Zeta sniffed the several T-shirts spread out before her on the floor until she detected a chemical odor on one and alerted her handler by sitting in front of it.
“Show me,” commanded David Zehring, an investigator with Gilbert Fire and Rescue.
The black English Labrador retriever then pointed with her nose to the shirt’s logo, where earlier Zhering had put a tiny drop of accelerant.
“Good girl,” Zehring said as he reached into the food pouch strapped around his waist and rewarded Zeta with dog kibbles.
For an hour, Zehring trained the 19-month-old arson dog to detect six different classifications of ignitable liquids such as gasoline, lighter fluid, diesel, paint thinner and charcoal fluid along with the different brands of those accelerants.
Zeta is a rare dog.
She is the only canine trained by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in trained accelerant detection working in Arizona and one of only 61 on duty in the country.
She replaced Spring, the department’s first arson dog, a black lab that retired in October.
Although new to the force, Zeta already was called out to three suspicious fires – in Sedona, El Mirage and Mesa – according to Zehring, who could not go into detail about the cases because they are still active.
Zehring drove Zeta back from Virginia with him in December after the two completed a six-week training course at the ATF Canine Training Center.
She comes to the department at no cost to Gilbert. Zehring said ATF invests about $50,000 to train one dog and a handler.
“It’s a partnership with the ATF,” Zehring explained. “ATF paid for the canine and the training.”
In turn, Gilbert Fire will provide Zeta’s services for local and national ATF call-outs. And because of mutual aid agreements, Zeta also responds to other fire departments in need of the service.
Labradors are the dogs of choice for the ATF, which started the Accelerant Detection Canine Program in 1984 and have graduated over 250 labs since. Each dog must have at least a five-year commitment on the job or retire by 10 years old.
“The ATF get their dogs either from the Guide Dog Foundation or Puppies Behind Bars, where inmates train dogs to be service animals,” Zehring said. “They use labs that washed out or are released from the programs for various reasons.”
Zeta was released from the Guide Dog Foundation in New York at 15 months old when she arrived to the ATF.
Besides being one of the top dog breeds when it comes to sense of smell, Labradors are good at working with people, have a desire to please and are immensely food-driven – which plays a major role in their training.
“Zeta is rewarded with food. That is how she eats,” Zehring said. “So, if we are not working a fire scene, I have to work Zeta minimally twice a day for her to eat.
“So, this morning we did an interior building search. I had to put accelerant throughout the building and work her like a fire scene and where she found where I hid the accelerant she is rewarded with food. I not only give her food but praise, tell her she is a good girl to reinforce what she’s doing.”
Because arson dogs work a fire scene like they do in training, it helps the handlers see where there are deficiencies and it helps the dogs keep their skills sharp.
Twice-a-day training seven days a week is part of Zeta and Zehring’s routine when they are not called out.
“There’s no weekends off, no vacations, no sick days,” Zehring said, adding Zeta only eats out of his hand and is weighed weekly.
Zehring also hides dog treats and food in some of the paint cans used during the training exercises to teach Zeta not to be distracted by them and give a “fake sit.”
And, Zehring must learn to recognize Zeta’s changes in behavior. For example, a snap of her head means she’s picked up an odor; the flap in her nose works faster because she is trying to get where the scent is.
He also must keep detailed training records, which are critical in a courtroom.
Every year, ATF dogs must be re-certified, which involves a double-blind odor recognition and search exercise and they must score 100 percent.
Before Spring retired at 9, she worked over 200 cases in Arizona and across the country with Zehring in her seven-year career with the department.
One case involved a car fire the owner claimed was accidental to collect on the insurance. However, Spring detected gasoline inside the vehicle.
“When a car is shut off, the high-pressure lines won’t have fuel in them because the car is not running,” Zehring said. “To find gas in the interior of a car shouldn’t occur.”
If a gas tank explodes, the gasoline would be on the ground, he noted.
While Spring is no longer on the job, Zehring still has her company: he adopted her and she is now living the life of a “regular” dog.
When it came time to find Spring’s replacement, Zehring said he requested a black lab.
“Zeta, she is very similar to Spring, a black English lab female,” he said. “If people see her, they think she is Spring.”
Zeta is one of two arson canines in the Valley. Phoenix Fire acquired a dog last year from a State Farm-sponsored training program.