‘Without Maine, we would not have this program’: State trainers give dogs a second chance as arson sleuths

Posted July 15, 2014, at 3:09 p.m.
Last modified July 16, 2014, at 4:20 a.m.

YARMOUTH, Maine — The animal shelter already had too many large dogs, and Kai was the odd dog out.

“She was a stray wandering the streets of Bloomington, Indiana,” recalled Heather Paul, coordinator of State Farm Insurance’s arson dog program. “Kai was set to be euthanized.”

But in her time at the Indiana shelter, workers noticed Kai had a talent for finding one particular ball no matter where it was hidden, and a representative there contacted State Farm as a last-ditch effort to find the dog a place in the world.

Now, Kai is a valued accelerant detection dog for the San Antonio Fire Department in Texas, where she and handler Justin Davis have investigated more than 200 fire cases over four years together.

Kai is in the running for the American Humane Society’s annual Hero Dog Award this year and, this week in Yarmouth, joined 17 other dogs from around North America for three days of yearly recertification work under the State Farm program.

Like hundreds of other dogs, Kai’s path from the brink of death to a career in law enforcement started in Maine.

When it launched its national arson dog program in 1993, Paul said, State Farm identified the Maine Department of Public Safety’s dog training efforts as the country’s “premier program.”

“We’re up to 350 teams in the U.S. and Canada, and all of them train here in Maine,” said Paul. “Without Maine, we would not have this program.”

State Farm picks up the entire $25,000 cost of recruiting dogs and training them alongside their human fire investigator handlers for any departments that file successful applications to take part, Paul said.

The dogs come from shelters, rescue groups or, occasionally, other service dog programs. They’re paired with their humans during an initial four-week course — offered twice each year — run by former Maine State Police official Paul Gallagher in Alfred.

Like dogs in other law enforcement jobs, the accelerant sniffers create lifelong bonds with their handlers and live as family pets when they’re not on the clock and after their 5- to 10-year careers are over.

But unlike in the police and military, where the majority of working dogs are German shepherds, fire investigators have found the sociable and eager-to-please retrievers to make the best arson dogs.

Maine State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas told reporters during a demonstration on Tuesday morning that Labrador retrievers’ fur is ideal for shedding water — which is often left soaking the scenes after firefighters hosed down the flames — and their paws are tough enough to walk over debris.

In Maine, senior investigator Daniel Young of the fire marshal’s office handles the state’s only State Farm-sponsored dog, Shasta. A second dog sponsored by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is stationed in the northern part of the state, Thomas said.

So how are fire investigating dogs better than fire investigating humans?

“I can smell gasoline, but she can smell it a lot better and in a lot smaller quantities,” Thomas said. “She can find it in dirt and she can find it in debris.”

Maine-trained dogs like Shasta and Kai are brought to fire scenes all over the continent to determine whether accelerants were used to help light structure fires, a review that could rule out a case of arson as much as prove it.

“It’s a hard crime to solve,” said State Farm’s Paul. “The evidence burns up at a fire scene, so if we have a tool like a dog who can quickly and efficiently determine whether an accelerant was used, it saves taxpayer dollars and increases law enforcement’s chances of a successful prosecution.”

In Yarmouth, the dog-and-handler teams took turns searching a charred training structure, where organizers hid three drops of gasoline in each of several locations through winding hallways and around pieces of old furniture.

“It’s [a spot of gasoline] less than your fingernail,” explained Gallagher. “They’re very proficient. There’s been nothing so far that’s been able to duplicate their noses.”