CAFD employs state's only arson dog
One member of the Cloquet Area Fire District always appears to be ecstatic to go to work, no matter the time or weather. No, it's not the chief.
Wish is a high-energy golden Labrador mix who loves to work and is the only accelerant detection K9, or "arson dog," in Minnesota. The 50-pound dog excitedly leaps around her handler/fire investigator Jason Maki as she waits for training to begin on any given day.
According to Maki, Wish was originally training to be a guide/assistance dog, but she was too high-energy. She transferred to Maine Specialty Dogs, where she met Maki.
Maki traveled to Maine to attend a five-week canine accelerant detection school that is sponsored by State Farm Insurance and certified by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
According to State Farm Insurance brand promotion specialist Heather Paul, they have been partnering with Maine Specialty Dogs for 25 years and trained over 400 arson dogs. The dogs are already trained when the handlers arrive, but the new handlers need to learn how to read their dogs behavior.
"The dogs help level the field between the good guys and the bad guys," Paul said. "Arson is a significant cause of fraud."
It costs about $25,000 to train each arson dog. Paul said it is worth it. The insurance company gets that money back with the first arson case the dog helps solve. There are 10-15 new arson dog/handler teams trained through the program each year.
There are 100 active certified arson dog/handler teams in the United States and Canada.
Wish is the CAFD's second arson dog. The previous dog retired in 2010 and Wish began in 2013. CAFD received grant funding from State Farm for both dogs. The grants are awarded depending on the number of arsons in the area.
Wish is a critical tool in the determination of fire causes. Wish works an average of 30-40 fires per year.
The first year Wish worked yielded a case of arson while assisting the Duluth Fire Department. Maki said most of the arson cases have been found around Minnesota, as well as in Superior. There are several cases still under investigation.
The dogs train in roughly 60 different types of ignitable liquids, like gasoline, fuel oil, lighter fluid and fingernail polish remover. Purebred Labradors and Labrador mixes have the best scent-discriminating noses, Maki said.
"Without a dog, the samples sent to the lab yield 30-40 percent accuracy. With the dog, we have 90 percent accuracy," Maki said. He explained that a human nose can detect that a pizza is baking. Wish's nose can detect each ingredient on the pizza.
"I always wanted to do something like this," Maki said. "You hear that these dogs can go into house and find these minute smells of accelerant, and these houses are burned to literally nothing left of them. But to actually see your dog do it and be a part of that is pretty special."
Wish works every fire in Carlton County, if only to rule out a suspicion of arson. Maki and Wish also are asked to assist at suspicious fires throughout Minnesota as well as surrounding states.
"It's amazing how quickly dogs can find an accelerant even buried under debris," Paul said. "The dogs are very skilled at their jobs."
Unlike most pets, Wish only receives her meals when she works or during training, so Maki needs to train with her every day. She never eats from a bowl — that won't happen until retirement. If Maki's family goes away for the weekend or on vacation, Wish also travels along.
When on the job, Wish is all business as soon as Maki brings out a food pouch. She knows it's time for work.
"She gets excited," Maki said. "She barks and runs in circles in the back of the truck."
Maki makes sure the area is safe for Wish to walk through first. If the building is safe, Maki will give the command to work and Wish obeys with a sniff pattern inside and outside. If the building isn't deemed safe, they pull items out of the building for Wish to sniff.
Once Wish discovers the scent of accelerant, she gives a passive alert. She sits next to the area and indicates the location with her nose. Each time she finds a location, Maki feeds her from a food pouch and showers her with plenty of praise.
Once Wish has alerted Maki to an accelerant odor, it is marked with a golf tee. Next, an investigator collects a sample and sends it to the state's crime labs for testing.
Maki examines Wish before they leave a scene, including her feet, to make sure they aren't hurt.
"Her safety is just as important as mine," Maki said.
Minnesota fires by numbers
Fires in 2017: 13,456
Fires in residential buildings: 75% of structure fires
Residential fires that start in kitchen/cooking area: 50%
Incendiary* fires in 2017: 1,047 (26% increase from 2016)
* Includes arson and recreational fires that get out of control.
Source: Minnesota State Fire Marshal