Mutual respect and affection between 22 arson dogs and their human handlers were in abundance Wednesday morning at the Depot Civic and Cultural Center in Brownwood.
But the canines — all labs or lab crosses — became alert and serious when their handlers signaled it was time to work.
The K-9 arson teams — including Brownwood Fire Marshal Buddy Preston and his black lab, Nika — were present for a 2 1/2-day annual recertification through the State Farm Arson Dog Program.
One at a time Wednesday morning, each team demonstrated the dog’s ability to sniff out drops of accelerant that had been placed inside and outside the Depot and “alert” to the accelerant by sitting down. Paul Gallagher, head training for the arson dog program, graded their work.
The teams came to Brownwood from multiple states and Canada.
Preston and Nika have been together for eight years, and Nika has now been through seven recertifications. In previous years, Preston and Nika have had to travel to another state for the recertification. Last year, Preston applied to host the 2018 certification and found out in January his application was approved.
The recertification consisted of several steps that began Tuesday and will end Thursday.
State Farm holds three certifications each year, and arson dog handlers choose which annual event they want to attend.
“We go for annual recertification somewhere every year, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Preston said as he waited his turn to test with Nika. “I’m hosting. I don’t have to drive to go somewhere, or fly to go somewhere.
“The closest I’ve been as a handler was Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I’m hosting, and they all get to come here. It’s kind of neat to host it this time and have them all come here.”
Preston said since he’d been through six previous recertification with Nika, he knew what to expect. Preston said he was confident he and his K-9 partner would “finish high on the list.”
Since 1993, State Farm has provided funding for the training and acquisition of more than 400 arson dog teams in 45 states, three Canadian Provinces, and the District of Columbia, State Farm said via email.
As of May 2018, there are 100 certified teams trained through the State Farm Arson Dog Program investigating suspicious fires throughout North America.
State Farm representatives on local and corporate levels were present at the Depot Wednesday morning including public affairs specialist Heather Paul of Bloomington, Ill.
Paul noted the dog’s value in going into a “dirty and smelly” fire scene and sniffing out accelerants.
“Arson is a difficult crime to solve because the evidence burns up,” Paul said. “As humans, when we go into a fire scene, we’re not going to be able to go in and immediately sniff with our noses where an accelerant, gasoline, oil or fuel may have been used to start the fire.
“But these dogs all have superpower, and that’s their nose. They smell in parts per trillion — way better than any human. They can very effectively and efficiently go into a fire scene, locate where there may be evidence that an accelerant was used to start that fire.”
Paul described an arson dog as “a tool in the toolbox for their handlers and their departments, but they are not the be-all, end-all of the investigations. They still have to work closely with a human in order to do their job.”
Arson dogs are chosen from animal rescues or shelters, or in some cases are dogs that “flunked out of guide dog school,” perhaps because the canine was too hyper and too excited, Paul said.
Arson dogs learn to associate the smell of an accelerant with being fed, and the animals eat all of their food out of their handler’s hands. “They never eat out of a dog food bowl,” Paul said.
The arson dog program seeks “dogs that want to and something,” Paul said. “All dogs need a job, whether that job is to sit on our lap and give us comfort or help solve crimes.”
After Nika demonstrated her accelerant-sniffing skills, Preston said, “we did good. We found everything that we were supposed to.”
An afternoon test awaited Nika, who would be tasked with a “blind test,” Preston said. Each dog would smell several containers, and only one would have accelerant, Preston said.
Many people don’t know Preston’s name, but they know he’s the man with the dog — and they know Nika’s name, Preston said.
“Everybody knows who Nika is,” Preston said. “She’s one of the most famous people in Brownwood. Even though she’s a four-legged dog, people know who she is.
“She is the best dog that I have ever owned in my life, and I don’t own the dog, the dog owns me. We are tied together. She’s part of me and my family. My brother introduces her as his niece. She’s just part of the family.”