YARMOUTH, Maine — Maine is home to one of the most important training sites in the country for law enforcement canines.
That’s according to the people who pay for all of it.
State Farm Insurance has been funding arson dog purchasing and training since 1993. Heather Paul, the company's national arson dog program coordinator, said the average residential house fire costs them $45,000 to insure. Each accelerant-detecting canine costs about $25,000 to buy and train.
As they try to catch and deter insurance fraud, it's easy math to comprehend.
"Arson is one of the most difficult crimes to solve," Paul explained. "The evidence burns up. It's a dirty, smelly environment. And, as a human, we don't have that superpower sense of smell."
She added that the dogs are equally useful for ruling out arson as the cause of a fire.
Since 1993, State Farm has funded the purchase and training of 435 teams nationwide, Paul says.
A canine has 300,000,000 scent receptors, while a human has around 400. Because of this incredible sensory capability, trained arson dogs can discover mere drops of accelerant at the scene of a fire.
On Wednesday, 11 teams showed up from as far away as Phoenix, Arizona to get their recertification as accelerant detecting teams. They practiced finding droplets of evaporated gasoline in a Yarmouth burn house used as training grounds for local firefighters.
All the dogs involved are Labrador retrievers. As opposed to other types of law enforcement and service dogs, Phoenix Fire Captain Robby Simpson said the social labs are allowed to be pet and even allows his partner, Sunny, to console homeowners after a fire.
"They're having a terrible day, one of the worst days of their life, and when you know they're animal lovers, sometimes I'll bring Sunny out and go say hello," Simpson explained.
But arsonists beware. The dogs find accelerant on humans as well. They're trained with food as a reward, which is kept in a pouch worn around their partner's waist. Once that pouch goes on, Simpson said, a switch is flipped in the dog's mind. They know it's time to go to work.
Simpson said he has brought Sunny to the scenes of house fires where, among the gathered neighbors, friends, and homeowners, someone is not always as they seem.
"The suspect wants to pet the dog and look innocent," he smirked. "And I let him pet and play, and at the same time, Sunny's getting a sniff."
Once Sunny or his peers smell a trace of accelerant, they sit and point their snout at the source.
If they sit and point in front of a human, handcuffs are quickly on the way.