YARMOUTH — For Shasta, an affectionate 6-year-old black Labrador retriever, sniffing out the three drops of flammable liquid amid the reek of smoke and burnt debris was the key to a small handful of tasty kibble.
For her handler, Danny Young, a senior fire investigator with the Maine State Fire Marshal’s Office, the stakes Tuesday were higher. If Shasta alerts her handler on the right spot – and, just as importantly, not on the wrong spot – the dog and handler can be recertified for another year, allowing them to investigate fire scenes for signs of arson.
“You could be taken off line and replaced if you’re not up to it,” Young said.
The stakes in the real world are even higher. Shasta was at a fire scene in Lewiston not long ago when she detected the odor of flammable liquid, not just at the fire scene but on the shoes of someone who had vehemently denied any involvement.
Young would not provide more details about the case because it is still pending. But Shasta got her reward for helping break the case: A few dried morsels and the approval of her handler. For her, that’s enough.
“She’ll literally shake and swagger because she’s so enthusiastic,” said State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas.
Young and Shasta are one of 18 arson teams participating in recertification exercises this week at the Coastal Mutual Aid Association training facility at the Yarmouth Transfer Station on East Main Street. The recertification was open to the media and state and local officials as a way to educate the public about the work of arson detection teams and the unique role Maine plays in training the dogs.
Maine Specialty Dogs, run by former Maine State Police trooper and arson dog handler Paul Gallagher, is located in Alfred. It is among the pre-eminent training programs in the country, training more arson detection teams than any other. It also is the only one that gets much of its financial support from a private company, in this case, State Farm Insurance.
“Arson is one of the most expensive property claims in the United States and is also one of the most difficult crimes to solve,” said Heather Paul, coordinator of the State Farm Arson Dog Program. The company supports the monthlong training of arson dogs, which costs about $25,000 per dog. The investment pays for itself if a dog’s skills help eliminate a single claim as insurance fraud.
“We want to provide law enforcement with all the tools necessary to locate evidence quickly and efficiently. Without a doubt, an arson dog’s nose is an incredibly valuable tool,” Paul said.
In Maine, arson accounted for 147 fires, three fatalities, 14 injuries and $4.5 million in property loss in 2013, according to the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The dogs are assigned to handlers from law enforcement agencies and fire departments across the country and in Canada.
There are 83 active teams in North America, trained through the Maine program, which has graduated more than 325 teams since its inception in 1993.
There are other arson dog training and recertification programs, including one run by the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which provided Maine’s latest arson dog, Huff, to senior fire investigator Scott Richardson for investigations in the northern part of the state.
The dogs are trained under the auspices of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy to detect between 30 and 60 different fuel substances, which investigators call accelerants. Each year, teams have to be re-certified, which consists of testing the dog and handler in a variety of situations, searching for the telltale scent of hydrocarbons in different environments and materials. Often the trainers who run the recertification are assessing the handlers as much as the dogs, to make sure the handlers’ technique maximizes the dogs’ potential, said Mike Kaspereen, a trainer.
Tuesday’s recertification featured a number of black and yellow Labradors from as close as the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s Office and as far as Moncton, New Brunswick, and Chillicothe, Ohio.
Labrador retrievers are ideal for such work because their noses are so sensitive, but also because their coats easily shed the ash and water at a fresh fire scene and their paws are equipped for walking in that environment, Thomas said. Most of the dogs come from shelters or rescue organizations.
“It’s amazing. They get to a scene and they alert in spots you never would imagine,” said John Southwell, an investigator with the New Hampshire Fire Marshal’s Office, who was getting re-certified with his black Lab Andre, which was acquired from the Humane Society. It is his third arson dog over the last 24 years.
Being a canine handler is an intense commitment, said Paul, coordinator of the State Farm program. Handlers can’t leave their dogs at a kennel or with friends when they go on vacation. Training occurs every day, throughout the day. The dogs don’t eat except after they have detected accelerants.
Young trains Shasta with a small can that holds cotton swabs with holes cut in the top. He adds a few drops of flammable liquid, then hides the can around the house or in plain sight. When Shasta sits near it to mark her discovery, she gets food. Through the day, Young conducts small training exercises, like putting a couple of drops in the floor cracks at a fire station he is visiting, and feeding the dog when she finds them.
By suppertime, any food left over from the dog’s daily rations is given out during a final training exercise.
While fire investigators still analyze where a fire started and how it spread, the dog can determine precisely where accelerants were used more accurately and with more sensitivity than equipment used in the field.
That saves time and testing resources because investigators don’t need to submit as many samples to a lab to test for the presence of hydrocarbons.
“I can smell gasoline but she can do it a lot better than I can, especially when you’ve got a debris pile,” Thomas said. “They’re very proficient with that nose and nobody has so far been able to duplicate that nose.”