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Arson fire-fighting dogs at work

A shelter dog gets a second shot and puts her canine nose to work to fight crime.

Investigator walking through a burnt structure with an arson dog.

Meet Kai. The shelter-dog-turned-hero is specially trained to sniff out arson.

But she’s not the only four-legged arson expert in law enforcement. Kai is currently part of 77 active teams across the U.S. and Canada and one of hundreds of canines trained to do the important work as part of the State Farm® Arson Dog program. In addition to identifying the cause of home or business fires, arson dogs such as Kai assist in cold crime cases, including uncovering evidence of homicide.

A Second Chance

The Labrador retriever is one of dozens of arson dogs saved from shelters with bit of luck, a superior sense of smell, and a unique State Farm program. Like other arson dogs, three-year-old Kai, previously named Ellie, got her start when she was tasked with burrowing for a tennis ball at the Humane Society of Central Illinois. In Kai’s case, showing off her talent to a shelter volunteer on the animal care services team (who was also a State Farm employee) was a winning ticket into the State Farm Arson Dog Program. “A lot of these dogs are castaways,” says Heather Paul, State Farm Arson Dog Program Coordinator.

Changing Lives

Since  the State Farm Arson Dog Program began 25 years ago, more than 350 dog handler teams have completed the training. The canines go through a series of exercises in which they get rewards for finding a specific odor. Ultimately, they are trained to detect petroleum-based hydrocarbons, known as accelerants, which can quickly create a dangerous blaze.

“In many communities with an arson dog team, the number of arson fires has dropped more than 50 percent because arsonists realize that they can’t get away with this crime,” says Paul. (Dogs in the program are Labrador retrievers or Lab mixes because of the breed’s superior ability to smell substances that go undetected by humans.)

K-9 Superstars

Most arson dogs spend five to ten years on a team within a fire or police department. Since joining the fire department in 2010, Kai is a star in her own right and has worked on more than 200 fire-related investigations. In this instance, Kai’s partner is arson investigator Justin Davis, a 21-year veteran of the San Antonio Fire Department.

Off the clock, Kai and other arson dogs are part of the family and treated like any other pet (unlike police dogs who often live in a kennel after their shifts). For Kai that means living with Davis and his wife, Gina, alongside their children Kaitlyn and Garrett in central Texas. “If Kai is sick, I worry about her. Like I worry about my kids,” he admits. “It’s almost like adopting a child.”

For the humans working with arson dogs, including Davis, there are also some hidden perks. Kai and Davis get invites to everything from red carpet events to NBA finals games, he says: “Everybody knows Kai’s name—I’m just the guy that holds her leash.”

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