Dog can sniff out hidden signs of arson

Topper has to work for his food.

Several times a day, he needs to hunt down the scant, hidden scent of gasoline, diesel fuel or lighter fluid to earn a treat.

Mealtime doubles as training for the 63-pound yellow Labrador retriever.

The dog's keen sense of smell has been specially trained to help with arson investigations.

When there are suspicions that a fire was intentionally set, Topper's nose quickly can determine if accelerants were used, said Mike Makela, an investigator with the Snohomish County Fire Marshal's Office and Topper's handler.

The law enforcement team was paired up on April 12 during a training program in Maine. Topper started work in Snohomish County on May 11.

Topper, who turns 2 on June 2, is the county's first arson dog, and only the third arson dog working in the state.

Before Topper was put to work, an arson dog from Seattle had to be called in to help with investigations here. That dog, Henny, helped investigate the March 2008 Street of Dreams fire and the January blaze in Snohomish that killed four people in a mobile home.

The advantage to having Topper is that the dog can make quick work of what used to take investigators hours, said Dawn Fones, a spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance, the company that paid about $23,000 for Topper's acquisition and training.

The efficiency helps save money, she said.

The State Farm grant program pays for about 10 arson dogs to be purchased, trained and placed around the United States and Canada each year.

The training is similar to a program offered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

State Farm decided to accept Snohomish County's application based on several factors, including fire investigation statistics, she said.

"We saw that there was a need in that area," Fones said.

Makela is working to cover Topper's ongoing costs through donations. The Petco Foundation paid for a kennel, dog beds and kibble. Veterinary care likely will be covered by Pennies for Puppies and Ponies, a nonprofit that helps pay for law-enforcement animals.

Topper flunked out of a seeing-eye dog program in Florida because he was too eager to play. That's exactly why he was selected for arson training, Makela said. After months of training, Topper's enthusiasm has been channeled.

Topper can sniff out ignitable liquids at 225,000 parts per million. That's nearly four times as faint a scent as can be detected by a human nose.

"His nose is even more sensitive than chemist labs," Makela said.

When Topper finds ignitable liquids mixed in with fire debris, he sits down. Then Makela collects the evidence in a sterile paint can for laboratory processing.

The pair will be on call around the clock, whenever a suspicious fire is reported.

In the meantime, Makela's family, including his two cats, Sweet Pea and Willow, is getting used to having Topper join the household.

And Topper is quickly winning many hearts of those who work alongside him in the county's offices. It has something to do with his wagging tail, friendly bark and seemingly boundless energy.

Still, his job is very serious, Makela said.

"He's not a pet. He's a working dog," he said.

Help with Topper's care

Donations to help pay for Topper's food and veterinary care can be made through Pennies for Puppies and Ponies at www.policepuppies.org.

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