Tony is an unusual dog.
He never eats his food out of a bowl, always feeding from his human’s hand. He has a distinct physical appearance, having lost part of his tail as a puppy. And he’s an accelerant detection dog, working with his handler, Brent Autry, to investigate fires across West Tennessee.
Autry, a firefighter with Milan Fire Department, and Tony are one of about 100 active teams in the U.S. and Canada trained through State Farm’s arson detection dog program. The Illinois-based insurance agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives run the only certified arson dog training programs in the country.
Autry and Tony have been working together for close to a year and recently underwent their annual recertification training. And Tony loves his job.
“He loves to work,” Autry said. “Pretty much his whole drive in life is to get into a fire scene and work.”
Tony, an arson detection dog, investigates fires with his handler Brent Autry of the Milan Fire Department.
`EVIDENCE LITERALLY BURNS UP’
Accelerant detection dogs are not as common as other types of working dogs, but have been in use since the 1980s. State Farm’s arson dog program was started in the early ’90s, partly in response to the “astronomical” level of fraud in the insurance community, according to Heather Paul, who has coordinated the company’s arson dog program for 11 years.
“One of the most difficult crimes to solve is arson, because the evidence literally burns up. When you have a fire scene that everything is burnt, everything is dark and dirty and then soaked in water or foam, our human noses can’t walk through a scene like that and differentiate between all of the different types of smells,” she said. “What an accelerant detection dog can do is pinpoint the location of the strongest source of an accelerant that may have been used to start a fire.”
When Autry and Tony show up at a fire scene, which could be a couple-hour drive from Milan, the first thing Autry does is a walk-through so he can move any nails or glass that might hurt Tony’s paws or identify holes in the floor he might fall through. Then he lets Tony out of the car, Tony does his business, and then the two of them get down to the real business.
They first do a “loose” walk around the exterior of the building before a directed search around the inside with Autry tapping along the floors and walls, directing Tony toward every nook and cranny. They go through each room a few times, taking a break before moving on to the next area.
Autry makes mental notes of areas where Tony’s behavior changes, a “secondary alert,” and will take him to that area again later. When Tony sits, a “primary alert” signaling he’s smelled an accelerant, Autry places a golf tee at that point so a sample can be gathered and sent to a laboratory for testing.
When firefighters leave a scene, Tony sniffs their tools, making sure there are no traces of accelerant on them that could contaminate a future fire scene. Autry then checks Tony over for any injuries and guides Tony to smell the samples collected from the fire, seeing if he signals again before samples are sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
UNIQUE AMONG WORKING DOGS
As often as not, arson dogs help investigators rule out arson as the cause of a fire, Paul said. But having a scene searched by a trained dog like Tony increases the likelihood evidence will be collected and it increases the prosecution rate for actual arsons from a national average of about 14% to 50% or higher, she said.
However, a dog doesn’t just benefit investigators, it benefits the taxpayer.
Fire investigations are expensive. It can cost hundreds of dollars to send samples collected at fire scenes to a lab for testing. Using a trained dog with an incredibly sensitive nose increases the likelihood any samples collected will actually return results, expediting investigations and saving money.
Arson dogs can benefit investigators from fire and police departments, and being able to better determine if a fire is arson can also benefit an insurance agency like State Farm. However, while it is the only insurance agency to run an arson dog program, Paul said the dogs investigate any fires they’re asked to look at, regardless of who is investigating or who insures the property.
State Farm covers all of the costs associated with acquiring the arson dogs in its program, which are good boys and girls that flunk out of guide dog programs, Paul said.
State Farm arson dogs are Labradors or lab mixes due to their food drive and their general zest for life. Unlike other working dogs, people are encouraged to interact with arson dogs. Dogs and their handlers might work a crowd gathered at a fire scene, who are encouraged to pet the dog, to see if the dog smells an accelerant on someone’s hands or clothes. Paul said multiple arsonists have been identified that way.
Arson dogs also frequently go to schools or other places for presentations about fire safety.
According to Autry, Tony has the typical lab personality, “very loving” and “a ball of energy.”
“He’s great with children, he’s great with other dogs. He actually had his tail bit while he was in training,” Autry said, so he has a short, stubby tail. “That hasn’t stopped his whole sunny disposition. He still plays with other animals as if nothing’s the matter.”
`WE HAVE A VERY TIGHT BOND’
Accelerant detection canines are also unique in that they never eat out of bowls, only their handler’s hands. They’re trained to be rewarded with food when they locate traces of accelerants and that goes for when they’re not at fire scenes. For Autry to feed Tony, they have to train, with Autry making a part-accelerant solution and putting it in a can for Tony to sniff out.
The constant training not only keeps Tony’s skills sharp, it reinforces the bond between Autry and Tony, a key element in successful fire-scene investigations. While Tony is trained to sit when he detects a compound, Autry also has to monitor for behavioral changes or other body language indicating Tony has detected something.
Autry and Tony spend every minute of every day together. Autry said he sees Tony more than his wife and kid.
“We have a very tight bond. I know his little looks,” Autry said. “He knows how I feel all the time. He’s with me 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
The bond is fostered over time, but specific handlers are placed with specific dogs during their initial training. Handlers fill out applications describing their personality, living situation and schedule and the dog trainers watch how they interact with the dogs in person.
“The handlers are paired up with the handlers based on the personality of the dog and the personality of the handler and their home life and work life,” Paul said. “We want to make sure they’re working together as a team, so we want them to be somewhat similar in their personalities.”
The bond is important, Paul said, because arson dogs typically work for five to 10 years, with some working more than a decade. And the point, after all, is successful fire investigations. And while they usually stick to West Tennessee, Autry said he and Tony will go wherever they’re needed.
“I work with fire departments, fire marshals, agencies, investigators,” Autry said. “We don’t just investigate State Farm fires. We do across the board. Any insurance company, anybody, doesn’t matter.”
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