Mark Roberts, a K-9 Handler for the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal, listens to a question from the audience Thursday as Deacon, Roberts’ 8-year-old accelerant detection dog, takes a nap during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Looking completely relaxed and entirely unbothered from his spot on stage at Lewiston Public Library, it would be easy to assume that Deacon, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is just an average family dog.

That is, if the average family dog is also able to sniff out ignitable liquids in the aftermath of a fire and alert fire investigators to possible evidence of arson.

“I apologize, Deacon’s taking a nap,” his handler, State Fire Marshal investigator Mark Roberts, said at the top of Thursday’s Great Falls Forum to chuckles from the crowd.

As a puppy, Deacon “failed out” of a training program for disability service dogs. Roberts, who has been Deacon’s handler for nearly seven years, said that some dogs just have too much energy or are too food-driven to work as a guide dog for someone who is blind or has vision impairment or as a cardiac alert dog, for example.

But trainers identify some of those dogs as candidates for alternative careers.

“During that process, there are certain dogs that have incredible drive, whether it be food drive, or just praise. They want to work, and they want to please the people that are trying to train them,” Roberts said.


Deacon, an 8-year-old accelerant detection K-9 with the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal, lays in the sun Thursday during the Great Falls Forum at the Lewiston Public Library. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

“So, like Deacon, for example — he’s trying to fool you today — but he’s a high energy dog. He doesn’t like to sit around be stagnant.”

That’s how Deacon ended up paired with Roberts in a training program at Maine Specialty Dogs, which trains canines to assist public safety agencies across the country in a variety of roles.

Deacon is an ignitable liquid detection canine and a certified police dog. He is trained with a “single purpose, which is to find accelerant or ignitable liquids in fire scenes,” Roberts said.

Deacon is a food reward dog, meaning that the only time he eats is when he’s working.

“Every day he has to work to eat. Every day he has to find ignitable liquid. And when he does that, he shows me that he found it and then I reward him with food,” Roberts said.

“For the last almost seven years, the only time Deacon has ever eaten is out of the palm of my hand.”


That method of training reactivates a hunting instinct that most family pets do not use anymore. But instead of hunting for food, Deacon hunts for flammable liquids.

And because Deacon needs to “hunt” liquids to get his food and doesn’t have a set schedule for when that happens, he’s always working. If Deacon isn’t on a fire scene, Roberts will use training aids to engage (and feed) him.

Dogs’ sense of smell is also much greater than humans. Where humans might smell pizza — and just that — dogs can smell all the layers of the pizza, Roberts said. They can smell the sauce, the cheese, the pepperoni, even the individual spices.

And they work quickly. Where it might take weeks for Roberts to check every square inch of a fire scene and pull samples to send to a crime lab for testing, Deacon can sniff out liquids and guide investigators to possible evidence in minutes.

There’s no question that Deacon loves it, Roberts said.

“You can see him excited about going to work and doing that and find that reward. He’s rewarded for the hard work that he’s doing.”


Roberts said one of the first things he learned as a handler is to always trust your dog’s instincts. Soon after he got Deacon, Roberts was called to the scene of a suspected arson fire in Oxford County.

Roberts expected Deacon to run to the part of the house that did burn, but instead he sat in the seemingly untouched living room where he planted himself until Roberts came over to feed him. Thinking it was a fluke, Roberts moved on. But when the homeowners were able to give investigators footage from a game camera in their living room, they saw the assailant pouring lighter fluid over the carpet.

“They have just an incredible ability. They’re unbiased and they’re super, super efficient,” Roberts said.

Throughout Roberts’ entire presentation, Deacon only got up once — to stretch and find a new spot in the sun.

Deacon, an 8-year-old accelerant detection K-9 with the Maine Office of State Fire Marshal, sniffs the stage Thursday at Lewiston Public Library. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal

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