YARMOUTH — Nose down, tailing wagging, it took Shasta less than two minutes to find the few drops of gasoline hidden in the old burned-out building.

Behind the staircase. Next to the beat-up sofa.

She hit on each spot twice — sitting, then nosing at the ground when senior fire investigator Danny Young insisted, “Show me better.”

Her reward: a few kibbles of dog food.

And recertification as one of the state’s only two arson dogs.

“When we see Shasta come out (of a building), she is so friendly. She’ll literally shake and swagger because she’s always enthusiastic about being around people … and obviously going to work,” State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said. 

Shasta, a 6-year-old black Lab, and her partner, Young, investigate fire scenes primarily in the southern half of Maine, spending their workdays picking through burned businesses and fire-ravaged homes to sniff out — literally for Shasta — gasoline, kerosene and other accelerants.

“She does very well. She’s not infallible, but she does very well,” Young said.

Like police dogs, arson dogs live and work with their handlers, becoming pets at home and partners at work. Young has had Shasta since she was about 9 months old.

In her five years as an arson dog, Shasta has investigated hundreds of scenes, including four homicides. She and Young go out daily, always after the scene has cooled and been deemed safe for man and dog. Their work has earned them praise.

“Obviously, I can smell gasoline, but she can do it a lot better than I can and in a lot smaller parts and quantities. Especially in debris,” Thomas said. “I mean, when you look at a fire scene and you’ve got just a debris pile and those dogs can work that scene and actually detect a very, very small, minute residual effect of hydrocarbon and you send it off to a lab and, lo and behold, it comes back with a positive result, it’s pretty impressive.”

A few weeks ago, Shasta and Young were among 15 dog-and-handler teams to go through annual recertification with Maine Specialty Dogs, one of the few arson dog training programs in the country. Other teams came from across the country and Canada; Shasta and Young were the only ones based in Maine. 

Many of the handlers and dogs have known each other for years.

“It’s fun; it’s good because the dogs want to play (with each other). And, you know, sometimes they want to fight. Some dogs don’t get along,” Young said. “But it’s good to have the other handlers. The other handlers can critique you and say, ‘Jeez, you probably missed this,’ or ‘You didn’t do that.'”

All dogs were Labs or Lab mixes. Although any breed can sniff out 30 to 61 different accelerants, Labs seem to have a special motivation.

“They love food. They’re a food-driven dog,” said Paul Gallagher, who founded and runs Maine Speciality Dogs.

All 15 teams were sponsored by the State Farm insurance company, which has provided more than 350 arson dogs to departments and fire inspectors throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Recertification is tough, testing both handlers and dogs over three days. During one recertification session earlier this year, four dogs didn’t make it.

“I believe if you’re going to play in this game, you better be good,” Gallagher said.

That’s because dogs can make — or break — a case.

“I’ve testified before in court and a lot of people want to believe in something that’s not racist, sexist or anything like that. The dog doesn’t care who you are … they’re just doing their job. So that makes a big difference,” Gallagher said.

Shasta didn’t have any problem with her recertification. After multiple tests over three days, she and Young were sent back into the field.

Happily.

“We’ve done as many as three fire scenes in a day,” Young said. “She loves to ride in the car. And once we get there, she’s ready to go.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Contact reporter Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or [email protected].


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: