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Black Lab has a nose for arson

Mako takes only minutes to detect gasoline, other clues

He’s cute, he’s friendly, his tail wags a mile a minute and he has a badge on his red collar. Meet Mako, the new arson dog at the Spokane Valley Fire Department.

Mako was unveiled this week after completing training with handler Rick Freier, a fire investigator, and becoming certified to sniff out the odor of accelerants such as gasoline at fire scenes. The dog, a 1 ½-year-old black Labrador, was paid for by State Farm Insurance. The company has sponsored an arson dog program since 1993 and pays to train 10 dogs and handlers in the United States every year.

Freier said he applied for the program after becoming interested in arson dogs five years ago when he saw one at work. “It seemed like a neat opportunity to save time on the investigations,” he said. A dog takes only minutes to check a room, something that would take hours of tedious, painstaking work by an investigator and electronic equipment. “It’s so much faster and so much more efficient.”

Mako looks like a gangly teenager, all legs and big feet. He strained at his leash to greet people, giving hands a sniff and then a thorough licking before trying to chew on them. Freier called him a “well-trained adolescent. He’s a Lab. He likes to taste things.”

But Mako was all business when Freier ran him through his paces during a demonstration this week. He had to sniff several rags and empty paint cans and hit on the items that Freier had earlier sprinkled with drops of fluid. The dog ran by the items, stopping and sitting when he detected the fluid. “Show me,” Freier said. Mako dipped his head to indicate the item, then was rewarded with food. His sensitive nose also found the drops Freier had put on a concrete floor about 45 minutes earlier.

When the demonstration was over, Mako seemed eager to keep going. Freier plans to keep him busy by taking him to as many fires as possible to expose him to various situations. “Every time you see this dog doesn’t mean it’s an arson fire,” he said.

Mako will not only help Spokane Valley Fire. The department has mutual aid agreements with agencies in Spokane County and Kootenai County, any of which could request Mako’s trained nose. Freier knows this will put him and Mako on call nearly seven days a week. “I want to make him available,” he said.

Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer is eager to welcome Mako to town. The dog’s closest competition is a dog in Yakima that works for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. His department has already talked with Spokane Valley Fire about using Mako when necessary, Schaeffer said. “It’s a regional resource,” he said. “In fact, it’s an incredible regional resource. It’s a lot better than the instrumentation.”

Mako has already responded to his first fire – a couch burning in a front yard near Fourth Avenue and Bradley Road over the weekend. Mako gave it the once over with his nose. “He got a hit on one side,” said Spokane Valley Chief Mike Thompson. “They knew where to collect the sample.” The sample will be tested in a lab to confirm the use of an accelerant.

Freier and Mako will visit schools beginning in the spring. “I’m going to have the most famous knees in town,” he said. “Everyone is going to be taking pictures of the dog.”

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