An arson dog is a dog which has been trained to respond to trace amounts of flammable materials which could have been used to start a fire. Materials like gas, naphtha, butane, and kerosene, among many others, are known as “accelerants,” referring to the fact that they can be used to accelerate a fire. Arson dogs are more properly known as accelerant-detection dogs, because they search for traces of accelerants which could be used to prove that a fire is an arson.
A wide variety of dog breeds are used as arson dogs, although Labradors are especially common. Many arson dogs come from police and guide dog training programs which they proved unsuitable for, and their training takes at least three months, and often longer. At the end of training, an arson dog has learned to signal his or her handler about the presence of traces of accelerant to receive a food reward, and he or she is also capable of navigating hazardous or challenging environments.
Most arson dogs have two different responses when they identify an accelerant at the site of a suspicious fire. The “primary alert” is simply to sit down near the area of interest, alerting the handler to the fact that a sample should be taken and tested for accelerants. In a “secondary alert,” an arson dog uses any means possible to pull the handler to an area of interest, and then the dog will intently sniff the area where the accelerant is concentrated.
Dogs have famously good noses, and an arson dog is capable of detecting trace amounts of materials which would be almost impossible to find using other means; these dogs can literally find the needle in the haystack which could prove that a fire was deliberately set. They are also subjected to regular training to ensure that their senses are still sharp, with trainers testing the dogs with various decoy substances which smell similar to accelerants to test their noses.
Every arson dog comes with a handler, who commits to working with the dog for a set number of years. The handlers are typically trained law enforcement or arson investigation personnel. The dogs live with their handlers, and often establish very close, friendly relationships. Because the dogs are fed exclusively on a food reward system, they must literally work for food, learning that they get treats when they find something of interest.
An arson investigation team with an arson dog on board can greatly increase its efficiency, making the investment well worth it in the eyes of many law enforcement officers.