Downeast Dog News

State Farm® Arson Dog Program: “Our Heart is in Maine”

By Susan Spisak | Aug 01, 2017
Photo by: Heather Paul

Since 1993, the State Farm® Arson Dog Program has put more than 380 dogs and their law enforcement or fire official partners/handlers to work in 45 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces, sniffing out trace amounts of possible accelerants at fire scenes. The road to becoming a State Farm® sponsored and certified arson team begins with an intensive five weeks of training led by Gray, Maine resident, Paul Gallagher, Owner and Head Trainer of Maine Specialty Dogs.

Gallagher’s a retired Maine State Trooper with an extensive law enforcement resume. His passion began at 19 years of age when he was hired by the Yarmouth Police Department, and at that time he was Maine’s youngest police officer. His goal was to become a Maine State Trooper, and a few short years later, in 1976, he accomplished that objective. He was chosen for the Canine Unit in 1982, and within four years he was named the unit’s trainer and supervisor.

He developed Maine’s accelerant detection canine training program, and he is an expert accelerant, bomb and drug dog trainer and handler as well. Heather Paul, State Farm® Public Affairs Specialist at the insurance company’s headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois, touted Gallagher’s expertise: “He’s an international leader in the training and use of accelerant detection canines.”

When State Farm® officials were at a fire scene in South Carolina in 1992 and saw an Accelerant Detection Canine, aka arson dog, effectively working the site for accelerants, she said their thought was, “Wow, what an amazing tool this is.” They also discovered that a Maine State Police Trooper by the name of Paul Gallagher had trained that dog and handler.

This led State Farm®, as the nation's largest homeowner's insurer, to establish this program with the Maine State Police under the guidelines of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, where teams are certified formally. Paul added, “They’re a leader in arson dog training and it’s well-acknowledged worldwide.”

From 1993 to 1996, Gallagher was involved with the State Farm® program through his canine training role with the State Police. By 1996, it was apparent that this program was growing exponentially. It was decided that he would retire from the Maine State Police and take over the training of the State Farm® Arson Dogs through his Specialty Dogs venture.

Paul is also the Arson Dog Coordinator for State Farm® and she said this program is something she takes great pride in. She added, “Our heart is in Maine.”

Value of an Arson Dog

Each year, billions of dollars’ worth of property and hundreds of lives are lost as a result of arson. Insurance fraud associated with arson is a huge problem as well. “Arson is such a difficult crime to solve anyway…It’s literally a crime where the evidence burns up,” Paul said. So having an arson dog quickly cover a fire scene for potential evidence is essential. She explained, “It really levels the playing field between the good guys and the bad guys.”

She indicated that a dog’s nose works much better than humans. Why? A dog’s nose has 300 million olfactory or sense of smell receptors, compared to about six million in humans. And the part of a dog's brain that analyzes smells is 40 times greater than humans.

An arson dog helps investigators determine if a fire was intentionally set—or not—and that knowledge is valuable to community safety. Having an arson dog find and “sit” at the spot of a possible accelerant reduces the samples that need to be sent to a lab for testing, thereby reducing taxpayers’ dollars. The arson dog can also point to possible accelerants on articles outside a fire scene, such as on shoes or clothing.

Gallagher added that a full investigation still needs to take place. Investigators must work together to establish that a crime has been committed, but using a trained dog cuts down on site time by helping their human partner out of the “black hole” of guessing where an accelerant may be.

The Training Program

An applicant may apply for a State Farm® Arson Canine Training Scholarship if they’re eligible according to their criteria, including being a full-time employee of an agency that investigates at least 50 fires annually, is in good health, is willing to commit to five years as an arson dog handler, agrees to train their canine partner continually and be recertified annually by Maine Specialty Dogs.

State Farm® typically underwrites 10 to 15 new teams per year. They cover the approximately $25k cost per team, which includes the acquisition of the dog, training fees, onsite room and boarding during training, chemist certification, and evaluation by the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. They also provide reimbursement of travel to Maine for the five week training.

Labrador Retrievers, generally one to two years old, are used for this program, and they come from rescues, shelters or guide dog programs (perhaps they were too high-spirited but still a good worker, so they changed “career paths”). Gallagher said they like these dogs to be exuberant, sociable, food-driven (they train using a food reward system), non-skittish and fairly small—a fire scene can be tight quarters.

The dogs arrive a few months ahead of their handlers, and Gallagher and his small staff of certified canine trainers begin working them. They split the dogs among them, and while the trainers have kennels, Gallagher doesn’t think any of them use them—they live in their homes. He admitted training the dogs is the easiest part of the process, the humans are tougher.

Once the handlers arrive, they’re paired with their canine partner, courtesy of Gallagher. “I don’t know [how I pair them]. I just know the handlers, I know the dogs, what their dispositions are, what the personalities are and I match them.” He laughed when asked about the handlers meeting their dogs. “It’s kind of an eye opener for some. Some may have had pets before but never a working dog. It’s kind of a learning curve for the first, second or third days.”

Maine Specialty Dogs developed the curriculum and oversees all training. Gallagher indicated there are one or two sessions a year, depending on the number of applicants. They utilize fire training locations—with dorms and dining facilities—in Maine and New Hampshire. There’s classroom instruction for the humans, and fire scene investigation and rigorous training exercises for the teams. The dogs are also trained to work around physical obstacles and locate and discriminate countless scents.

After the 200 hours of training, the dogs are evaluated by The Maine State Criminal Justice Academy and a chemist certifies that each canine is capable of scenting a variety of accelerants used to set fires. This is crucial because evidence uncovered may be used in criminal and civil court cases.

The recertification process is a three day condensed version of the original program at one of three national locations they choose. Over the years, they’ve had a few dogs that didn’t pass, but they allow a second testing that day. Gallagher may ask them back to Maine for more training, or he may retire them, “We have to have a system of checks and balances.”

The Arson Dog’s Life

“They get to go to work with their best friend. That’s probably one of the greatest gifts,” said Paul. When not on duty, the dog lives with their human partner and his or her family, and the handler provides for their care, further enhancing their positive relationship.

They train seven days a week, starting in the a.m. Words of praise and bits of kibble are hand-fed to the dog by their handler as reward for sniffing and sitting when they recognize a training accelerant—this is a “passive alert.” Gallagher added that the handler is not holding food back. Instead, the dogs’ full nutritional needs in the form of kibble are simply spread out over the course of the day.

Gallagher likes a dog to retire when they’re 10, but some handlers are hesitant to lose their partner. By the time a dog is 11 or 12, Gallagher puts his foot down. He wants to know the dog is enjoying life at their one-time partner’s home, relaxing and lying on the porch. The handler can apply for and test with another dog. “State Farm® is very good about that,” Gallagher added.

He and his wife, Wendy Gallagher, are “dog-less” now, and when he’s not training arson dogs, he’s busy raising cattle on their farm. He likes the challenge of working with animals, and is especially fond of dogs. “Dogs are very forgiving. They’re not biased. All they care is that you take good care of them and they’ll work for you.”