Lying outside the Belleville Fire Department, Chewy seems like a normal dog.
Her tail thumps happily against the fire truck as she perches on a ledge on the back. She follows the firefighters around the station, just happy to be near them. When the fire alarm goes off, she heads straight to her kennel.
But once her handler, Capt. Joe Garland, brings out the food pouch, the 9-year-old Labrador Retriever is all business.
As the fire department’s accelerant detection canine — or arson dog — it’s Chewy’s job to sniff out any unnatural liquid accelerants left behind after fires.
“She’ll go right to the source with her nose, sit down or lay down and she’ll immediately look up at the food pouch,” Garland said. “I’ll give her food as a reward, and then we’ll keep on working.”
Because she’s a working dog and is food-trained, the only time she gets fed is when she finds gasoline or other accelerants. She’s trained to sniff out just one drop, Garland said, no matter how weak or strong the scent is.
During one of her daily training exercises, Garland used an eyedropper to hide four small drops of gasoline around the perimeter of the firehouse. Chewy found them all within a minute.
“Our noses can smell so many parts per billion, and theirs can pick it up so much better and quicker,” Garland said. “When we walk into Pizza Hut, we smell pizza. Chewy can smell the flour, bread, sauce, peppers, onions, everything. Her nose works that fast and quick.”
Arson dogs are trained to sniff out any type of accelerant, like gasoline or lighter fluid, that may have been used to start a fire. Each year, billions of dollars of property is damaged and hundreds of lives are lost due to arson, according to State Farm. Belleville experienced 15 arsons in 2015, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports, the most recent data available.
Chewy goes to almost every structure and vehicle fire she and Garland are available for, no matter if it seems to be arson or not. Once the fire is out and it’s safe for her to go inside the fire scene, Chewy will use her nose to sniff out any liquid accelerant that doesn’t belong there. With her powerful nose, Chewy can detect the accelerants quicker than the firefighters can, so she helps to collect evidence before the department begins the investigation.
Chewy was born in Michigan at Paws with a Cause, a foundation for assistance dogs. She didn’t pass the tests, so she moved on to become an arson dog through the State Farm Arson Dog Program. Labs are often chosen for the job because they’re eager to please and are fairly trainable, Garland said.
The Arson Dog Program has been around since 1993, and has placed more than 350 arson dogs around North America. There are 10 arson dogs in Illinois certified through State Farm, only three of whom are outside Springfield.
Garland and Chewy have worked together since 2009, when Chewy was 1. She lives at home with Garland and his family, and comes to work with him each day.
“As strong a bond as most anyone has with their pet, ours is quite double that,” Garland said. “She comes to work with me and relies on food from my hand, and I’m the only one who can feed her.”
Each year, Chewy gets recertified again through the State Farm program. Retirement is coming up quickly in Chewy’s future, however. By the end of 2018 she’ll almost be 11, so Garland has made plans for her to retire from her duties as arson dog around then. After that, Chewy will stay with Garland and his family.
But as Chewy finishes up her daily drills, her age isn’t evident at all.
“For a 9-year-old dog, she still has plenty of pep and energy and works pretty quick,” Garland said. “She’s a great tool for our investigation unit.”