), without any personal basis or judgement.

Arson dogs are valued members of their communities: In addition to averaging 90 fires a year, in their off hours, Arson Dog teams head out into their community to teach fire safety and prevention to kids. These local heroes even get to strut their stuff in parades.

The handlers love working with their dogs: Being a part of an Arson Dog team is no small commitment. 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. Handlers make a five year commitment to working with their dogs. Most of them stick around a lot longer!

The handlers live and work with their dogs 24-7.  It’s a deep bond. One handler, Assistant Chief Steve Gallagher of the Chillicothe Ohio Fire Department, chose to retire from arson investigations when he lost Winchester, his partner of 11 years. He just couldn’t imagine working scenes without his dog. Lucky for Chillicothe, Steve was at the Spring 2013 training with his new partner Gunther. This is a man who loves the work and the dogs too much to stay away.

Assistant Chief Steve Gallagher and K-9 Gunther with the Chillicothe Fire Department (photo credit: State Farm)

Assistant Chief Steve Gallagher and K-9 Gunther with the Chillicothe Fire Department (photo credit: State Farm)

The day I visited the dogs were doing searches in a structure set up to look like a fire scene – complete with terrifying mannequins lying around looking like they just ran out of a burning mall.

Arson Investigator Mitch Kushner and K-9 Zoe with the Illinois State Fire Marshal's office

Arson Investigator Mitch Kushner and K-9 Zoe with the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s office

Before each team entered the building the instructors placed finds among the rooms and marked each spot with a chalk “S”:

state farm arson dog training

S marks the spot

The teams entered one at a time and the dogs went to work.  The encouraging word “Seek, Seek, Seek” was all I heard as the handlers allowed the dogs to work the scene.

Just like in an amateur nose works class, the handler doesn’t direct the dog – they don’t pull on the leash – they let the dogs do the work. The handlers might tap on the walls or floor to engage the dogs, but they never tap the evidence itself. The handlers keep their feet moving, watch the body language of their dogs, and allow the dogs time to work.

state farm arson dog training

Special Agent Brett Ellis and K-9 Pippa with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation

When a dog detects the accelerant they alert by sitting.Then the handler swoops in and rewards them with a handful of kibble and praise.  The dogs were so pleased with themselves!

state farm arson dog alerts

Pippa sits to alert and gets her reward

The dogs, who had received training before being placed with their handlers in the Spring camp, knew what they were doing. The training was primarily for the humans. So if a handler struggled, the instructors reminded them to be patient, let the dogs do the their jobs, and to reward them big time when they alerted. It was hard work – these guys were sweating – but the dogs were having a great time and seemed to know that the newer handlers would eventually have the coordination and skills to keep up with them!

After they leave the training programs, the teams continue training together every day to keep their skills sharp. Everything they do is recorded in detailed training logs, including how much the dogs eat. That’s because the dogs get all of their food fed to them by hand, during their multiple training sessions per day. Until the dogs retire, they’ll never eat out of a bowl.

By the way, this type of feeding and training routine makes going on vacation pretty much impossible for the handlers. Unless they’ve trained a secondary handler to feed and train the dogs while they’re away, the handlers stay put.  Like I said earlier, this is no small commitment.

Deputy Chief Barry Overman and K-9 Ranson with the Elizabeth City Fire Department

Deputy Chief Barry Overman and K-9 Ranson with the Elizabeth City Fire Department (photo credit: State Farm)

As for the dogs themselves, both the ATF and State Farm prefer Labradors or Lab-mixes for their programs. One reason they choose to work with Labs is public perception. If a Shepherd-type dog were to walk into a crowd at a fire scene, people may suspect that the dog is working for law enforcement and leave. But a Lab? People – including arsonists – are more than happy to let a Lab approach them, without ever suspecting that the Lab is searching them for clues!

Guide dog training “dropouts” are favorite candidates for arson detection work. Generally, it’s the guide dog with too much prey drive or one that’s too focused on food that makes the switch from service to arson work. The dogs need to be very high energy. It’s the kind of dog that may be considered a challenge by the average dog owner.

Occasionally, State Farm is able to pull a shelter dog for the program. But why not more? When I asked Paul Gallagher about this he explained that in the past, animal shelters haven’t been very enthusiastic about releasing their dogs to the program. Again, it’s a perception issue. The shelters perceive that all law enforcement-related agencies train their dog using force (even though that’s not the case with Arson Dogs), and some aren’t comfortable signing the dogs over. As a former shelter worker, I have to admit that I hope that changes, so that more shelter dogs might find their way into this amazing program.

Special Agent Brian Wright and K-9 Gunner with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (photo credit: State Farm)

Sitting to alert. Special Agent Brian Wright and K-9 Gunner with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (photo credit: State Farm)

Beyond watching the dogs and handlers work, what I found interesting was State Farm’s commitment to the program. State Farm covers the cost of training each dog (tens of thousands of dollars) for fire departments and other public entities around the country. The dogs go where the need is, not necessarily where State Farm writes polices. For example, they’ve trained dogs to work in British Columbia, where they don’t even offer insurance.  This program is a real investment in our communities and I have to admit, it makes me proud to be a State Farm customer*.

It was a real pleasure to spend the afternoon with these dedicated, compassionate, hardworking guys. It’s a joyful thing to watch working dogs do what they do best, all while bonding with their new handlers.  And it was cool knowing that each team was just a few weeks from heading to their new homes, where they’re all destined to become local heroes.

Here in Maine one of the State Farm teams, Dan Young of the Maine State Fire Marshal’s office and his dog Shasta, were on the scene during a recent string of fires not far from my town. Having just seen the program in action, I was so glad to know they were there, using that amazing nose to help keep our communities safe.

To learn more about Arson Dogs or to find our how your agency can apply for the program, please visit the State Farm website. You can see more photos from the Spring Training here. 

*This blog is not a paid endorsement. I received no compensation for writing about the State Farm Arson Dog program.