We’ve all heard the adage “like a needle in a haystack.” For arson investigators, finding accelerants, or the materials used to accelerate a fire, can be just as challenging and time-consuming. Luckily for them, man’s best friends have a few tricks up their sleeves.
The purpose of arson dogs
Accelerant detection canines (ADC) are specially trained to assist during arson investigations. They help investigators identify the cause of a fire and collect evidence by detecting traces of accelerants, including commonly used substances such as gasoline, kerosene, and lighter fluid.
From inside buildings, cars, and airplanes to busy urban centers and the charred remains of burned-out structures, the work of an arson dog takes them to some exotic places. Acute senses and the ability to move nimbly through chaotic scenes make these dogs essential tools in pinpointing accelerants under a variety of different circumstances, including:1
Fire scene searches:
Arson dogs are agile enough to move quickly through debris and rubble.
Dogs can quickly search large areas outside the fire scene for potential physical evidence or accelerants left behind by the arsonist.
They can help identify evidence related to an arson crime scene.
Dogs are trained to distinguish accelerants from normal car fluid scents.
Dogs can sniff out arsonists in crowds who may have fire-starting fluids on their clothing or on their person.
Trained dogs can zero in on specific spots of a suspect's clothing in a lineup.
Another advantage of utilizing dogs during an investigation is their ability to detect the presence of accelerants that have been heavily diluted or disguised. Evidence is already hard enough to find, but with the trained nose of an ADC (over 200x more powerful than that of a human), accelerants are found quicker and with a higher degree of accuracy.
It's easy to assume that any regular dog can perform this service; they’re always sniffing stuff, right? More goes into training an arson dog than you might think.
Hansel isn’t your run-of-the-mill Labrador: he’s a highly skilled arson dog and federal officer (that’s right!) that works at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue. Alongside his handler, Deputy Fire Marshal Chris Lorenz, Hansel has worked in the field since December 2019, covering arson investigations in a 5-state region.
The most important part of an arson dog’s working life is the handler they are paired with. For Chris and Hansel, it’s as close to perfect as it gets. Arson dogs work 24/7, 365 days a year. Because of this, a personality profile is used to select handlers based on their compatibility with the dog. According to personality profiling conducted on both, it would seem divine intervention placed the two together.
The certification process
The first step in the certification process is initial training. It’s during this period that dogs develop their ability to detect accelerants accurately in a variety of different scenarios. Arson dogs are typically paired with their handlers during this phase, allowing them to develop a bond.
Candidates for ADC training are selected based on their age – between 1 and 3 years old - breed – usually Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, or German shepherds – and temperament – calm, stable, and hard working. Dogs undergo extensive health screening to ensure they are physically able to perform the required tasks.
Over several months, selected candidates are exposed to various accelerants and taught to associate the scent with a reward, namely food. This form of training is called "food to work” and teaches dogs that if they don’t work, they don’t eat. The dogs are trained in different environments, including outdoors and inside buildings and vehicles. By the end, successfully trained canines can detect upwards of 200 different types of accelerants.
Following initial training, it’s time for official certification; without it, dogs remain unqualified for fieldwork.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Canine Training and Operations Support Branch is in Front Royal, Virginia; at this facility, dogs and handlers undergo a 5-week training course to achieve federal certification. Tests modeled after real-life scenarios allow the dogs and their handlers to demonstrate their effectiveness in the field. Tests include mock fire scenes and discrimination lines, where dogs must correctly identify accelerants in a line of distinct items.
The ATF evaluation is challenging; one mistake can mean the difference between passing and failing. Additionally, the pairing of dog and handler is evaluated to ensure the two work together well as a team. Only after these tests are passed do dogs become officially certified ADCs and are given operational clearance to operate as such.
However, the certification process doesn’t end there. Each year ADCs are required to be re-certified. This requires ongoing education, regular training, and annual re-evaluations.
On the scene
Arson dogs are always on call; for Hansel and Chris, that means being prepared to drop everything and travel to fire scenes at a moment’s notice.
Hansel's primary goal at a fire scene is to help collect evidence. To do this, he’s allowed to roam throughout the scene, moving in and out of rubble, sniffing for accelerants among the charred remains.
Different dogs have different methods of indicating a potential accelerant – some bark, some sit down. Hansel “alerts” by pawing, pushing his nose down, or trying to bite at the source. He is rewarded with food each time he delivers a successful alert. This form of incentivization is very effective; Hansel can deliver up to 70 unique alerts at a single scene. When Hansel alerts, Chris bags and tags the evidence, preparing it for later examination in a laboratory.
You may be wondering what protective gear Hansel wears in the field. After all, glass, nails, and other dangerous debris are all hallmarks of fire scenes. The only equipment Hansel wears is a harness, which Chris can use to help him maneuver through difficult areas. Boots are not used; a dog’s paws are their connection to the world, and what they feel helps them better analyze the scene and return results.
Ultimately, it’s Chris’ job to ensure that Hansel remains safe while working; he’s with Hansel the entire time they’re on the scene. Their strong bond, and Chris’ ability to understand when Hansel is alerting, allow them to collect the necessary evidence effectively.
Care and ongoing training
Arson dogs may have a distinct skill set that sets the apart from the rest of the pack, but they’re still dogs; they require care and attention alongside their specialized training
Hansel's diet consists primarily of chicken and rice dog food. As previously mentioned, he is only fed when working. This occurs when working on a scene or training; Hansel and Chris train daily to hone their skills. Hansel also receives joint and vitamin supplements to maintain his health.
Grooming occurs frequently, including nail clipping and daily combing.
Hansel is weighed every week. It’s Chris’ job to continuously regulate Hansel's weight, maintaining a working weight to retain certification. Handlers risk losing their jobs if their dogs gain too much. Hansel is currently one of the largest federal accelerant dogs in the U.S., weighing in at roughly 89 pounds. Although arson dogs typically retire before age 10, the leading cause of early retirement is excessive weight gain.
Despite being playful, Hansel cannot do many things an average dog would. This includes visiting dog parks and playing with other dogs. Hansel's job hinges on his smelling ability, and Chris does all he can to minimize situations that might damage his nose.
One of a kind
Arson dogs are a relatively new phenomenon; the first accelerant-detection canines were trained in the 1980s. Since then, they’ve become indispensable tools for fire investigators and law enforcement.
Hansel is one of over 200 arson dogs currently working in the U.S. and is one of the only ones operating in the western states. His life might sound challenging, especially compared to lap dogs and pampered pups. However, his work makes him among the most important dogs in the country. We wish him and Chris a happy career together – keep up the excellent work!
 PortlandOregon.gov, https://www.portlandoregon.gov/fire/article/378417
 ATF, https://www.atf.gov/explosives/accelerant-and-explosives-detection-canines