The dog looks like any other tail-wagging, bright-eyed, black Labrador retriever, when she’s not on duty.
But when Sgt. Robert Collins straps on her officer arson dog vest with badge, points down and says “Seek,” the dog named Carter is all business.
This new recruit with the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services showed she can nose out a couple of drops of fuel in seconds, during a demonstration at the agency’s training complex off Macon Road.
Collins laid the bait on a concrete floor while Carter waited in his air-conditioned SUV. Then he let her out to scan about. Finding the flammable liquid, she dropped to a crouch and bounced her nose up and down on the precise spot.
Those few seconds can be a big time saver after a suspicious fire. Arson investigators may see where a blaze started and take multiple samples to be tested for flammable fluids, but it’s all hit or miss, and it can take hours.
Such imprecise sampling can put a load on a crime lab.
“If you’re off two feet when you take your sample to send to the crime lab to be analyzed, you’re not going to have anything in it,” Collins said. “You’re in the area, but if you’re a foot to the left or a foot to the right, you’re going to miss it.”
The dog doesn’t miss.
Carter lives with Collins and two pet dogs, a Rottweiler and another lab.
“She goes home and she becomes another one of the family dogs,” said Collins, who has been with the department since 1999.
When she’s on the job, she’s intently focused, he said: “I have never been around dogs with the drive to work to satisfy that she has.”
Food is her reward, and Collins feeds her by hand. A special treat for Carter is a tennis ball. That was a serendipitous discovery, after she got here: Collins was parking at a station where a firefighter was outside bounding a tennis ball, and Carter saw it.
“She went ballistic,” he said.
The State Farm Arson Dog Program that adopts, trains and vets dogs like Carter requires that they remain with their handlers for life. The program has provided 425 dogs to agencies that apply since it started in 1993, according to its website.
The dogs eat from Maine Specialty Dogs. Some flunked out of guide dog school because they were too high-strung or had some other quirk that could be risky. Collins said Carter was one of those, but he wasn’t told why she didn’t make the cut.
They met at a New Hampshire Department of Safety training facility in Concord, where handlers were first interviewed to be matched with dogs, when they arrived for the course, which was long and intense.
Collins said he got there at 3:15 pm April 3: “They said, ‘Throw your stuff in your room, come to the classroom, we’re about to get started.’ By 3:30, they were doing the interviews with the handlers to pair them with the dogs, and I didn’t see my room until after midnight that night.”
He was back up at 6:30 the next morning, and trained 12 to 16 hours every day after that, he said. Certified as a team on April 27, they were back in Columbus two days later, he said.
They got their first call in early May, when a woman used fuel to set herself afire in east Columbus, he said
“Carter was able to find the spot near a creek, down in a wooded area, along with the container that had the accelerant in it, that burned, melted down into the sand down there on the creek,” Collins said. “She went as far as showing me the direction of travel, how the person got in there.”
I don’t know
Her nose can distinguish scents that are a mishmash of aromas to humans, Collins said, using the analogy of a pizza hot out of the oven.
“You and I smell a pizza,” he said. “Carter smells the flour, salt, pepper. She scent discriminates.”
Humans have only a few million olfactory cells for detecting scents. Labrador retrievers have up to 300 million, and studies show the part of their brain devoted to that is 40 times greater than that portion of a human’s.
With that range of perception, Carter’s nose is not overwhelmed by strong odors.
“So she comes into a scene where all we smell is smoke and soot and you know, burned mattresses, things of that nature, she can still pick out the scent of accelerants,” Collins said.
Besides Muscogee, Carter’s available to aid any adjacent county in Georgia or Alabama. She’s one of two Georgia arson dogs sponsored by the State Farm program. The other’s in Cobb County, Collins said.
She rides in a Chevy Tahoe with an alarm system that via wireless device alerts Collins if the engine or air-conditioning goes out while he’s away, he said.
Columbus Fire Marshal John Shull said the department had a previous arson dog named Iggy, a lab handled by Sgt. David Smith, but Iggy retired last year.
Typically an arson dog works at least five years, Collins said: “At that point, from what I understand, it becomes the handler’s decision whether the dog continues.” Some serve 11 to 12 years, he said.
At 2 years old, Carter still has her career ahead of her.
“She’s just getting started,” Collins said.