National Arson Awareness Week: Detection dogs require intensive training

The theme for this year’s National Arson Awareness Week focuses on canine contributions to fire investigations. Sponsored by the U.S. Fire Administration, the campaign highlights how using an Accelerant Detection Canine (ADC) closes more cases and deters arson.

An ADC team consists of a canine and its handler, who is usually a fire investigator. These animals are trained to use their keen sense of smell to detect the presence of substances that could flag a fire as possible arson. Dogs and their handlers must both be trained and certified, however, before assisting fire and police departments.

Detection dogs speed up arson investigations
Dogs serve in a variety of emergency roles to support the military, fire and police departments, and other first responders. For the ADC program, candidate dogs—mostly Labrador retrievers—are identified because they demonstrate acute odor recognition and value rewards, either food or play. ADCs often begin as service canines where they exhibit talents for community outreach. This disposition is leveraged for educational events that teach fire safety and prevention.

Dogs can narrow down a fire’s origin by identifying miniscule amounts of ignitable fluids, such as gasoline or lighter fluid. The handler then collects samples and determines what should be sent to a crime lab. The ADC team is also valuable for what it can rule out, scanning an entire fire scene in about 30 minutes to search for accelerants.

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According to the USFA, ADC teams improve accuracy and efficiency of arson investigations. Since ADCs possess a sense of smell 100,000 times more intense than that of a human, the number of lab samples needed to verify a canine scan is reduced from 20 to 3. Higher quality lab samples are known to speed inquiry and increase the rate of convictions.

ADCs are trained to discriminate between odors
The initial training for an ADC begins by imprinting the dog using ignitable liquid odors. The animals are taught to ignore common pyrolysis products often present at a fire scene, such as charcoal or caramel used to color soft drinks. Dogs must learn to discriminate between many odors in a burned building and then alert their handler when an ignitable liquid is present.

The canine’s ability to communicate with the handler is impressive. The dog will seek an accelerant based on the command. If it finds an accelerant, it will sit next to the hit and wait for the next command—known as “show me.” Then the dog pats its paw, points at the spot or bobs its head at the accelerant for a reward.

The initial training continues through intensive real-world scenarios in burn buildings and other structures prepared like a real fire scene. Trainers also teach the dogs to ignore distractions, such as noise and people at the scene. Only teams who pass the final test will be certified for fire investigation.

Certifications are needed to maintain effectiveness. In June 2014, the Canine Accelerant Detection Association (CADA) established new standards to ensure ADC teams are certified using the best practices and that they acquire relevant skills.

Dogs are accurate, not perfect
Certification does not complete training for detection dogs. Detailed training records—critical in courtroom cases—must be kept by the handler to document efforts to maintain skills. According to the USFA, each team is involved in over a hundred trials per day, whether through practice drills or during an investigation of a fire scene. ADC teams average 90 fire investigations per year.

Reviews are conducted monthly, as well, for the first year of service. Every ADC must be recertified annually. Maine Specialty Dogs, a renowned training facility for ADC, tries to guard against future error by only certifying mistake-free animals during testing. Much of the work to keep skills sharp, however, occurs after the test.

An early study of ADC teams found that effectiveness depends on each canine’s ongoing training, handling and maintenance.

Even with exemplary care, detection dogs are accurate, but not infallible. Investigators cannot rely on the dog’s training alone. In addition to samples from the canine alert, the handler sends other data from the scene to the lab to validate. According to CADA, any canine alert should not be considered valid until confirmed through laboratory analysis.

While just part of the investigator’s toolbox, using an ADC team helps close more cases, or move them quickly to insurance claim settlement by ruling out arson. Well-trained dogs will expedite the search for evidence and make it easier for a lab to corroborate. To stay effective in service of police and fire departments, though, requires an ongoing commitment to training and recertification.

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